Cathy Forrest and Aidan Brannan were engineers on the McConnell Dowell-Downer Joint Venture that completed the SH1 Russley Road Upgrade in Christchurch. They made a joint presentation at the CCNZ Conference in Hamilton this year. Alan Titchall was there.
The Russley Road project was located adjacent to Christchurch International Airport, and involved widening 3.5 kilometres of existing state highway and included iconic transport features that provide a unique welcome to visitors passing through the fast-growing airport precinct.
Key features include the award-winning Harewood Underpass, the Southern Airport Access, Harewood Road Roundabout, and the centrepiece of the project, the stunning Gateway Memorial Avenue flyover and arch structure.
At peak construction, 130 people were working on the project, including subcontractors. A total of 165 people attended courses during the delivery period to meet the significant challenges for planning, safety, and traffic control.
Naturally, the project involved immense expertise, know-how, and collaboration of all parties involved, plus innovation in traffic management, value engineering, and risk management.
The result was that the project was completed seven months ahead of schedule, very close to the original budget, and to the highest workmanship.
Started as a simple design
Cathy Forrest says the initial design was fairly straightforward, but it then became clear that the intersection on Memorial Avenue was going to have a big impact on the project.
“So, at that stage we decided to tender this project as an ECI, Early Contractor Involvement. And we had three separable portions.”
Two of those involved construction around Avonhead Road through to Yaldhurst Road, and the design of the interchange at the same time. Many design changes took place at this time, says Cathy.
“We introduced the concept of a gateway structure at the Memorial Avenue intersection for a design competition and the resultant winner of that competition was the arches you see there today.”
The project was also extended, involving a new pedestrian and cycle underpass that was introduced there, while the airport requested a new interchange that accessed its business park.
Commenting on the ECI aspect, Cathy says that for this complex project it was the right choice and it allowed an early start.
“The project was complex, and multiple changes occurred with stops and starts and this had to be negotiated. And technology changed a lot during this process in respect to the earthquakes that happened, so we had the opportunity to take advantage of that.
“Ultimately things could still have fallen apart in terms of the contracts if the following things had not been in place. So, there’s the right tone of the document. The principal requirements were clear and robust on the non-negotiable items, but they also gave enough flexibility to be able to allow the contractor to add value.
“The principal requirements were produced during the negotiation period with the contractor and, therefore, they had time to buy into that. And during the negotiation we spent most of our time talking about risk.
“We made sure that the risk was carried by the party best able to manage it and the risk items were debated at length, agreed and then fairly allocated and clearly described in the documentation to reduce any further debate during construction.
“And there was a clear identification of a value engineering KPI in the separable portions documentation – the targets for potential savings on the project.”
The right team
Cathy says it was critical to get the right team on the project and therefore the tender documents focused on collaboration and people.
I wanted a team in there that would be as passionate about this project as I was. They would be problem solvers, and they would really work with us to achieve the right outcomes.
“And the team selected really showed they had thought about the project and understood the challenges of the traffic management stakeholders.
“And, secondly, given the duration of the project (started in 2010 and finished in 2018), there was bound to be changes to some personnel. The process for change to any of the contractors, or key person was extremely robust.”
Cathy adds that staff at the client – NZTA – remained consistent during the project. For instance, Chris Collins from the NZTA came onto the project in 2010 and was involved to the end.
“The turnover of staff from the contractor was also minimal, and I am in no doubt that this was because we were all enjoying the challenge. We knew each other’s roles, we all contributed to solutions and celebrated success.”
The project office was adjacent to an Asian cooking school where team building through Thai cooking was carried out. “Later on in the project we celebrated by having a meal in the underpass.”
Aiden Brannan says from a business perspective clear ‘ownership’ was established during that process.
“Once a month we would sit and meet and go through the reschedule and every single risk on both schedules would get looked at and says ‘here’s what we were doing around the risk’.
“Basically every single item, what is a risk, what will we do about it, what do we invest to reduce that risk, how do we actually physically control and manage that risk?
“It helped us keep a real scrutiny on price and cost and programme and stakeholders so it was a good tool to project management and certainly contributed to the project’s success.”
Aiden says the Gateway Memorial Avenue flyover and arch structure is a great looking structure, and was also a very complicated structure.
“We sat and looked at how we can get this animal into place; some 16 of us spent 10 hours looking at it as a reschedule.”
According to Cathy, the original concept was for the arch to be white. “But we really wanted to take the opportunity to really make this a bit of a showpiece, and so we went through a bit of a debate on the colours and how many colours there should be, and all of that.
“We did a test and a trial on what colours stood out the best and decided on that.”
Cathy says it was a challenge creating a safe working space for construction around the bridge and the arch without disrupting the traffic flow along the state highway or Memorial Avenue intersection.
“Key concerns were around safety to motorists, pedestrians and cyclists and whether this arrangement would cause delay. But the project had been set on the basis of a traditional traffic management with traffic continuing to use the old Memorial Avenue roundabout and temporary signals as various parts of the bridge structure were constructed.
“The proposal to create the long elongated roundabout, the ‘oval-about’ as it became known or ‘magic roundabout’ was assessed in detail through a traffic model and it was established that the delays would be the same as the existing roundabout.
“It was a bit of an innovative thing to do at the time. It had been untested and a lot of us were very nervous that it wouldn’t work and that there would be massive delays.
“And, actually, the results in oval-about actually worked too well. We had multiple comments from users that the roundabout worked so well, why did we need to build a bridge!”
Project stakeholders were high on the risk register from the start, says Cathy.
“We had a golf course to reconfigure at Memorial Avenue interchange; we had disgruntled neighbours along Russley Road; we had a church; a school; a wedding venue; and the relationships between NZTA and the Christchurch City Council. ”
The turn around point was when they got all the parties into the room for a partnering workshop.
“We set the project’s objectives through this mechanism, allowing the residents, council, airport, parties to have their say and buy into what we wanted to achieve.
“We subsequently got signatures on the partnering charter, and while we didn’t reference this document, very often it set the tone on the way we wanted to behave with each other and I’m a big believer in the partnering process for it’s quite a small amount of effort to really get everybody on the same page.
“One example, I learnt that lobsters living in a seafood plant adjacent to the project were getting stressed. Apparently, the stress level of a lobster is directly proportionate to the amount of urine in its pond.
“The team’s solution was to start up the vibrating rollers away from the seafood plant as that was the action that caused the most stress to the lobsters. It was all about understanding each other’s businesses.”