Analysis of the Failures in the Construction of the Sydney Opera House


The Sydney Opera House was initiated by a Dutch architecture who wanted to provide a modern masterpiece against the back drop of the Sydney Harbor. Planning for the construction of the Opera House started in the late 1940s. The then Director of the State Conservation of Music (NSW) lobbied for the construction of a venue specifically for theatrical productions. “The Sydney Town Hall which was being used was not large enough. The project was started in 1957 and was expected to be completed within four years at a cost of $7 million”. On the contrary, the project cost over $100 million (about $102) after taking a total of fourteen years to complete.

Although construction started in 1959, “it proceeded in slow stages with the government insisting that the construction had to start while Utzon complained that he had not completed the designs for the structure”. The major project constraints were the costs and the time. The Royal Society of New South Wales argues that the constraints can be attributed to inadequate planning on how the roof was to be made and what it was to be made of. It also lacked in strategic project management techniques.


The Sydney Opera House, “a masterpiece of late modern architecture is a multi venue performing arts centre in Sydney Australia”. It was conceived and architectured by a Dutch architect, Jørn Utzon who chose on a shell shaped structure for the building. “He provided a challenging piece of urban sculpture by using patterned tiles that glistened in the sunlight and glowed at night”. “The Sydney Opera House has become a symbol for the Australian and Sydney nation as well as earning a reputation of being a world class performing arts centre”. Utzon collaborated with engineer Ove Arup to shape and detail the distinctive shell vaults. “By virtue of the shell shape, the design was considered as being the successful integration of the work of an architect and an engineer who together produced an architectural image that was unique and unforgettable to many”.

Although drawn and structured by Utzon, the Sydney Opera House has undergone numerous restructuring in the past. The original design was considered as being so boldly conceived that it proved structurally impossible to build the structure. Additionally, the government changed the requirements of the building after construction had started. The original design called for two theatres when the government changed plans to four theatres which had to be incorporated in the construction plan. In the recent past, a fifth theatre has been created. This has been due to complains on some acoustical properties of the performance halls and the inadequacy of support spaces owing to the increasing number of people that visit the place from across the globe.

Analysis of the Sydney Opera House

The Sydney Opera House was constructed to cater for the theatrical needs of the society since there was no adequate dedicated music venue. During those years, the Town Hall was used for orchestral concerts and staging opera was almost always impossible due to lack of suitable stages. The appointment of Sir Eugene Goosens to the posts of the chief conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra brought the need for a better venue for the performing arts to the fore front. Goosens had plans to create a concert hall suitable for both orchestral performances and opera. The state government of New South Wales got involved in a moderately supportive manner and set up a committee which got the project underway and set up an appeal fund to raise money for the construction of the building. The fund could not raise the money needed for the construction of the opera house. The government came up with lotteries which raised the money that was used for building the structure at a cost of $102 million at its completion in 1975.

Williams argues that the discovery process of a project should ensure that the best opportunities are pursued and a portfolio planning thoroughly drawn out so that potential projects are matched against the available resources and/or organizational capabilities. “The sad reality however is that there was no process for discovery and portfolio planning to ascertain the importance of the project to the government”.

The tenets of effective project management

The construction of the Sydney Opera House had not been thoroughly planned for; “the post war Labor Government had been giving the concept of the construction of an all inclusive opera house lip service”. The government took the stance to place the construction of the facility in its reconstruction and redevelopment programs. Apart from Goosens public announcements and exhortations, the government did not act for seven years. The government of New South Wales acted out of shame and embarrassment for its inaction.

Technologically speaking, the basic process of project management includes planning, organizing, leading and controlling. “Planning involves determining what actions to take in order to accomplish the project objectives and requires assigning tasks, arranging activities and allocating resources to accomplish plans”. Organization involves bringing plans to action; leading involves maintaining commitment to organization goals and vision whereas controlling involves evaluation of performance and the development of improvement strategies. An inward look into the construction of the Sydney Opera House shows the lack of a proper goal on the accomplishment of the construction. The government changed the supposed structure of the opera house midway into construction thereby making loopholes in the planning and execution processes. It seemed like the only aim was to finish the construction without any clear cut lines on how exactly things were to be done. The construction process was left to chance, with the budget and time lines not reflecting a true picture of the expectations of the managers concerning when the construction would be over. Additionally, government indulgence in the execution of the project goals led to further project management failures in the project. Being the chief financier of the project meant that the government had a great say on the progress of the construction of the project. “When a new government was elected in the NSW in 1965, there were many campaign promises to cater for the increased overrun costs that resulted from the change of construction design”. The government withheld fee payments to Utzon and refused to agree to his designs and proposed construction methods. This was most times a detriment to the construction project management process; by this did Utzon finally resign from managing the construction project. It was also repeated when the government insisted on the beginning of the construction project two years ahead of the architect’s schedule. Utzon’s clarification that he had not finished drawing out the construction plan did not appeal to the government. “The lack of preparation later backfired. There were many overrun costs and the government was not willing to pay on time”.

