Perfect Planning Engineering’s Role In Project Success

Complex projects addressing challenges such as climate change, brownfield development and accommodating larger ships magnify the valuable role engineering consultants can play.
perfect planning

“I can get it to you quick, I can get it to you cheap. Or I can do it right, and I can give you two out of three. But I can’t give you all three,” the saying goes. “If you want it cheap and quick, it’s not going to be right. If you want it cheap and you want it right, it’s not going to be quick. If you want it quick and you want it right, it’s not going to be cheap.”

John Rutherford, marketing director at consulting engineering firm Lanier & Associates, chuckled as he recited an old chestnut engineers use to sum up the omnipresent tug-of-war between schedule, cost and quality on large infrastructure projects.

Indeed, an often-cited study of project management leaders by global management consultant PwC points to poor cost estimates (not cheap), blown deadlines (not quick) and ill-defined goals and objectives (not right) as key factors leading to unsatisfactory results on large projects.

For port executives charged with executing major infrastructure projects that come in on schedule, within budget and correctly designed to meet the port’s needs, understanding how process ultimately defines product is the first step to avoiding projects that come up short.

Perhaps the single most important element in the project planning process, say some port project managers, is tapping into the experience, perspective and problemsolving capabilities of your consulting engineers at the very outset of conceptualizing a project.

“As a public port, we’ve got a responsibility to our public to be good stewards of the resources available to us,” said Brandon Bergeron, director of engineering for the Port of Beaumont. “Engaging with experienced teams to best define how those resources will be expended for that project helps us in advance in planning to make sure this is really a road we want to go down.”

Engagement During the pre-FEED Phase

Engineers divide projects into three distinct design phases – conceptual, preliminary and final. The preliminary phase is known as front-end engineering design, or FEED, and the final phase is the highly detailed engineering plans that are one step removed from firing up the bulldozers.

It’s that high-level conceptual phase at the very beginning – often referred to as pre-FEED – where engaging your engineers can really put a project on a trajectory for success, port officials and engineering consultants with broad experience on port projects agree.

All projects have a design basis, in part dictated by codes and regulations and ideally defined by the project objective, whether it’s accommodating larger ships, addressing rising sea levels, redeveloping a brownfield site or hardening infrastructure against severe weather events.

“Where engineers can pay dividends is early on, establishing that design basis,” said Rutherford, a consulting engineer earlier in his career. “That’s where that early pre-FEED effort can really mitigate the long-term overruns in schedule and cost. You can put a little bit more effort up front that pays tenfold at the end of the project.”

“The earlier the engineer is brought in to work and converse and understand the issues and consult on possible solutions, the better prepared your client is with a factual reference base to make decisions before the process has gone too far and the options become more limited or more expensive to change,” agreed Keith Hall, president of electrical engineering and lighting systems firm Hall Engineering.

“Instead of $70,000 just to throw some numbers out, if you spent $150,000 and gave us a few more weeks we could really tie this up and really give you a good idea of what we think this is going to be long term,” Rutherford said. “It’s a $60 million project and you’re telling me you can’t do this little bit extra to save you $10 million down the road?”

For example, the Port of Beaumont engaged a team of consulting engineers led by Lanier & Associates to redesign its 100-year-old Main Street Terminal Two in a way that complements work on its sister Main Street Terminal One and enhances the port’s intermodal capabilities.

“We’re looking at that project holistically on the front end to figure out what are the challenges to rebuilding Main Street Terminal Two into a state-of-the-art facility to match its sister dock – not just to make it look fresh and fancy and new, but to improve the transportation hub aspect of the port across all avenues of infrastructure from water to rail to truck,” Bergeron said.

The pre-FEED and FEED phases of the design process could take up to two years, but Bergeron is convinced this deliberate approach will pay off.

“Instead of jumping right into engaging a contractor to start knocking things down and building things back, let’s slow down and look at it from what we’re really trying to accomplish here, what are our challenges, how do we tackle those, and how do we make it better moving forward,” he said. “That’s only something we’d be able to do by taking that sort of engineering-first approach to that project.”

