Sydney Opera House Construction Project


This essay discusses the success and/or failure of the Sydney Opera House construction project. The Sydney Opera House is one sufficiently recognized iconic constructions, known globally as a national symbol of Australia.


A multi-purpose performing arts center located in New South Wales, Australia, the Sydney Opera House is one of the most iconic structures in the world, and it acts as a symbol of Australia. Danish designer, Jørn Utzon won the offer as the architect for the development of the Sydney Opera House project following successful bidding involving international architectures organized by the state government of New South Wales. The construction project was initiated in 1959 and was initially planned to be completed in four years with a financial budget of AUS $7 million. However, the Sydney Opera House construction project lacked any design and cost details set by the client (the government). As such, it brought about the challenges associated with cost and time overruns, which were regularly blamed on the planner, Utzon, resulting in his exit in 1966 before the completion of the project in 1966 and the subsequent appointment of a team of Australian designers to finish the construction. The project was later completed in 1973, consuming 14 years to be concluded, which was ten years behind the first completion date with a total cost of AUS $102 million, reflecting a substantial cost overrun.

From a project management perspective, the Sydney Opera House did not conform to any best practices in project planning, and it has been classified as a complete disastrous project based on the fiscal and management points of view (Ochieng, Price, & Moore, 2013). Nonetheless, it is one of the greatest architectural achievements in the world (Irvine, 2013).

The Sydney Opera House Project Management

The Project Stakeholders

The Sydney Opera House involved multiple stakeholders. The state government of New South Wales was the sponsor of the project. There were also designers and structural engineers from Ove Arup firm, who were the major partners during the initial phase of between 1959 and 1973. Although the Sydney Opera House Lottery Fund was set up to provide the largest shares of the fund for the project, the government was the client and the project sponsor. In spite of not having specialized skills, they had the duty of ensuring project delivery. During the project, the government established another team with limited technical competence to act as the project supervisor.

Further, the architect Utzon worked with the structural design firm Arup to deliver the design and structural features of the project. External consultants were engaged to provide particular specialized assistance requiring the utilization of novel innovation, for example, computer-based 3-dimensional plans and other specifications. The end-users (the public) were also the project stakeholders, and they were concerned about its completion. Moreover, they made significant contributions through the Lottery Fund.

The organization the Sydney Opera House Construction Project

This project did not have a manager. Instead, all project deliverables were under Arup and Utzon. The designer, Utzon (designer) handled the project design while Arup alongside his partner was responsible for the civil engineering structural building elements of the construction. This arrangement deviated from the traditional approach in which the architectural firm was responsible for significant aspects of the management responsibilities of the construction. Other design parts of the construction, for example, the mechanical, electrical, and acoustics parts of the project were fulfilled by different subcontractors associated with Arup.

In 1954, the government of New South Wales established a committee known as the Sydney Opera House Executive Committee (SOHEC) to supervise the project, although they had no construction or design expertise or related involvement in delivering a comparative project to that extent. The committee included three advisory members, one in charge of architectural and construction works, one dealt with the movement while the last member was in charge of music and drama. They directly worked with Utzon and made follow-ups for the client during the project until 1960 when their roles ended.

Time and Cost Factors

The Sydney Opera House construction project faced multiple risks and uncertainties from the design to the actual project delivery processes, which resulted in a massive cost overrun (Bronte-Stewart, 2015). The designer had developed a stylish design by relying on maps and photos without an actual visit to the sight. As such, the design was considered structurally impossible to attain. An example of the reason behind the claim that the construction was considered structurally unattainable was the design of the top structure that traversed totally over the structure without segments and columns (Martin, 2012). This turned into a challenge due to a lack of no known strategies at the time to be utilized in constructing the rooftop. Even after redesigning the rooftop, it was still the most complex, challenging, and costly to construct. The development of the project was started without a clear design and assessment of the site. There was no designated project manager, leaving Utzon, the engineer to assume all the responsibilities and make related decisions. This brought about consistent alterations of the design is executed, leading to destruction, and rebuilding of new structures (Turner & Zolin, 2012).

