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Causes of the Sydney Opera House Failure

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Construction
Wordcount: 2562 words Published: 18th May 2020

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Executive Summary

The purpose of this report is to investigate and identify why the selected mega project case study, being the Sydney Opera House, was an unsuccessful project and why the project was legally a failure. To identify the requirements of the project being rendered a failure, this report will adhere to the criteria detailed in Loots, Peter and Charrett, Donald, (2009) Practical Guide to Engineering and Construction Contracts in order to evaluate the project according to the factors within the text. Legal analysis will be conducted regarding the project, such as analyses of procurements and contracts obligations, insurance requirements, site Preparation and project planning and establishment procedures. Project termination and hand over, as well as site clean-up progressions and the projects commissioning requirements will also be analysed.  There are many factors that can be attributed to the failure of the construction Sydney opera house. From the research gathered throughout this report the project is seen to be a major failure from a project management prospective although there were other factors that did affect the total outcome of the project. The project ultimately failed due to the project team failing to adhere to the pillars of project management, as well as failing to meet legal requirements that are expected for a project of this scale.


Why was the Sydney Opera House selected?


The Sydney Opera House was selected as our case study for various reasons. One reason being that the Opera House is a well-known and respected piece of architecture within Australian society. The Opera House represents more than the city in which it resides, it represents a marvel of architectural design that was well ahead of its time. Although the Opera House is a marvel in design, it was an enormous failure in regards to a project management and legal sense. It is well known that the Opera House project far exceeded its project budget and timeframe by great lengths, with the budget being over ten times what it was expected to be. This gross ignorance of the pillars of project management was largely due to the involved parties employed on the project, and a lack of communication between these parties. The project was originally scheduled for four years, with a budget of $7 million AUD. The project ended up taking up to 14 years to complete, with the final cost being AUD $102 million. Therefore, The Sydney Opera House is seen as one of the most disastrous construction projects in history, not only due to the over runs in time and budget, but also because of the whole project management of the project.


On November 11, 1954, the Premier of New South Wales John Cahill gathered a conference to discuss the need and establishment of an Opera House in Sydney, New South Wales. In February 1956, an international competition commenced to select the candidate who would provide the design for the Opera House. In January 1957, a 38‐year old Danish architect named Jørn Utzon, was announced as the winner of the competition. Utzon had designed the opera house without having visited the site in person, and he relied fully on photographs and maps to design the building. Utzon’s design was chosen due to the unique nature of the roof design. 

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In order to assess the project and determine how it can be deemed a failure, the framework from Loots, Peter and Charrett, Donald, (2009) Practical Guide to Engineering and Construction Contracts will be followed. The text details numerous criteria on which to measure a projects success, such as the “No Dispute” (1990) paper, and the CIIA 2002 study which examined Australian case studies in order to determine project related factors critical to project success. 15 factors came from the CIIA study, from which four factors were found to be critical in explaining the overall project performance;

(1) a cooperative project team

(2) client’s competency and commitment  

(3) continuity of key personnel on the project team

(14) equitable risk allocation

The Sydney opera house project failed to address these four critical factors. A co-operative project team was not apparent, as Utzon was largely ignored by contractors as well as engineers. Utzon also failed to communicate with engineers, going as far as to not install a telephone in his office to limit the amount of contact he had with them. The client in the project also had very little involvement in the affair, with Utzon being the driver for the project and handling the client side of the project. continuity of key personnel on the project team also did not occur, as Utzon left the project when a new construction authority took over the project, leaving the difficult task of deciphering Utzon’s architectural drawings to the new project team and three architects. Risk allocation was also ignored as no involved parties were capable of bearing the blame for the projects over budget and longer time frame, largely due to the fact that these two parametres were seen as necessary to accommodate Utzon’s bold design.

Baccarini (1999) evaluates project success upon two separate factors, being project product success and project management success. Project product success focusses purely on the completed project work, whilst project management success focusses on the project management processes followed such as the projects adherence to cost, time and quality. Nixon, Harrington, and Parker (2012) argue that the ‘Sydney Opera House succeeded on the project product level, while failing completely on the project management level’. This point is solidified by the fact that the project exceeded the original planned budget by over 15 times, as well as the deadline by 4 times. The projects mounting costs and time delays were not only the result of project trade-offs but were also largely the result of various wrong decision and other factors, such as poor management and a lack of crucial communication between the various key project personnel. The Sydney Opera House project ultimately failed to adhere to the key factors leading to project success, and failed to meet the criteria set out in the works of Loots, Peter and Charrett, Donald. The following stages or actions were detrimental to the success of the project;

The Architectural Competition – the selection of Jørn Utzon

Utzon’s design was selected due to its originality and the ability for the design to be “one of the great buildings of the world.” (Assessor’s Report 1957). One of the main issues regarding the design selection panel is that all four judges were architects, none of which had experience in the construction of a theatre or opera, as well as dealing with acoustics. There was no representative of the client in the panel. Therefore, bolstering the idea that the client was not actively involved in the early stages of the project. The lack of both expert knowledge and judgement in the various aspects of the respective project, such as acoustics and structural engineering, and also the absence of a representative the client’s expectations and needs were apparent.