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Another sense of lack of adequate planning was seen in the roofing material. After the completion of the grand podium which had an eighty six meter wide stair, the roof had to be reworked. The sails that were used for roofing were made from pre- cast concrete sections accompanied by glazed tiles. The roof shells were however too heavy for the supporting columns that had been used for construction so roofing shells were demolished and rebuilt. This was among the setbacks that led to delays and increased overrun costs in the project. From the project management’s point of view; these were avoidable by carrying out a proper survey of the land and doing a critical analysis of the resources. “Of paramount importance of all the resources are financial and human resources”. A good project and the accomplishment of the goals are predominantly dependent on the initial planning and evaluation processes employed for the project. It also suffices to say that the pillars of project success are intertwined and include risk management, value delivery and managing relationships. Risk management entails such factors as corporate governance and procurement. “Value delivery entails the project costs, time, scope and benefits realizations whereas relationships management includes the managing of stakeholder expectations”.

 Financial problems coupled with political disputes (dented relationship between the manager and the financier) marred the progress of the Sydney Opera House. There were constant arguments on the cost and the interior design between Utzon and the government. “A change of government in 1965 changed the face of the construction project. Hughes refused to collaborate with Utzon forcing him to resign. The project was later completed by a new architect and engineers”. This also saw a major change in the design of the opera house, the acoustic designs that had been more preferred Utzon being replaced by newly modeled designs. In the late 1990s however, the Sydney Opera House trust effected reconciliation with utzon in order to secure his involvement in future changes to the building. He was appointed a design consultant and in 2004, the first interior space after an utzon design called the ‘utzon room’ was opened in his honor.

During the construction period and even before the construction started, risks and uncertainties were not taken into consideration. Apart from the fact that the sails were still parabolic at the time, unexpected difficulties emerged. “These included the construction beginning before engineer drawings had been finalized; wet weather; unexpected difficulty in diverting storm water and the changes of original contract documents”. Given that the risks had not been catered for in the budget, “they served to increase costs as well as stretch the time line within which the project would be completed because they had not been preempted and hence there were no preparedness strategies to curb their effects”.

Technology is dynamic in almost all sectors, and the construction industry is not exempted. “The ever advancing technologies hence require proper budgeting”. When formulating goals, concepts and objectives, consider the place of technology to enhance learning and skills development. In the argument of Au and Hendrickson, Utzon drew out an architectural plan for the roof that was technologically ahead of its time thereby forcing the engineers to come up with a roof structure that would be attained within the scope of the available finances. Although it was unique and new to most people, it was not technologically manageable in those days and proved expensive to construct as well as time consuming. “At stage two of the construction of the Sydney opera house, the shells were originally designed as a series of parabolas”. Engineers Ove Trup and partners could not find an acceptable solution to constructing the parabolas and opted for an alternative structure which was easily attainable using the materials that would cost less.


In conclusion, the Sydney Opera House would have cost far much less than it ultimately did and would have taken a shorter time to complete had the basic principles of project management been followed. There seemed to be no clear line separating between the manager and the financier roles. The dented relationship between the chief architect and the government, which was the chief financier, further served in delaying the implementation process of the goals if there were any.

It would help to assemble what is needed for successful construction, pooling together resources that are available on the ground and sourcing for what is not available. It is also imperative to take into account inflation issues so that costs that emerge as a result of the same are cut on. Prior planning and testing of the building materials would have saved on the time and cost of using them and incurring losses thereafter. For example, if an experiment had been carried out on the economic and physical feasibility of using the roofing tiles, the losses incurred having to make other pieces that were light in weight and less costly would have been cut on. Additionally, although the building was deemed completed and opened officially by Queen Elizabeth in 1975, it has undergone several architectural changes that has questioned the solidity of the building in the first place.

A good and successful project is characterized by clear objectives, a good project plan, open and clear communication, a controlled scope and stakeholder support. Although the Sydney Opera House was completed and the resulting works of architecture have gained magnificent appreciation world over; it is still perceived as a failure in project management circles. This is not just owing to the overly underestimated budget and the unspecified timelines, but also due to intrinsic project factors like inadequacy of communication, lack of stakeholder support and uncontrolled scope. Progress in construction was dependent on when money was collected from government lotteries. This put the project in a precarious situation. It is good project management practice to draw out clear objectives then later evaluate how much of the objectives have been accomplished and what needs to be changed to make the project successful.

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