The Complexities of Small Projects

Posted By: Wes Berry Education, Membership,

COAA and its Education committee are building a body of knowledge nationally re small/minor projects to help Owners better prepare for and deliver projects. Through surveys, at conferences, in chapter workshops, and through members sharing their experiences, COAA is seeking ways to better understand the complexities of small projects. It's a conversation we should be having. The more knowledge we collect and share on small projects, the better prepared we will be as Owners. 


Large projects tend to get most of the glory, but small projects can be equally or more complex. Here are a few reasons why from an Owner/Project Management perspective relating to Budget, Schedule, and Quality. 


"Small Project" is a relative term. For this evaluation, let's define them as projects under $5 Million, which could be new construction or renovation in nature. While we are using the budget to classify such, you could look at it in other ways. For instance, retro-commissioning or systems work could be considered small as relating to the whole. Here we will assume a complete project, design, and construction.  


Budget: Although having a lesser dollar amount for the total project budget, small projects still require the same number of entities to produce. As an Owner, you still need to hire the DP (design professional), CP (construction professional), and other consultants to complete the work. Furthermore, you have underground/geotechnical exploration, possible unsuitable soils and other unknowns to deal with, and testing. Depending on the site and project complexity, all these entities, requirements, and unknowns can quickly eat through a budget. 


Additionally, a smaller budget usually equates to a smaller contingency as it typically represents the overall construction (or project) budget. On State of Georgia projects, 5% for new construction and 10% for renovations of the Stated Construction Limit (SCL) is a general rule of thumb. 5% of a $3,000,000 SCL is $150,000, which as anyone who has ever dealt with a brownfield or other site condition/unknown can attest to, goes quickly. And that isn't including possible Errors & Omissions or user changes. Compare that to 5% of $30,000,000 ($1,500,000), and it's easy to see how a large budget generally allows for more room to maneuver. 

Schedule: As mentioned above, small projects require all the same steps and processes as more extensive projects, but because they are "smaller," they are allotted less time to complete. Depending on the program's or construction complexities, type of construction, unknowns, and team performance, this could be an area of concern. Regardless, before agreeing to a timeline, project requirements and possible issues and unknowns should be evaluated. 

Additionally, because of smaller projects' pace, it is easier to miss things in the field. For example, a Pre Engineered Metal Building may go up in a matter of days. Therefore, all the specifications and testing requirements need to be determined before to make sure there is nothing missed as erected.  

Quality: With budget and schedule compressed, quality can easily suffer on small projects. Compound that with smaller contractors and sub-contractors who may not have the same project management and implementation capabilities. It can be a recipe for disaster with mistakes made that impact already tight budgets and schedules. RFI's and requests for inspections must be timely, meaning the contractor and team need a thorough understanding of the contract documents (drawings, specifications, contract) and need to be thinking ahead. 

From an Owner's perspective, small projects require as much, and perhaps more, planning on our end before and during construction. With tight constraints on budget and schedule, quality can easily slip. To deliver a project on time, on budget, with the desired quality, as Owners and team leaders, we need to communicate our concerns and make sure the team is on the same page. As always, communication and setting expectations at the beginning and throughout is the key to success. 


Fewer Zeroes More Headaches

The graphic above, taken from the "Fewer Zeroes" presentation given at the virtual fall Owner’s leadership conference, aside from looking great, outlines some best practices and answers some critical questions Owners can consider when tackling small projects. Look for more sessions on the subject in the future and join the discussion if you can.  

In a recent COAA survey, members ranked their most significant challenges or "pain points" when executing small/minor projects. Over 45% ranked "Imbalance between funding and expectations/goals as number 1. As Owners, we have the exact expectations with small projects as we do with larger projects, but few resources to achieve those goals. Schedule and quality often suffer as we have less budget to attract top contractors, correct mistakes, and account for scope creep (ranked 3rd biggest challenge). 

The second biggest challenge was PM Workload. Often PMs are given many small projects at once because they are "less complex." But, as noted above, that usually isn't the case. As workload increases, the ability to monitor active projects correctly becomes stretched, allowing for more errors to slip through the cracks. Add that to the already delicate balance between budget, schedule, and quality, and it is easy to see how a few small projects can quickly turn into a PM nightmare. 

As Owners, we need to give our small projects the respect they deserve, spending time upfront to think through all potential issues and pitfalls to ensure our small project doesn't become a big headache. Our small projects can meet and exceed our expectations by adequately planning and evaluating budget, schedule, and workload regardless of funding restraints. Best of luck on your next project, large or small, and please share your experiences and lessons learned by contacting the COAA-GA leadership team, COAA’s Education Committee, or anyone on the COAA staff.

Next month Jere Smith will take a closer look at completing small projects via delivery order contracting.

Wes Berry serves as a Senior Project Manager, managing design and construction projects for state agencies with the Georgia State Financing and Investment Commission. He can be reached at