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The competition panel went on to choose the very conceptual design of the Jørn Utzon, who was a relatively inexperienced architect, disregarding all specifications made in the competition description and therefore creating various risks to the project. There were various issues with Utzon’s design, as well as Utzon’s ability to successfully complete the project. Utzon’s design was at a very schematic and basic level, which meant uncertainty of the scope and quality of the project. Utzon also had very limited experience with the execution of a project of this scale, as well as never having overseen the construction of a large structure. Utzon’s design also failed to meet the specifications that were required by the competition description, and Utzon failed to consult any structural engineer regarding his design and its feasibility, or the plausibility of the construction costs. All of these factors would lead to major changes in the scope and quality of the project which would in turn affect time and costs.

As a result, an architectural design had been chosen that did not provide a practicable solution for the structure or an appropriate solution for the interior layout of the building. In the end, the development of a practical design proved to be a very time consuming process, with numerous design problems that needed to be solved by Utzon in cooperation with the engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners as well as other consultants.

Defining the project scope – Early project definition stage

Larson and Gray (2011) set out clear steps that are required within the project definition stage with the first step being the definition of the project scope, which is a vital piece of information that is needed to provide a vision for projects. However, in the case of the Sydney Opera House, there was no defined project scope. The objective of the project was not to build an opera house, but to build a major hall for concerts, that could also be used as an opera house. Woolley (2010) describes the fact that the competition was entitled as Sydney Opera House as an “ambiguity of purpose”, as the title of the design competition did not properly reflect the purpose of the project. The title “Opera House” was selected to avoid criticism from the fact that Sydney already had a concert hall. This ambiguity, or misdirection in the original project description was never changed, which ultimately lead to a creep in scope that affected the overall scope, quality, time and cost variables of the project.  The second step of the definition stage is the definition of project priorities (Larson and Gray 2011). During the project, project priorities were not defined at any stage. The criteria of costs and time were both regarded as “accepted”, since the increasing costs and time delays were tolerated in order to meet the constrained criteria of the project, mainly due to the design and its quality.

Accountabilities and Responsibilities of the Project design and construction

The projects design process was worsened by the fact that responsibilities and accountabilities were not clearly defined. The legal responsibility for the satisfactory outcome of the project, lies within the scope of the construction authority. One crucial issue of the design and construction phase is that no delegate of the construction authority was represented in the original competition panel when the design was selected. Larson and Gray (2011) say that the clarification of responsibilities and accountabilities is essential to a project’s success. There were no clear responsibilities since the design process of the early project stage was very unclear as well as there being poor communication between Utzon, the structural engineering firm and the other consultants. There was a lack of responsibility as the construction authority expected the technical committee to advise it on any changes in the brief whilst the technical committee relied on the advice of its architect and other consultants. 

Failure in Communication

The lack of responsibility and accountability had an impact on the project communication. The communication between key stakeholders was vital in the early stages of the project, and according to Sykes (1993), there was a ‘dissatisfaction with the internal project communication’. Larsen and Grey (2011) also suggest that a communication plan should have been established, as this would have allowed for a quick distribution of information among the project stakeholders. A downfall was that no such communication plan or similar policy was set into place for the Sydney Opera House project. In order to achieve a solution for the several design problems that arose from the chosen design, Utzon should have worked closely with the engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners. However, Utzon did not share his thoughts on the design until he had found a solution that satisfied him, therefore hindering the design process and resulting in frustration amongst the involved parties which further created a rift in communication, which was a vital asset in the design stage. This resulted in Utzon blaming engineers for lack of consultation and vice versa from the engineers.  

As a new local government was elected in 1965, the constructing authority of the project also changed, and according to Sykes (1993), the new government was not in Utzon’s favour. The new minister increased the pressure on Utzon, and stated that he was providing assurances, and then failing to meet these assurances (Woolley, 2010). The local government and opponents of Utzon blamed him for inability to collaborate, his persistence with his unworkable design and inability or ignorance towards the understanding of the structural problems caused by his design. Utzon was said to have “ignored questions of time, questions of costs, and he is not a practical man” (Horne 1967). In this project, time and cost were of great importance, and not following these constraints would in turn lead to the project being labelled as a failure.  Upon Utzon’s leave, the new construction authority engaged three local architects, which were to complete the project under the direction of the government architect. This would create more issues for the project as these architects would have to follow Utzon’s difficult design, without his involvement.


  • Arup, O., & Zunz, G. (1969). Sydney Opera House. The Structural Engineer, 47(3), pp. 99-132.
  • Baccarini, D. (1999). The logical framework method for determining critical success/failure factors in projects. International Journal of Project Management, 14(3), pp. 141-151.
  • Department of Public Works, NSW. (1957). Assessor’s Report – Sydney Opera House.
  • Drew, P. (2000). Utzon and the Sydney Opera House (1st ed.). Annandale, Australia: Inspire Press.
  • Larson, E., & Gray, C. (2011). Project management – The managerial process (5th ed.). New York, USA: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.
  • Sykes, J. (1993). Sydney Opera House – From the Outside In. Pymble, Australia: Playbill.
  • Watson, A. (2006). Building a masterpiece: Sydney Opera House. Sydney, Australia: Powerhouse Publishing.
  • Woolley, K. (2010). Reviewing the Performance – The Design of the Sydney Opera House. Boorowa, NSW, Australia: The Watermark Press.


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