Getting engineers involved at the conceptual pre-FEED stage can often lead to solutions the project owner hasn’t considered, as well. On one project, Lanier recommended building and fabricating structures in the yard instead of putting welders on scaffolding over water dealing with wind, rain and fluctuating water levels in the river running under their feet.

“There’s a lot of things we can bring to the table from a design standpoint that sometimes ports might not have looked at or might not have thought about that can save time, money and also improve safety and quality, too,” Rutherford said.

Early Involvement More Critical as Complexity Grows

The importance of engaging engineers early on rises in tandem with the complexity of the project, port officials and consultants agree. And in general, port infrastructure projects are becoming more complex – especially as ports turn more and more to redeveloping brownfields, which are former industrial sites requiring extensive cleanup efforts on or adjacent to port property.

“We cannot keep creating land,” said Ashebir Jacob, vice president of ports and terminals for global engineering firm Moffatt & Nichol. “We have to make use of what we have – brownfields – and they’ve been sitting there for sometimes hundreds of years with a lot of contamination, so that is one issue that needs to be addressed.”

“That’s one of the things we’re running into in the Gulf South, we’re just running out of room,” said Lanier’s Rutherford, citing several brownfield projects in the region. “There’s just not an endless supply of places you can put marine facilities, and ports understand that. It’s going to all be brownfield.”

One brownfield project under way at the Port of Everett involves redeveloping a former Kimberly-Clark paper mill site where soil contamination and stability are issues. The port has a phalanx of geotechnical and other specialized consulting engineers tackling multiple aspects of the $36 million project, which includes a new marine terminal that will expand the port’s cargo-handling capabilities.

Climate change is another factor driving the increased complexity of infrastructure projects. Ports across the United States and around the world are assessing the implications of rising sea levels on their operations and the need to storm-harden facilities to withstand the increased frequency and damage potential of hurricanes and other severe weather events.

Making a port sustainable used to mean “overdesigning the dock,” Rutherford said. Now, given projections of rising water levels, it involves, “If this dock has a life span of 40 years, what does that look like in 2065?”

The Funding Perspective

Engineers can also help ports navigate hurdles – such as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers permitting process – and avoid committing to projects that look good on paper but have “constructability issues” and can’t be built in the real world, Rutherford said. Helping secure funding is in their wheelhouse, too. The Port of Beaumont’s Bergeron said early engineering input helped the port win federal dollars for projects by giving the port the detailed information it needed to put together winning grant proposals.

“These early engineering efforts really have been instrumental in the Port of Beaumont’s success in obtaining some of the federal grant funding that we’ve been able to obtain over the last several years,” Bergeron said. “Not everyone who chases these grants puts that much skin in the game from an investment in engineering perspective early on, but we do because we see the value in it.”

‘On Leading Edge’ of Understanding Changing Needs

Whether it’s helping ports think about the implications of climate change or better understand the business case for investing in a port-deepening project, having an experienced engineering team on board every step of the design process from master planning to detailed project specifications is beneficial.

Lanier has consulted with several ports, including Port of Beaumont and Port of Corpus Christi, that are weighing the costs and benefits of infrastructure investments, including deepening their ports, to accommodate larger vessels. Port of Beaumont engaged the firm for an analysis that included archival research and the development of a 3-D model of the port on the Sabine-Neches Waterway.

“At the end of the day, the Port of Beaumont was able to walk away from that project with an understanding of if we wanted to maximize the business opportunity across our port docks to take advantage of these deeper-draft vessels, if it makes sense for us from a business perspective to do that, what does it mean economically, what are the dollars involved with making that so,” Bergeron said. “The engineers played a key role for us understanding the changes of our environment – the river and the deepening of the river. They helped us understand how that change to our environment would play into the future of the port if we were to want to adapt to that.”

“Places like ports have been around a long time, and there’s an argument and it’s not always a bad argument, to do things the way you’ve always done them. But there are times when change is needed,” Bergeron said. “Engineers are on the leading edge of understanding those needs for change and they do a pretty good job of making sure that customers like us here at the Port of Beaumont are kept safe and are kept futureproof with an eye toward those things.”