The challenges presented by brownfield site infrastructure can feel never-ending, but a steady, experienced and innovative team will ensure a successful outcome.

Where do infrastructure projects go wrong? According to a Caravel survey of senior executives from industry and government, conducted for Infrastructure Australia, almost half of Australia’s infrastructure projects fail to achieve their baseline time, quality and cost objectives.

Asked to identify the single biggest factor in these failures, those surveyed were almost unanimous – but their answer was not what you might expect. The decisive element wasn’t the size of the project, they said, or its cost. It was its complexity.

“A problem and an opportunity”

So how do you ensure your project ends up in the 52 per cent that succeed, rather than the 48 per cent that don’t? The answer is expertise and experience.

Nowhere are these two elements more critical to success than in brownfield projects. That’s because these projects are inherently complex, representing “both a problem and an opportunity”, as the World Bank says in The Management of Brownfields Redevelopment: A Guidance Note.

But complexity only leads to failure when project management is inexperienced or inadequate. Which is why one of the key recommendations from the Caravel survey was to “use experienced project delivery practitioners with a track record of success”.

Layers of complexity

The Caravel survey respondents identified the top five factors that contribute to a project’s complexity as:

  1. Number of stakeholders.
  2. Amount of change management.
  3. Solution uncertainty.
  4. Regulatory and legal requirements.
  5. Number of commercial entities involved.

Many of these issues are intrinsic to brownfield projects. Fortunately, each can be productively managed if a thoughtful, informed approach is incorporated during the initial stages.

Effectively managing stakeholders

Stakeholders play a key role in brownfield projects. They may include the property owner, regulatory agencies, government bodies, community groups, residents and business owners in the surrounding area, as well as private financiers and developers.

Working with these disparate groups to produce a cohesive, effective outcome requires great skill. It should never be seen as a mere add-on to the project, since it has such a profound influence on the outcome.

As noted in the chapter “Improving the Brownfield’s Timeline for Redevelopment” in the Wessex Institute of Technology book Brownfield Sites: “The approach to stakeholder involvement often separates a successful brownfield redevelopment project from similar but less successful projects.”

Saving money and smoothing the process

Even more than other projects, the success of brownfield projects relies on meticulous preparation and planning.

The World Bank recommends getting experienced consultants with brownfield experience involved at the earliest stages because “a job well-done up front can save a lot money down the road”.

This is echoed in the Unlocking Brownfields report, prepared by the US National Association of Local Government Environmental Professionals in conjunction with the Northeast-Midwest Institute. They note that such expertise “can save time, money and uncertainty for the parties involved”.

Avoiding surprises, lowering risk

Unlike greenfield sites, brownfield sites are often poorly documented. Depending on the timeframe and nature of their previous use, information on vital elements – from onsite assets to areas of contamination – may be outdated, incomplete or missing entirely.

Gathering this data is a crucial step in anticipating problems and eliminating as much risk as possible before such problems arise. Given what’s at stake, the importance of this process can’t be overlooked. In fact, the World Bank says brownfield project success relies on “diligent management of risk”.

The guiding principle here is what’s known in risk management as ALARP: weighing up potential problems against the effort, time and money needed to control them, in order to reduce risk to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable (ALARP). The term SFAIRP (so far as is reasonably practicable) is sometimes used instead.

Experience makes all the difference when it comes to risk assessment and amelioration. Strong and effective project management relies on a team whose expertise in such challenging environments enables them to foresee risks and potential difficulties, and find innovative ways to avoid them.

Digital engineering techniques and tools are invaluable. They include:

  • The use of drones and LIDAR for scanning and data collection.
  • The insights offered by the resulting models using 3D and 4D BIM.
  • VR ‘walkthroughs’ of planned facilities, revealing potential problems that can then be addressed so they never occur in the real world.
The challenge of ongoing operations

In many instances, brownfield water infrastructure projects present another challenge: the necessity of not interrupting normal operations. Shutting down water supply and treatment facilities is often not an option, no matter what additional work is going on around them.

Again, planning, best-practice knowledge and skills, and nimble problem-solving and innovation make all the difference.

Key take-out

For all their complexity and challenges, brownfield water infrastructure projects can be hugely rewarding for all involved. The not-so-secret secret to success is to draw on the knowledge of those who have met previous brownfield challenges and yet are always seeking new ideas and solutions.

At Atlas, we’ve delivered more than half a billion dollars’ worth of water and wastewater projects for water utilities, construction contractors and project managers. Speak to a member of the Atlas team to find out how we can help improve the efficiency and sustainability of your program or project. Contact us here.