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Why start-to-finish construction management is imperative to a successful airport project

January 28, 2020

By Chad McGhee

Don’t underestimate the value of construction management during the planning phase of a project to reduce risk and increase success rates

I have been privileged to work on some incredible infrastructure projects throughout the world in the past 30 years, including in the US, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. During that time, I’ve worn various hats as a contractor construction manager, construction manager at risk, and owner’s representative—and I’ve witnessed the good, the bad, and the ugly of many projects.  

My area of expertise is construction management, a professional service that uses specialized project management techniques to oversee the planning, design, and construction of a project from start to finish. I cannot overemphasize the significance of that time frame—from start to finish! One of the most important lessons I have learned is how crucial involving the construction manager during upfront planning is to the successful execution of a project.

My current work assignments include infrastructure projects at all three airports within the Houston Airport System (HAS)—George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH), William P. Hobby Airport (HOU), and Ellington Airport (EFD). Stantec is privileged to manage all airside, taxiway, and runway work within the HAS. HAS is among the largest airport systems in the world and has been upgrading standards and facilities at each of its airports over the years. More than 58 million passengers traveled through HAS in 2018, including nearly 12 million international passengers. Functionality and safety are paramount and stand alongside the traditional benchmarks of cost and schedule as crucial to the success of every project. Success comes from our ability to involve construction management throughout our projects.


Construction manager Chad McGhee’s view of a terminal at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) from the airside.

Importance of planning

Earlier in my career, I recognized that many organizations had little interest in construction participating in early planning. The typical approach went something like this: We’re going to have the design manager review the design. But I have learned over the years that the typical design issues aren’t buildings failing or miscalculations—the design issues are due to miscues in industry-specific environments. In an airport environment, trouble arises when a design does not consider how a major carrier operates at an airport, or doesn’t consider the impacts to tenants, airport operations, and other construction projects occurring nearby or within the same time frame.

Planning must be a dominant activity, and there is a direct correlation between proper planning and project success. Construction management ideally starts in planning. If issues arise during construction, that’s a change order and unplanned, increasing time, cost, and inconvenience to the owner and users. The key to mitigating these changes on airport projects is by involving personnel who know the airport environment—how it runs and the impacts the design brings; personnel who can review the design with a discerning eye and have intimate knowledge of what the future holds; personnel who will be putting the rubber to the road (or to the runway, in my case).

In the airport environment, employ a holistic approach

The traditional idea—that planning is going to take care of planning, design is going to take care of design, and the construction manager is here for constructionis not effective. We simply cannot operate in a monolithic, siloed way within a very active, robust airport environment because many projects are interrelated. Each project needs a construction manager or someone within the leadership team who understands the airport’s ongoing activities and projects. Often, coordination is necessary with multiple airport departments such as maintenance and operations, and a myopic view leads to problems.

At IAH, the airport leadership’s emphasis on technology has been especially helpful. On the largest projects I’ve worked on there, I helped develop an airside spatial map at the onset. I go into the map and draw all the ongoing, surrounding construction around the project I’m working on. It’s simple enough, I import CADD shapes from the engineers. This allows us to see the total airfield impact. So, when you look at the map, you see a lot of projects all over the airport. Too often, we focus on the impacts of one job. One job is often not the issue, it’s how four other jobs interact with the one job that causes problems for operations.

Using the map and seeing all projects, we can all see the construction haul routes by projects and visualize the aggregate impacts to airside operations/ carriers. I credit the airport for the software and allowing me to access it—it’s a great benefit to us that allows me and other stakeholders to see the big picture, which may include designs that cannot be constructed due to constraints.

At an airport, it is essential to have an individual or individuals on your team during planning and design development with experience building projects within the airport environment. These individuals understand how it works, the restrictions imposed by the airport and air carriers, and adjacent projects that will impact schedule. They provide significant value in applying lessons learned that help ensure the project is scoped correctly and is constructible, helping to limit construction changes and keep costs within expectations.

Stantec’s Chad McGhee managed construction on the new air traffic control tower at Ellington Airport, a part of the Houston Airport System.

Proper, comprehensive project understanding

Conversely, the construction manager needs to understand the basis of design, construction methods, and operational restraints when the project goes to construction. Knowing design intent and the reasons why a design needs to be constructed in a certain manner can eliminate confusion and address contractor concerns early in the process. We need to understand construction and operational restraints up front and coordinate impacts with the airport and airlines well in advance of turning a scoop of earth. If the old-fashioned methodology is observed—the designer reviewing design, the construction person reviewing construction after it’s out for bid—it’s too late to make corrections.

