Three common design fails in infrastructure PPP projects: An engineer’s perspective

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Photo Credit: Whity via Flickr
As an engineer on large-scale infrastructure PPP projects, I typically get involved after the advisory portion of the transaction is completed. This has given me some valuable insights. For example, I worked on a major airport in the Middle East, where the lessons we learned on the engineering side would greatly benefit similar projects as early as the advisory phase.

Airports signify something special for governments; they occupy an important place in the national psyche .  The first view of visitors to a new country is the airport:  its architecture may echo famous local art; its corridors may offer spacious walkways; its internal transportation system may be easily navigable; its restaurants may show off interesting native cuisine.

Or not.

We’ve all had our impressions of a new place colored by these first impressions at an airport, for better or worse. My point is that airport investments need to be eye-catching as well as serviceable . In the project I mentioned – though generally considered a success – there were elements of design that failed to meet demand, which caused major problems post-launch.

I’d like to share the three most common causes for this (though I can’t offer easy solutions) in the hope that future projects will benefit. These issues apply to large infrastructure PPPs in every sector, though the details may differ.

1. The initial market study becomes outdated during the course of the PPP

Infrastructure projects are long-term ventures. Sometimes, market changes during the course of the project make the initial market study outdated. This is especially problematic for airports because the projection for the number of passengers transiting affects every element of the project.  In the project I worked on, the market shift was seismic: the dominant regional airline at the time of the initial market study was, rightfully, a major consideration in the decision to design boarding gates for narrow aircraft. But by the time construction ended, a different standard reigned, and the airplanes that needed access to the airport were wider.

This was catastrophic. The airlines that the airport needed to survive were excluded from entry. The physical infrastructure was instantly outdated, and an expansion was required to respond to the new types of aircraft. Boarding gates had to be changed, which added time and expense to the project. Obviously, costs skyrocketed and schedules were ruined.

2. Ensuring design meets demand

Looks matter. Function matters equally as much, especially for an airport. If the design is appealing but what’s missing inside causes delays, no one benefits.  There was a disconnect between design and function in one airport I worked on, a situation that is far from unique. For example, the domed ceilings were beautiful, but the structure created terrible acoustics.  We soon needed to add noise-reduction tiles to reduce the echo. This was an unanticipated cost and also required the terminal to close down for a period of time.

Here are other examples where design and demand were at odds:
  • The ratios between commercial and noncommercial space were not optimal, which would have resulted in an unpleasant experience for visitors and those in transit. To resolve this, front-end construction work had to be stopped and corrections made;
  • The layout of the airport required too much walking for most passengers, which ultimately dissuaded customers as well as potential businesses from considering this hub; and
  • Tiles throughout the airport cracked because the subcontractor did not manufacture them to meet the needs of the particular space.
Problems like this are not inevitable. If investors work more closely with advisors, and engineers coordinate more closely with designers, many of these types of issues can be avoided. Some, however, are due to politically-motivated hiring practices, the final point I’d like to explore.

[ Handshake: Airport PPP Mythbusters ]

3. Politically-motivated hiring

Cronyism can doom an infrastructure project. In one project I worked on, politically-motivated hiring did not ruin it, but caused a cascade of missed opportunities, delays, and extra costs. For example, multiple lenders required the hiring of their own engineers. On the surface, it’s hard to understand how more engineers on a project could pose a problem, especially considering the complexity of airports. I agree that it’s counterintuitive, but two sets of engineers led to too much supervision on the project and not enough attention to detail. The quality of these additional engineers was poor, and they added little value to the project.

Worse, however, was the additional fees of the extra engineers, which had a compounding cost impact: first, to cover their salaries, and second, to fix their mistakes.

Summing up

The eye-view of an engineer in the PPP process is rarely captured, but I believe this perspective is critical to the overall health of an infrastructure project.  I’m interested in hearing from other engineers on how infrastructure projects can benefit from our early intervention to validate proper design and function while reducing costs and timelines, and ensuring everyone’s goals are met.


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