The initial cost set for the successful design was AUS$7 million, but the initial cost estimation was AUS$3.6 million based on the plan submitted for competition by Utzon. An advanced design was later put together by Utzon, which was then recalculated by a surveyor who got a final amount as AUS$4.7 million. During the initial development phase of the project, there were conflicts with the estimated costs for a section of the development works comprising of the podium and the base that was obtained from the insufficient initial plans and site reviews. Subsequently, the plan was altered, bringing about an extra cost of AUS$1.2 million in 1962 by the developers. When the initial phase of the project was completed, it had resulted in an extra cost of AUS$ 3.9 million, resulting in a total cost of AUS$5.2 million alongside an increased project period of 47 weeks over the intended date of completion.

In the second phase into the development of the project, there were further design alterations, for example, the client and sponsor (the government) demanded additional two theaters to the first two that were in the initial plan, which resulted in a delay of the project and an increment in the cost of construction. The range of design changes caused a significant cost increment, rendering both the first cost of AUS$7 million and the schedule of four years extremely unlikely. At the end of this second phase, the cost of the projected had risen to AUS$17.4 million. Despite the fact that the sponsor did not give the maximum possible cost of the project, the persistent cost increment was a major concern. An optional source of financing was needed. Meanwhile, Utzon was compelled to leave, carrying along with his designs (Camilleri, 2016). Hence, the project was once more left without a clear design.

In the third phase of the construction project, another group of architects was brought to finish the project, and they had to develop new plans and do alterations to the construction. This brought about extra increments in financing by the sponsor using the Lottery fund. At the end of the entire project, the cost had increased to AUS$102 million and consuming 17 years before it was opened in 1973. In principle, there was no measure set up for controlling and dealing with the cost of the project and time. In fact, designers and contractors were more concerned with the design features more than cost and time. In 1973, Queen Elizabeth II opened the Sydney Opera House following 17 years of project redesigns, cost overruns, and massive underestimations. Nonetheless, by 1975, the Sydney Opera House had attracted more revenues to cover for the investment. Utzon never returned to Australia, but the construction finally won the Pritzker Prize for architecture in 2003 (Martin, 2012). Overall, the Sydney Opera House is viewed as a project construction failure, notwithstanding its architectural superiority.

Flyvbjerg who studies the so-called mega projects on cost overrun has observed that from 300 projects across different countries, 90 percent have experienced cost overruns. In fact, some of the affected projects have been “Europe’s Channel Tunnel, China’s Three Gorges Dam, Los Angeles’ subway, and London’s Millennium Dome” (Irvine, 2013, p. 1). However, the Sydney Opera House stands out among all these projects as the worst case of megaproject planning and implementation.

It also appears that the Sydney Opera House also ruined the career of Utzon – no further stunning designs were presented after this failure (Irvine, 2013).

The Construction Project and the Local Economy

The Sydney Opera House is perceived as a standout amongst the most imaginative and distinct construction of the 20th century and in addition, a standout amongst the most recognized tourist attractions in Australia. It has a huge influence on the local economy by acting as, for example, a tourism attraction site, a venue for performing arts, and hosting conferences among others. Sydney receives millions of tourists from all over the world every year because of the Sydney Opera House. The building contains various performance venues that generate more revenues by hosting thousands of artists every year (Sydney Opera House, 2017). The Sydney Opera House is one of the busiest performing arts centers globally. It is Australia’s leading tourist destination and its the busiest performing arts center, welcoming more than “8.2 million visitors a year on-site and hosting more than 2,000 performances attended by more than 1.5 million people” (Sydney Opera House, 2017, p. 1). It is estimated that the building is valued at $4.6 billion (Sydney Opera House, 2017).

The Sydney Opera House creates a notable Australian picture as it is very much situated next to the well-known Sydney Harbor Bridge with an open parkland. The project additionally earns revenues from hosted recording studios, bistros, eateries and bars, and retail outlets. Further, revenues are also generated from guided tours, taking visitors to various locations from front-of-house spaces to the rear end normally left for entertainers and group members. The offices and venues in the building offer employment opportunities to local residents, sustaining over 12,000 jobs with a yearly contribution of more than $1.1 billion to the country’s economy. The project prompts an increase in local consumption, for example, spending earned cash within the area, increasing labor supply, and living standard for most Australians, particularly nearby residents. Moreover, the impact of the Sydney Harbour Bridge is largely felt by local businesses.

