3 Simple Strategies for Delivering Complex Projects Quickly

Nancy Southern is one of those rare people you meet in a lifetime who can make the outside world disappear when you engage with her. She is also the Chair & Chief Executive Officer for ATCO.

In the summer of 2017, Nancy was in the final stages of accomplishing a long-standing family dream by building the first phase of ATCO Park: a state of the art campus with the global corporate headquarters for ATCO. Everyone who was working on the project was getting excited. The bold architecture was nearing its final fit and finish and the processional driveway approach to the building was beginning to feel as dramatic as it should feel when one approaches the global headquarters of a business with over 7000 employees worldwide and $22 billion in assets.

For the project to be an overwhelming success, Nancy had one final detail to figure out. She needed to design and build an iconic entry feature to serve as the exclamation point of the processional driveway and to mark the transition from the outside to the inside of the headquarters. Having spent her life in the manufacturing and construction industries she knew that with the project slated to open in just 10 months she didn’t have any time to waste.

Erin Thorp, the Senior Construction Manager from CANA on ATCO Park recommended that Nancy hire Heavy to plan and build the entry feature. The two main drivers for this recommendation were that:

  1. Heavy has a lot of experience amplifying creative ideas and turning design intent into iconic public art and architecture
  2. Heavy has a much sought after Plan-Build process that allows Heavy to act as a central hub that connects resources and disciplines in overlapping project phases for fast delivery of unique construction projects

A common side effect of building a relationship with Heavy is that you will become more ambitious with your unique architectural and public art projects. That is exactly what happened with Nancy when she met with Heavy Industries’ President and Co-founder Ryan Bessant.

The conversation had begun with the idea of getting Heavy to build a globe to serve as the entry feature to the campus. However chemistry between the two Alberta leaders was strong and the mutual goal of building something really unique and spectacular took over. The pair soon realized that Nancy didn’t want a literal “globe” as much as she wanted to ensure that the design represented ATCO as something that is internationally significant (global).

While the team was excited to be tasked with designing and building something cooler than a globe, the end date of the project couldn’t change therefore in addition to a large scale build, Heavy also had to add a fairly comprehensive conceptual design process to the already tight schedule. What follows are three strategies that Heavy regularly uses within its Plan-Build framework to compress the schedule without taking unnecessary risks or shortcuts.

Strategy 1: Collaborate with Fantastic People

It’s one thing to have a process that allows you to deliver complex work quickly, it’s an entirely different thing to rigorously follow the process and to do so with such discipline that the benefits can be realized. The reality is that construction is a team sport and unless the entire team is committed to the process and the pace, it won’t be possible to deliver better than average results.

For the ATCO Park Icon Heavy connected with Studio North – a boutique interdisciplinary design firm, to help with the first milestone of creating an approved conceptual design. Studio North’s skillset was valuable for this project because their penchant for designing public art and iconic architecture meant that the ideas they brought to the table were well considered within the constraints of manufacturing. Heavy didn’t need to burn valuable time coaching the designers, the team’s creativity was amplified through a collaborative planning process.

To arrive at an approved concept quickly the team had to become possessed by the task at hand, it pushed aside all competing priorities and pursued only the ATCO Park concept with definiteness of purpose. To be efficient, the team embedded estimating as a central activity within the conceptual design process so that there was always confidence that any idea pursued would be possible within the time and budget constraints. By hiring Studio North, Heavy was able to deliver better quality concepts, earlier on in the schedule so that better work could be delivered in the same amount of time.

Another example of Heavy surrounding itself with fantastic people happened for the installation of the foundations. Earlier geotechnical reports suggested that the site might have some erratic sandstone below grade that could prevent a conventional foundation from being installed. To mitigate the risks this posed, Heavy immediately engaged a structural engineer, a geotechnical consultant and a skilled pile contractor so that when the challenges did present themselves, a highly skilled team was ready and waiting to tailor new solutions.

