Even in a pandemic — perhaps especially in a pandemic — critical infrastructure construction projects must go on. As difficult as life-altering pandemic conditions are to manage, they would be even more so without reliable supplies of power, water and other basic services.

Some project delivery methods are better suited for these situations than others. The engineer-procure-construct (EPC) model offers a flexible and effective way for utilities to complete critical projects during and in the aftermath of a pandemic. Here are five quick reasons why:

  • EPC contracts allow utilities to transfer project risks. Under an EPC model, utilities transfer project execution to a single entity, while they remain focused on core business issues. Risk transference can be especially valuable to a utility in a pandemic, when budget and schedule management can present many of the biggest challenges. With EPC, the contractor assumes responsibility for managing the project's subcontractors, suppliers, contracts, purchase agreements, schedules and budgets, which can provide a utility extra peace of mind in an extended period of uncertainty. An EPC approach also enables utilities to spend their time keeping their core business moving amid major disruptions.
  • EPC contractors have technologies that allow work to continue without interruption. In recent years, EPC organizations like Burns & McDonnell have invested heavily in technologies that can now be used to support projects remotely. With our digital project management systems, for example, project information is accessible to EPC and Owner team members working from home. Wearable devices equipped with assisted reality applications, cameras and phones can be affixed to hard hats, enabling a single worker to obtain real-time video and audio of project site conditions for remote project team meetings, 3D modeling and other uses.   
  • EPC contractors have, or are quickly developing, policies and tools for managing project disruption caused by the coronavirus. When a project site is impacted by the coronavirus or is located in an emerging coronavirus hot spot, an experienced EPC contractor may be well-positioned to address fears, implement new safety protocols and cleaning procedures, or find replacement workers. EPC systems are flexible, with the ability to evolve to meet today’s rapidly changing conditions.
  • EPC contractors are experienced in managing disruption to the global supply chain. When countries go on lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, their ports shut down as well, impacting material and equipment shipments. EPC contractors with a global supplier network can react to these situations. Experienced firms are aware of global sourcing risks — even when the world is not the midst of a pandemic. It’s valuable in these times to have globally diverse suppliers and to consider domestic sources whenever possible for critical path items.
  • EPC contractors are skilled at managing the “what ifs.” Risk mitigation and management are fundamental skills of any EPC contractor with a track record of project success. While the risks associated with the coronavirus may take different forms than the ones EPC contractors have long faced, the processes for mitigating and managing these risks still apply. Just as importantly, EPC contractors are designed to be flexible and many could pivot quickly.

As our country and world moves through the stages of the current pandemic, new issues will undoubtedly arise. The EPC project delivery method is ready-made to address them.

Andy Jarvis is a senior vice president overseeing operations in the Transmission & Distribution Group at Burns & McDonnell. He participates in all aspects of EPC projects, including delivery methods, teaming structures, risk management, financial and technical performance, marketing, negotiations, staffing, and development of processes and procedures supporting the EPC project approach.