The Sydney Opera House Construction Innovation

The Sydney Opera House is perceived as an amazing piece of art in the 20th century. Many critics argue that it ought not to have been constructed at the time. As such, the project pushed limits in design and construction innovation at the time when utilizing novel methods in delivering exceptional buildings from such designs were not readily available. Technical and development challenges encountered during the construction phases because of the exceptional shape and location led to new techniques in architectural works. It is a case of innovative design strategies, and innovation used in the projecting roof was based on computer programs when the computer was hardly a decade old. Computer applications were also utilized as a part of developing the spherical geometry section for the rooftop, which helped in reducing the development procedure of the structure, leading to time and cost savings associated with the new altered designs.

Novel innovative approaches for concrete projects were created to lessen and eliminate repetition in construction processes. Rather than the repetitive procedures involving concrete works done on the site, new technology was produced to improve the proficiency and enhance the construction procedure utilizing statistical computer algorithms, which took into consideration most concrete precast segments to be lifted and fitted, sparing expenses of operating an on-site plant for producing solid concretes. This likewise had the capability of saving time on the general schedule of the project deliverables.

In spite of the fact that at the period of the construction the Sydney Opera House sustainability was not an issue of much interest or concern in any project, the project incorporated multiple aspects of sustainability. Generally, some of the applications used had the potential to enhance sustainable practices. For example, the use of precast concrete reduced the need for an on-site casting factory, leading to environmental conservation.

Lessons Learned

The Sydney Opera House located next to the Sydney Harbour has placed the country on the world map like nothing else before in the country. However, given the costs incurred, the time spent, and the loss of career and legacy in the 20th century, the Sydney Opera House offers a lesson in what not to do in construction projects. It is therefore important not to forget that the state government of New South Wales failed to observe all the important rules of good project management.

The project was ahead and complex at the time, yet it has turned into one of the most valuable national projects, attracting millions of tourists and generating revenues every year. As such, it was money well invested in a piece of architectural work with the capability to enrich the country’s culture for many years to come.

Nonetheless, the Sydney Opera House offers some lessons to be learned for project developers globally, and it shows that project success is not always simple to attain (Mir & Pinnington, 2014). It is important for project stakeholders to subject mega projects to rigorous planning and development processes. Project technocrats always have tendencies to underestimate project costs and time to make it more agreeable to financiers. However, such underestimations always result in delays and messy funding, which can lead to a form of crisis concerning the project, as was the case with the Sydney Opera House.

The mistakes of the construction project offer valuable lessons to the country. To avoid such crises, cost overruns, and delays, project planners should face fines if their projects face issues related to excessive delays and cost overruns. This approach is most likely to protect taxpayers.

Majorities who were supervisors of the project had no background in construction or architectural designs. Moreover, politicians appointed all these players to oversee the progress of the project. This offers valuable lessons about the inherent danger of politicians and their cronies running and supervising complex city infrastructural developments (Daniel, Andrew, & Naomi, 2013).

When Utzon left with his designs, the next project team had no reference materials at all. Hence, knowledge management is extremely important in complex project management. Evidence from empirical research offers absolute support for the contingency model and its agenda that the best knowledge management for project management relies upon project complexity (Handzic & Bassi, 2017). In particular, evidence demonstrates that with elevated project complexity, intellectual capital (IC) and personalization knowledge management approaches tend to have better results for project success (Handzic & Bassi, 2017).

Irrespective of the glaring failure, one can notice that novel innovation and technologies can transform ideas, create beauty, and actual economic values from complex projects whose time has not come. Thus, any project perhaps may only be classified as a failure before any attempts to implement it at all. The Sydney Opera House was a risky project that eventually achieved success beyond the initial plan.


The Sydney Opera House is an iconic structure in Australia, attracting millions of visitors and generating millions of revenues every year. In light of all these, the project can only be described as a major achievement for the country. The project was responsible for driving and exceeding limits in architectural endeavors throughout the 20th century. Hence, it was a world-class project.

However, from a project management perspective, the Sydney Opera House is described as a failed project because of time and cost overrun. All the cost and initial budgets were greatly exceeded.

Nonetheless, today, the project perhaps has achieved the vision of its sponsors – to be an iconic, symbol of the country. From this perspective, therefore, the project has realized its initial vision, and its economic impact in Australia makes the project an excellent piece. The lessons learned provide valuable insights for any future mega projects in terms of project management and delivery by observing the budget, schedule, scope, quality, and other specifications during all phases. It demonstrates the effectiveness of sufficient management practices, stakeholder management, and the inherent risk of engaging politicians in public projects. Additionally, it also shows that a focus on quality without paying attention to cost and time could lead to a crisis. Overall, these drawbacks have negative impacts on project outcomes.


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