ATCO Icon, Paper Model

ATCO Icon, Paper Model

ATCO Icon, Cast Wall Model

ATCO Icon, Cast Wall Model

Strategy 2: Engage the client early and often

Heavy understands that while every effort can be made to make the process as efficient as possible, to actually realize those efficiencies, the approval and sign-off process must happen quickly as well. To ensure quick approvals, Heavy engages its project team early and often. In the case of ATCO park, Nancy saw multiple designs as they were being developed digitally and she was able to give frequent informal feedback to steer the design direction. When one concept really began to stand out, the team reprioritized all horsepower into producing material samples and fabricating the mockups necessary, providing Nancy with 100% certainty on what the outcome will be.

In Heavy’s experience, getting a quick sign-off can be easily accomplished if the process is well organized and feels like an event. Haphazardly couriered samples of different sizes and functions delivered over the course of a few weeks have a much different impact than a single concept presentation wherein everything is organized and presented in concert. Heavy takes a great deal of pride in its concept presentations and will often set up an area of the shop to function like an art gallery that showcases the proposed material palettes and mockups.

In the case of ATCO park, the concept presentation featured a full height 1:1 scale section of the eventual work, multiple concrete tiles with competing colour tones and textures and multiple wood varieties. The icing on the cake of the concept presentation was a fully assembled 3D paper model of the sculpture that allowed Nancy to see and experience the entire scope of the project.

It can be easy to get lazy and not put in the extra effort required for frequent engagement. The reality is that if you can get your client excited enough to deliver enthusiastic approvals, then waiting for critical approvals becomes non-existent. Furthermore, this type of engagement opens the door to add even more value to a project. Nancy saw the opportunity to add value and scaled her project up from its original vision and intent.

ATCO Icon, detailed view inside

ATCO Icon, detailed view inside

ATCO Icon, parallax arches

ATCO Icon, parallax arches


Strategy 3: Break the project into very small phases; bring in the right people at the right time

Heavy acknowledges that you can’t really save time by rushing, you can only save time by being efficient. For the ATCO Park Icon, Heavy had an unwavering installation date looming just 10 months away. Heavy knew that it had to be efficient because every additional week spent in pursuit of an early design or procurement related milestone would be one less week available for the project’s ultimate manufacturing and installation.

Being smart with milestone planning is important when overlapping design, procurement and construction activities. In the case of the ATCO Park Icon, instead of making large milestones like “completion of design development” or “completion of construction documents” Heavy instead made small milestones like “client sign-off on concept” and “calculation of live loads and dead loads of project”.

By making small specific milestones Heavy was able to bring on the subject matter experts it needed to perform very specific functions at very specific times. Having the right people in the room at the right time (and not wasting anyone’s time) allowed the project to move quickly and it encouraged a lot of engagement across the entire project team.

The result of making small phases and bringing on specific resources to accommodate each phase was that Heavy was able to purchase the required steel and to design, tender and install the concrete foundations before even the final shop drawings were complete. And it wasn’t about overbuying steel and overbuilding the foundations to accommodate any possibility, rather it was rooted in the discipline to finish each mini milestone as quickly and as accurately as possible without wasting time by completing other work that was not necessary for the milestone’s completion.

An added benefit to having smaller milestone goals is that when resources are added to the project, they don’t necessarily need to get lost in the entire magnitude of work but rather they can see and focus solely on the big picture of a small set of tasks. The devil is in the details and Heavy has learned that even the smallest nuances can have a big impact on a project down the road. It is important to weigh every facet against its potential risks and plan ahead. Furthermore, small goals that are accomplished early, and often, give the team many opportunities to feel momentum growing while celebrating multiple little victories.

ATCO Park Grand Opening

ATCO Park ribbon cutting and grand opening


The icon was installed over a snowy weekend in March and despite the short schedule, the project never felt like it was rushed. Beyond ATCO’s employees and partners from around the world who see the project as the cherry on top of a spectacular new headquarters, the icon has also become a popular destination for local photographers looking to capture the shape and the subtleties of its interaction with light and its environment.

Nancy loves the project and she is equally happy with the process that was delivered. When asked about the hands-on nature of Heavy’s Plan-Build process she stated (with a smile on her face) that: “to me this process was kind of like getting back to my roots, getting out of the office and actually feeling like I’m building something.”

Casey Hughes