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7 Common Project Conflicts and How to Minimize Them

How to minimize: From utility conflicts to poor soil conditions and beyond, foresight and preparation can go a long way when it comes to overcoming project surprises.

You can't predict the future, but you can prepare for it. Here, veteran project managers Wayne Wambold and Dave Simons share specific methods to minimize seven of the most common project conflicts and surprises.

1. Utility conflicts

Unknown or unseen pipes have the power to bring your projects to a standstill. If you uncover one during design, your engineer can usually design around the conflict. However, if one is discovered during construction, you’re likely getting a phone call from the field representative.

How to minimize: Research and investigation

“Engage your private utility early and often in the design and construction process,” advises SEH Project Manager Dave Simons. “They sometimes have information that is unavailable in record plans or other sources.”

How to minimize: Contract language

Make sure your construction contract language makes room for a show-stopping utility conflict. “A good contract will outline how all parties (i.e., contractor, owner and designer) can work together to resolve an unknown utility conflict,” says Dave.

Crisis action plan

“Look ahead to narrow down the areas of your project where a conflict could arise; places where you’re not as comfortable with the accuracy of the information,” says Dave. Then, think ahead to what action and processes you might have or need in place if a crisis occurs. If you hit a utility conflict, what tasks need to be done and who will do what? During a crisis, having an action plan in place will keep you focused on doing rather than on figuring out what needs to be done.

2. Right-of-way issues

Sometimes project owners want to undertake a project but don’t know how much right-of-way they have, or they think they have more than they actually do. In some cases, they discover they don’t own enough right-of-way to build their projects. At this point, you have two options and both are going to slow you down. You can either go back to the drawing board and redesign the project to reduce right-of-way needs or acquire additional right-of-way. Even with a willing seller, you’re going to have a delay.

How to minimize: Surveying and title searches

“Right-of-way ownership can be tricky, in that you don’t always know if you can trust certain maps,” says Dave. Where should your project confidence come from? Confirm your right-of-way ownership with professional survey or a title search. Both can help you get a better picture of ownership.

3. Environmental permitting delays

Environmental permitting is complicated in the best of circumstances. Regulatory agencies update requirements on a regular basis – and small oversights can cause big delays – a minor mistake can put a project on hold indefinitely.

How to minimize: Look upstream and downstream

Are you aware of all the lakes, wetlands or stream impacted by your project? Upstream and downstream? Your project might have greater area of impact than you think, resulting in the need for more permits.

Be an early bird

Regulatory agencies may increase permit review time when aquatic resources are affected. While the actual time frame varies from state to state, even year to year, be safe and submit your application early – anywhere from eight months to a year – otherwise you might stall your project, or worse, lose funding.

4. Public or political delays

For better and worse, some projects attract more attention than others. If your project touches a sensitive ecological area, historical properties or brings significant change, you can encounter delays if you’re not prepared.

How to minimize: Engage stakeholders authentically

At its best, public participation is not a checkbox but a genuine attempt to engage the right stakeholders in the right place at the right time. Use the right participation tools and make sure you understand what public and political repercussions might complicate success.

5. Poor soil conditions

Say it turns out that the ground at your site doesn’t want to support your project. What are the culprits? Your site conditions are full of highly compressible soils, like soft clay, silt or organic deposits (peats), which shift and sink beneath the weight of your road, bridge or building. Or, there are unexpected water issues. In rare cases, you may be able to relocate the project to a different site.

How to minimize: Get more soil samples

Budget for more soil borings to better characterize the ground beneath your project. “You don’t need to turn the site into a pin cushion,” says SEH Geotechnical Engineer Wayne Wambold. “But, used in coordination with any other geological site data you may have, you can usually get a good idea of where and how many borings will give you the most bang for your buck.” Good planning – and understanding of a phased drilling and testing approach – will help reduce risk when dealing with a difficult site. can usually have a good idea of where and how many borings will give you the most bang for your buck.
– Wayne Wambold, PE

Timing your testing

If you complete your subsurface investigation in the fall, after a dry spell, and are building in wet spring, you may discover beneath the surface a rising water table ready to wreak havoc on your construction schedule. More than just the quantity of boring samples, timing your testing and understanding seasonal variations is essential to reduce your exposure to risk.

6. Poor weather conditions

One of the most common causes for construction delays is unexpected and prolonged poor weather conditions. Nothing brings a construction project to a grinding halt faster than several weeks of rainy weather. Early onset of winter weather can also kill a project schedule. Just when some of the most critical and important final steps of a project need to be completed, a foot of snow on top of freezing weather can end the contractor’s construction season – and end your project until the next spring.

How to minimize: Have a contingency plan

Of course, you can’t control the weather. But, you can have a contingency plan for keeping your project moving during poor weather. Identify the project tasks in advance that are not time sensitive but can be completed any time, even during inclement weather. Discuss these tasks with the contractor at the start of the project, and plan to reserve the completion of them for times when poor weather causes delays in other weather-dependent tasks.  

Reserve time for weather delays

It sounds obvious, but the sooner you start the project, the sooner it can be completed. Set up the overall schedule with weather delays in mind, and allow for them in both the initial design field work and the construction phase of the project. For example, set the bid date early enough so there is more than just the minimum time needed to complete the construction work before the winter freeze-up. Weather delays can easily add 10-20% to the duration needed to complete a construction project. Why not add this extra time to the schedule to begin with, start the project early, and complete the project sooner than expected if the weather cooperates?

7. Availability of materials and labor

Some projects can be delayed by either long lead times on construction materials and equipment, or the lack of availability of experienced subcontractors on certain trades. It is easy to assume when planning out a project that all of the materials, labor and equipment needed to build the project will be readily available when you need them. However, the reality is that availability of materials, equipment and labor is greatly influenced by supply and demand. At times, a shortage of one of these items can sneak up on you and cause an unexpected delay.

How to minimize: Identify potential long lead times in the planning phase

Certain construction materials, equipment or specialty trades are known for their long lead times, while others are almost always available. Availability of materials, equipment and subcontractors can vary widely depending on the project location, type of construction, time of year and other factors. Talk with your engineering consultant early in the planning phase and develop a list of potential long lead time items that could become part of the project. Check into the actual lead times for these items to confirm whether there could be a future delay.

Adjust the project schedule or the project design

If you discover a potential future delay due to use of a specific material or equipment with a long lead time, consider adjusting the project schedule to allow additional time for placing the order, fabrication and shipping. If the schedule cannot be adjusted due to a fixed completion deadline, consider adjusting the design of the project to minimize or eliminate this material or equipment in favor of one that is more readily available. Sometimes this may require creative, out-of-the-box thinking.

The bottom line

Every project is different, yet a few conflicts tend to poke their heads out of the ground more often than others. When they do, the best you can do is be ready for them. Please be encouraged to contact both Dave and Wayne below to further dig into any of the conflicts above or others you might be facing!

About the Experts

Dave Simons

Dave Simons, PE*, leads the SEH Civil Engineering Practice in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. He's an SEH principal, former member of the Board of Directors, and has been with the company for over 30 years. Contact Dave

*Registered Professional Engineer in AR, MN, NC, SD, WI, SC

Wayne Wambold

Wayne Wambold, PE*, is a project manager and senior geotechnical engineer who has been with SEH for nearly three decades. Contact Wayne

*Registered Professional Engineer in IA, MN, NE, WI