Concrete ideas to build on

Major Construction Works
November 10, 1995

When I graduated with a degree in civil engineering in the mid-1970s my knowledge of management of construction works had been gained solely from periods of work with contractors before I started my degree, and during the "long vacs". The degree course was very academic and did not prepare me at all for management. At that time, it was only during the periods of training for the professional exams that knowledge of contractual and financial management was gained. Keith Potts's book, which is aimed at undergraduates studying quantity surveying, civil engineering and building management, would have been a very useful addition to my soil mechanics and mathematics textbooks, had it been available then.

The book starts helpfully with an attempt to define a major project. There is a suggestion that this could include any project above £20 million, but in reality most of the explanations and examples in the book relate to much larger projects; indeed the historical examples of failures (Sydney Opera House, Humber Bridge, Thames Barrier) and the success story at the end of the book are all really megaprojects of a kind that many will never work on. Potts continues by highlighting the issues which result in failure, and thus points out the matters which need close control and management. Detailed descriptions are then given of the progress of a project from inception and feasibility through to the options on financing, contract strategies, tendering and construction.

All sections of the book contain helpful flowcharts, examples and forms, and each chapter concludes with numerous past examination questions. I found the sections on feasibility and financing went into less depth than the later sections which dealt, in quite some detail, with contract strategies, tendering procedures and the various standard forms of contract for major projects. Securing a clear brief setting clear objectives and team work are prerequisites for project success, and this point does not strike home hard until the end of the book. In our firm we have a saying "no matter how well you build the wrong thing, it is still wrong". Potts alludes to this philosophy in his book, but students should be aware that project success can mean different things to different people. Another example given in the book relates to construction in the North Sea, where although a number of projects ran late or over budget, changes in oil revenues made them a great success for their promoters.

The use and misuse of bills of quantities is given a thorough airing, as are systematic and fair tender evaluation procedures. However, not all that much is made of the extent to which most major contract-ors employ subcontractors. Many main contractors in the United Kingdom now only provide the management; much of the pricing, costing and measurement exercises described will be carried out by sub-contractors.

Detailed analysis is also given to claims, both from the client's and the contractor's point of view. Many new to the construction industry cannot see the need for the historical adversarial approach, and there are useful sections dealing with the benefits of a team approach. Towards the end, the book contains detailed studies of three major forms of contract, ICE (6th edition), FIDIC (4th edition) and the New Engineering Contract. Regular reference is made to JCT '80 but a detailed review of this widely used standard form may have been helpful to some readers.

To show that all in construction is not delay and failure, Keith Potts concludes with a description of the Hong Kong Mass Transit Railway project, which he judges to be a success from which key lessons can be learned.

I found the book covered most areas which will be encountered on major projects. More important, many of the topics discussed and other information given in this book will apply in some way to all construction projects, large or small.

Tony Forbat is a partner in the project management department, Fuller Peiser.

Major Construction Works: Contractual and Financial Management

Author - Keith Potts
ISBN - 0582 10298 7
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.99
Pages - 314

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