Collaboration and procurement excellence - State Highway 25A Taparahi slip remediation

When State Highway 25A between Kōpū and Hikuai on the Coromandel gave way in January 2023 following heavy rain, the road to recovery commenced. Less than 12 months later, this section of the highway, including the new Taparahi Bridge, reopened, reconnecting isolated communities and putting the area back on the tourism trail. 

The project’s accelerated completion has been lauded as an example of effective collaboration among different companies across the infrastructure industry combined with a procurement model that supported the clearly communicated goal of reopening the road as fast as possible.  

We asked Tonkin + Taylor Principal Consultant Chris Bauld, whose responsibilities included project director and design manager, and geotechnical drainage, why this project was so successful. 

This project has been celebrated for multiple reasons including its well communicated and collectively held shared vision. Can you elaborate on this? 

The asset owner, NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi (NZTA), and the main constructors, McConnell Dowell and Fulton Hogan Joint Venture (JV), were directly involved with the community throughout the project and said its response towards them was overwhelmingly positive. And, when the bridge opened, the delight from people was stark. The positive impact on the community was very evident. It’s very rare on an engineering project that people are moved to say something to you, when they know you worked on it, about the difference the project made. 

For me, the highlight of the project was the real sense of purpose that existed among those involved. The feeling of a shared mission across all the teams – the constructors and design teams, and NZTA. Everything we did referenced the purpose of why we were there: “To build a bridge as fast as we can”.  

It was a very positive project to be involved in as everyone was super motivated. At times, it was very busy and intense, but it always had a positive feel to it. This makes a big difference. 

The project was completed three months early with the design and construction carried out simultaneously. How was this achieved?  

We greatly compressed the multiple stages a design would usually go through on a project of this scale to hasten progression. The acceleration of these iterations meant we often had to make decisions about whether we’d developed enough of the design so that it was safe for the JV to start working on something. For example, the JV made an early decision to use a certain size pile so they could order the required materials. Therefore, we had to do the design based on those components, while simultaneously working on other elements of the bridge design. 

Existing legislation also contains mechanisms to enable acceleration. These include an emergency provision in the Resource Management Act allowing work to proceed with urgency. You must either retrospectively demonstrate that the work meets all the requirements of the relevant plans, or you must get retrospective consent.  

The Building Code also has a provision allowing the building consent authority to determine that a building consent is not required if it considers all the requirements of the Building Act will be followed. This is quite typical for large-scale NZTA projects regardless of their nature because NZTA has a whole raft of quality processes in place. The final documentation is then submitted at the project’s completion. 

Intensive planning was involved in this project. How did this affect the outcome? 

I like to emphasize the planning because it’s super important. When deciding to start constructing something prior to completion of the full design process, and this happened at every stage of the project, we always had to consider the consequences of this action – was there an option to back out of the stage and, if so, what was it? Was there an alternative if something went wrong? We had to make sure there was always an option. We didn’t want to make a decision where there was no back out option or no option to remediate.  

This project has been hailed as a great example of good procurement. Were there any standout features that contributed to this? 

Beca, the consultants responsible for the bridge design and geometrics, did a robust job of investigating the issue and repair options upfront for NZTA prior to selecting the best option to achieve the required outcome within the fastest time and with cost certainty. Following this pre-work, the procurement model supporting the required outcome was quickly and efficiently set up and implemented, and the design and construction teams were chosen.  

Some flexibility also existed regarding the offer that our client, the JV team, made. This catered for the uncertainty concerning pricing and the short time frame. Our client requested a cost-reimbursable contract, which is unusual for a design and construct contract, but NZTA listened to and accepted the reasoning for this. This type of contract involved paying the JV the direct costs of their invoices plus an agreed margin on anything obtained. Some limits were placed around it but, ultimately, it was a cost-reimbursable contract right to the project’s completion. 

This contract supported the process in this very accelerated environment because, although it placed more cost risk on NZTA, it provided greater certainty for the JV and designer when dealing with issues on site. It enabled decisions to be made about speed and solving problems, because it reduced the JV’s concerns regarding possible financial loss and the associated roll-on effects. 

Can learnings from this process be applied to other non-emergency related projects? 

Cost-reimbursable contracts are limited to certain situations. These include where you need to do something unusual and therefore must change how the project works commercially to ensure the risks and pressures are in the right place.  

But this project is a great example of being very aware of the desired outcome and having a contract model and form that supports it. This is applicable to any procurement process. If you want to move fast and require people to make decisions that may involve greater uncertainty than normal, you need to balance the commercial constraints surrounding this to ensure these decisions can be made without excessive commercial pressure. The risks must be sitting in the right place. 

This project had complexities, but it was also quite simple. A project with greater complexities, such as more ground or land access issues requiring consideration, would have slowed the process and made it difficult to undertake some of what we ultimately achieved because the issues would have had to be resolved before proceeding. 

The collaboration on this project has also been praised. What made it stand out?  

Achieving the desired outcome of opening the bridge by Christmas required everyone involved to be slightly uncomfortable in their role. This included factors such as the cost-reimbursable nature of the contract, the amount of tax-payer money involved, and the associated commercial and reputational risks.  

Many positive vibes emerged from the project because of its great outcome. However, if something had gone wrong, such as a time delay, it may have been a very different story. We were all in an uncomfortable space because issues could have arisen from things beyond our control. Everyone knew the underlying goal was to have the bridge completed as soon as possible.  

The strength of the project was the shared aspiration of all those working on it. And everything was mobilised to achieve this goal. All the teams recognised this – the project was well resourced, including the equipment required, and involved very experienced people. This shared goal governed everything. If the project needed something, all those involved would do their utmost to ensure it happened.  

Those in leadership roles were also very focused on the solution. Blame was never apportioned if there was an issue. The approach was always on solving the problem. This focus on culture and performance can be hard to maintain because we’re human, so the project leaders had to lead by example to ensure their teams knew how to behave and why this was important. 

This project is a great illustration of how you can achieve great outcomes if you spend sufficient time and effort working on the culture and performance of the participants. It’s hugely valuable because of the outcomes you get. 

Everyone in the team is universally positive about the experience. There will always be some frustrations, but the overall elevator pitch is that it was a great and interesting project to work on. It can be easy to take trite lessons out of this project but it’s important to be aware that these may not be the only reasons for its success. Many of the things I’ve mentioned are very basic rules of managing a project successfully, and it was just executing them.  

You also can’t necessarily run all your projects this way. For example, the support and back-up available to the project team from their home organisations was all encompassing and you can’t do this for every project. Therefore, although this project was successful this time, this approach is not always viable. It is important to reality check when looking at the lessons learned. 

Connect with Chris Bauld on LinkedIn

This article was brought to you in paid partnership with Tonkin + Taylor.