Chris Coward: The Italian Job – project management amid a pandemic

Chris Coward, Head of Project Management at BCS (Business Critical Solutions), the specialist services provider to the international digital infrastructure industry, shares his experiences of managing a project in Italy’s red zone during the Covid-19 pandemic.

When we were awarded the management of the construction of a 13,000 square foot 10-Megawatt datacentre facility in Italy last year, we knew it would be challenging but unsurprisingly none of us expected to what extent.

The project is located in Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region in Northern Italy, and is being funded by the regional Government. Despite being awarded ‘essential status’ by the Government, work on the project, which was at the civil engineering stage, halted on 13th March due to the Covid-19 pandemic which was particularly prevalent in the area. However, the site reopened just a few weeks later, one of only two in the country at the time, with strict new operating procedures designed to ensure the safety of the workforce. These measures which included social distancing, one way systems, increased sanitisation and staggered shift start and finish times. All this is now pretty standard at sites throughout the world, but this was at the beginning of the ‘new norm’ and there was no blueprint to follow.

Issues around getting the right number of workers onsite due to continuing restrictions on travel in the region and the rest of the world were challenging. And, as global supply chains pretty much ground to a halt, getting hold of many of the materials has been an ongoing daily challenge. The concrete and steel are sourced from the nearby Lombardy region, the heart of manufacturing in Italy, but in those early weeks as this region was one of those hardest hit by the virus we were subject to lengthy lead in periods and delivery restrictions.

However, the whole team has remained committed to getting this project done with a major focus is on keeping people safe. We are always conscious of the fact that one single case of Covid-19 will mean shutting down the entire site operation and so far, the additional measures onsite, such as temperature testing on arrival and face coverings, have ensured progress is maintained and there have been zero cases.

Over the summer months the onsite team has also had to overcome the extensive heat and have continued to work throughout the period when sites in Europe are traditionally closed for the holidays, all in order to recover the programme delay. The BCS team have spent much of the project remotely monitoring progress with regular video updates although we have recently managed to get back onto site for inspections, providing ‘face to face’ support and guidance to the client’s local representatives. The next project challenge will be the testing and commissioning stage. With further lockdowns imminent this will bring new challenges and a whole new approach with virtual witnessing during the commissioning and ultimately a virtual sign off at completion.

The good news is that thanks to an amazing team effort the project is back on track for completion in Q4.