Owners do not want to hear that we need to be there in the planning stages, prior to design and construction. However, in a complex infrastructure environment, we must be present and accounted for the entire time—it is imperative that we understand the whole thing. If you do not understand airlines and operational restrictions, your project is in trouble. Nuance is important.

Imperative to understand the client’s processes

Another valuable component that is often overlooked is this: Who genuinely understands the client’s processes—who needs to review the design, when are changes processed, and how are requests for information (RFIs) and submittals managed by the client? Some typical questions that need to be discussed include:

  • Who reviews, who approves, and how are reviews conducted?
  • What are your time frames?
  • How do you pay the contractor, the designer, and construction manager?
  • How do you process change orders?
  • How do you manage RFIs?
  • How are we going to track the design documents, the planning documents, and the construction documents?
  • Overall, how do you do business, especially regarding projects? This is very important!

We must understand their processes. We cannot say: “Here are our processes, and you’ll have to live with them.” Therein lies the disconnect when multiple systems do not integrate. Having a system for payment, another for meetings, another for storage, and another for tracking is simply not efficient. And then there is the issue when the knowledge of one system lies within one individual—people inevitably leave organizations, and then what happens? Where is the institutional knowledge?

We must tailor our approach to complement the client’s processes, according to the client’s direction. We must engage them and employ a holistic approach.

Remember, if there isn’t a plan, we need to create one and offer a successful approach to implement that plan.

Construction at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston, Texas.

Managing expectations

One of biggest benefits of early construction management involvement is the management of stakeholder expectations. Stakeholders typically have a low tolerance for disruptions due to construction, but understand it is necessary for improvement of the airport and ultimately their services to their customers. But airlines operations cannot change on a dime; unexpected disruptions will cause delays and costs to them. Unidentified issues during design can lead to construction change orders that have cost and time impacts; however, the biggest impact is often the erosion of trust with stakeholders if they didn’t get what they need or get the results they were promised.

An example that comes to mind was a previous assignment with a large engineering, procurement, and construction company. Early on, I made numerous constructability suggestions that were implemented, and that was reflected in savings of more than $20 million. We also managed to decrease the amount of manpower needed to complete the project.

Planning must be a dominant activity, and there is a direct correlation between proper planning and project success.

The construction manager is focused on catching these issues not just before construction, but before the stakeholders are briefed on the project. If the engineer plans for a phase of work to take 60 days but hasn’t considered it is hurricane season, or the five concurrent projects in the area, the construction manager can help identify the necessary schedule adjustments to briefing the stakeholders, demonstrating we are thinking of the outside factors to our project and how it will affect our stakeholders operations. This early involvement between the construction manager and the stakeholders builds a relationship and trust that can be utilized when small changes pop up as they invariably do, but also in future projects at the airport.

I recall a Louisiana/Gulf Coast project in which the electrical engineers designed the electrical duct bank to go under all other utilities, including open drainage ditches. The design placed the bottom of the duct bank below sea level. I reviewed the design and concluded that this would be both exceptionally difficult to perform and very costly to construct. I asked the question: “Why couldn’t we go over all the utilities and cross over the drainage?”

The electrical engineers responded that this would add cost to the drainage design and that the civil engineers did not want to go that route. I then asked our engineering manager to have his team calculate the cost and time both ways, going at sea level and over the utilities/ ditches. At the end of the day it was determined that raising the duct bank saved more than $12 million dollars and trimmed more than 30 days off the schedule.

No one is angry when work finishes early, but everyone is impacted, and trust is lost, when it finishes late or costs additional money. An ongoing relationship with stakeholders can position them as team members in a successful construction project that minimizes their impact, rather than an adversary that only adds to impacts, delays, and possible project failure.

Setting the tone for future airport projects

I count it an honor and a privilege to serve in one of the largest airport systems in the world as a construction manager. Providing improvements to infrastructure within the air transport industry makes for the betterment of global society. What we do every day plays a decisive role in the work and the leisure of millions of people.

Getting off to a proper start sets a tone that reverberates throughout the length of the project. Operating with transparency and building relationships and trust with airport and airline operators lays the groundwork for future project success. The more planning and analysis there are with construction in mind, the more successful a project will be. It’s really that simple.

  • Chad McGhee

    Chad has been a leader and manager on engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) projects for over 30 years. He’s worked on architectural, civil, and industrial projects domestically and internationally.

    Contact Chad
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