What is a successful construction project?

Well it depends. It’s not like a sports contest where the winner has clearly out-pointed, out-scored or out-hit the opponent, it is a bit more complicated than that.  Project success though is often likened to competitive sports; getting over the line, first past the post, even a management methodology has been aligned to rugby with the ‘agile scrum’ element of project management.

Often, in marketing and CVs, projects are held up as successful by virtue of hitting cost, time and quality parameters and to a degree they may well be considered essential elements but digging a little deeper gives a disingenuous overtone to those claims.

To look at the phrasing of such boasts ref. cost or budget;” the project was completed to budget”, well of course it was or it would have remained half built. What generally happens is projects are completed to a varied budget, increased generally to account for post-contract change, often reluctantly. I’m pretty sure that Crossrail in London won’t be complete to anything like original budget.

Is it though a success if the client achieves completion within budget and the contractor makes a loss?  Clearly given respective responsibilities, the client can’t guarantee that the contractor makes profit, but in my view, it’s a desirable outcome.

Time. Same argument. To complete ‘on time’ it’s highly likely the completion date was extended.

Quality. Wow, the asset was constructed in accordance with the regulatory code prevalent and the drawings and specifications that formed part of the contract. Pretty much what one would expect and not really anything to boast about.

And even achieving the above, may not really define success if the entire client and contractor team despise each other and every day on the job was a constant round of arguments and conflict.

So, is the absence of conflict ‘success’? Well it helps for sure but again, that can be achieved by no claim ever being challenged and no meetings ever being held, every payment made on time as demanded and a host of other capitulations.

I pontificate a little, clearly project success is a mixed bag of measures, a lot which vary in terms of importance relative to a party’s perspective. Ideally, a ‘win-win’ outcome is best, but that will always, to a degree be a skewed equation.

The means of exchange of goods and services in our modern world is a monetary one, so rightly, any measure of success must at least pay some respect to that element.

Which baseline is chosen is moot when most contracts change in scope and therefore in cost, so measuring against original budget, business-case budget, feasibility study or other such estimate is not a worthwhile exercise other than to learn lessons; it’s not a means of quantifying success.

My view is that the absolute acid test of monetary success of a project is to ask the party who spent the money, would they do it again for the same cost and same outcome? If the answer is ‘yes’, then hoorah, project success (or at least that element of it might be described as such) and if it’s a ‘no’ then somehow it’s a fail.

For me the other key outcome is achievement; is there a sense of pride what’s been collectively achieved? I like to look back on projects and be proud of my involvement in them, the differences I made, effort put in etc. and again, the key question, would I want to do it again?

Does it deliver what it set out to do? Does the bridge take traffic, does the office space meet spec and provide a welcoming environment, does the house deliver what it’s supposed to. They generally do because of the enforcement regime that sits behind them,  but they must be considered ‘unsuccessful’ if they don’t.

For me, in this current era, environmental harm must be a consideration. Given the construction industry’s daily output in terms of usage of materials, wastage thereof and use of unsustainable materials is directly in contradiction of environmental sustainability, we must look at minimising the environmental harm at a practical and not an level. There will always be the ability to do a little bit more so this must, as a goal be bounded by pragmatism.

I have of course, left the very large elephant in the room till last; safety!

Clearly any measure of success must recognise the absence of harm to individuals working on a project but let me ask you all a question.

Would you commission a project knowing that somewhere along the way, a death or even worse, deaths, will occur? Slightly pejorative I know but the reality of our industry is that a Wembley Stadium, a Sydney Harbour Bridge, a major infrastructure project or even a small housing development all have the potential to cause death and serious harm to the work force and somewhere along the way, that often happens.

We all know this.

But we build none the less, because we have to and in so doing, we seek to minimise the risks, knowing that annually that will never actually be enough.

The reality of our modern world is that it is not risk-free, whether that’s driving a car or flying on a plane  so the measure for me, is, have we done as much as can practically be done, given the nature of the risk and the cost of avoidance, i.e. the ALARP principle, (As low as reasonably practicable). If that can be said, then the safety element of the project is as successful as it can be and whilst that is of no comfort to those killed or injured, the elimination option at present, with humans that have human frailties, is simply to not build at all.

So, you could ask a million different people and get a million different answers, but for me, project success boils down to;

  • the client repetition question
  • a project that delivered some sense of gratification and retrospective pride for the participants
  • a reasonable, but not conflict-free environment
  • minimisation of environmental and personal harm and
  • one that broadly delivers on its prescribed outcomes
  • the contractor making a reasonable return.

It won’t be everyone’s definition but it ticks the big boxes for me. I’d be interested in others’ summaries.


By Joe Colgan, Director, Closebrook Properties

Joe is a property developer currently active in the Auckland and Christchurch markets with extensive experience in townhouse and apartment developments.

He has a background in project management having worked on large scale developments in Abu Dhabi and Dubai (>$6Bn) coupled with heavy civil engineering experience on infrastructure, road and railway work in NZ, the UK and Saudi Arabia.

He is a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, a project management professional (PMP) and a post graduate diploma in engineering management.

He further has a post graduate diploma in construction law and contract and has significant ‘claims’ experience, providing legal training on contract law, the NEC form of contract and undertaken expert witness work on construction disputes and tenancy disputes.

Despite the disappointment he has heartily congratulated colleagues on Liverpool’s capture of the Premiership which is no mean feat for a Manchester United supporter.


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