Case: The Sydney Opera House

One of the world’s most famous buildings is the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. The Opera has become a major tourist attraction and is an art center, even if the building may not be the best place to hear an opera. The Sydney Opera House has a very unique construction. This meant that both the design and the building were a huge challenge.

The first concept for an opera house was designed by Danish architect Jørn Utzon. He had won the architectural competition in which 233 proposals from 11 countries participated. While Utzon was pleased to have won the competition, he was also somewhat shocked. His proposal that had captured the jury’s interest consisted only of some simple sketches. There were neither more detailed drawings nor plans showing whether the concept could be built. Utzon now faced the big challenge of converting the concept sketch into more detailed design drawings that the construction could follow, but he had no experience with this type of work for such a large building.

Since there were no detailed plans, architectural drawings, or material estimates, there was also no basis for calculating the cost of the project. Some commented that since the building was so unique, it would also be cheap to construct. The fact was that nobody knew how the opera house should be built; some even believed the project was unfeasible. Despite all the uncertainties, an initial estimate of the project’s cost was set at 7 million dollars. The plan was for the authorities to finance the opera house through lottery revenues.

Several engineers who studied the concept commented that the shell-like roofs were much larger and wider than any other shell roofs built to date. What concerned the engineers was that the shell roofs would protrude so high and almost act as a sail when the wind blew on the harbor. Therefore, it was emphasized that the roof had to be designed and constructed carefully to prevent the building from being blown away.

The construction of the opera was divided into three contracts – one for the foundation and walls, one for the roof, and one for the interior and equipment.

As many feared, the construction of the Sydney Opera House became a controversial project. It took 15 years to complete the building, and the total cost was 107 million dollars. It is clear that there was a lot of uncertainty in this project, but little was done to keep it under control.

Point out some clear uncertainties with this project.

Some clear uncertainties with this project include:

Lack of detailed plans and drawings: The architect only had some basic sketches of the concept, and there were no detailed drawings or plans to show if the concept could be realized. This created uncertainty about the feasibility of the project and the final appearance of the building.

Lack of experience with similar projects: The architect had no experience working on such a large building, which created doubts about his ability to transform the concept sketch into detailed design drawings that could be used for construction.

Cost estimation: Due to the lack of detailed plans and drawings, as well as the uncertainties about the feasibility of the project, it was challenging to estimate the costs accurately. The initial estimate of 7 million dollars turned out to be much lower than the actual total cost of 107 million dollars.

Construction of the shell roofs: The shell roofs of the opera house were larger and wider than any other shell roofs previously built. Engineers were concerned that the shell roofs would act like sails and pose problems in windy conditions at the harbor. This uncertainty arose around the design and construction of the roof to prevent the building from being blown away.

Controversial project: The construction of the opera house became controversial, adding uncertainty about the project’s progress and outcome. It took 15 years to complete the building, and the prolonged timeline and financial implications added to the uncertainties surrounding the project.

Discuss measures that could have been taken early in the project to address these uncertainties.

To handle the mentioned uncertainties early in the project, the following measures could have been taken:

More thorough preliminary studies and planning: There was a clear lack of detailed plans and drawings at the outset of the project. Past experience shows that thorough preliminary studies and careful planning can help reduce uncertainties. This could have included more in-depth analyses of the concept, technical feasibility and design alternatives to identify potential challenges and uncertainties early on.

Involvement of experienced architects and engineers: Engaging experienced professionals with relevant expertise early in the process might have helped address the uncertainties more effectively. They could have contributed their knowledge and experience to develop more detailed plans and drawings, as well as identifying potential issues and solutions related to the construction of the opera house.

Improved risk assessment and management: An in-depth uncertainty assessment early in the project could have identified and evaluated potential risks and uncertainties. This would have provided a foundation to develop measures and plans to handle them more efficiently. An active uncertainty management process throughout the project could have minimized the negative effects of the uncertainties.

More realistic cost estimation: Due to the lack of detailed plans and drawings, the cost estimate was miscalculated at the beginning of the project. Incorporating more thorough analyses of material requirements, labor costs and other relevant factors could have resulted in more realistic cost estimates. This would have provided better financial management and prevented unforeseen cost overruns later in the project.

Strengthened collaboration and communication: Improved collaboration and communication between architects, engineers, contractors and authorities might have helped address uncertainties more effectively. Early dialogues and regular meetings could have helped identify and resolve potential issues sooner and better coordinate the work throughout the project.

By implementing such measures early in the project, there would have been better control over the uncertainties, thus increasing the likelihood of a more successful completion of the Sydney Opera House construction process.

This case is taken from the book “Prosjektledelse – fra initiering til gevinstrealisering” – 2016, 4. Edition, by Jan Terje Karlsen.

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