Time to Build


Building projects have a tendency to run over – just ask anybody who’s ever had an extension put on their house. But how does construction work run £390 million over budget, or a project take more than four years longer than the estimate to complete?

Take a look at the troubled histories behind some of the UK’s most famous buildings in this visual guide!

The projects

Scottish Parliament building

The building’s unusual design was conceived by Catalan architect Enric Moralles, who died during its construction. It was finished by his team, with input from his wife.

Top facts:

  • Has won nine major architectural awards to date
  • Built at the foot of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile
  • Became the first Scottish Parliament in 300 years

The Scottish Parliament building attracted controversy that caused delays from the earliest stages. The selected site, the decision to even construct one in the first place, changes in project managers halfway through construction, and the appointment of a non-Scottish architect who died during construction were among the reasons, but the main issues with the project, from beginning to end, were all about costs.

Original estimates of under £40 million were later completely dismissed, with a public enquiry in to the handling of the project reportedly amazed that it had even been suggested as a figure. Even initial costs of £109 million were unrealistic, with the final figure coming in at over £400 million.

The ever-increasing costs were caused by the need for archaeology work due to the building being constructed in a historic area of Edinburgh, changes in the brief that necessitated major space and design changes, the late inclusion of bomb-proofing, and rescheduling work in an attempt to complete the building sooner, which ironically only delayed things further.

The Shard

The tallest building in the European Union, with a two-floor penthouse apartment costing circa £50 million.

Top facts:

  • 95 storeys tall and contains 44 lifts
  • Covered by an area of glass equivalent to eight football pitches
  • Had 1,450 workers from 60 countries at the busiest point in its construction

The Shard’s budget had to be significantly increased when the full scale of the project was realised – it was the first time some ambitious construction techniques had been used for a building of such height.

These included a top-down construction approach that allowed work on both the sub- and superstructure to be carried out in unison, and a jump lift strategy that involved the construction of shafts and installation works taking place above an operational lift – the latter of which was used in Europe for the first time during the Shard’s construction.

Various issues delayed the project further. For example, if the wind became too strong at high level, construction to the upper floors had to stop until the weather died down. Even the busy central London traffic played a role, with 30-40% of lorries headed for the site arriving to the site late after getting caught.

Broadcasting House (refurbishment)

The renovation of Broadcasting House was the largest capital project ever undertaken by the BBC.

Top facts:

  • Original architect Richard MacCormac left the project partway through after a disagreement with the contractors
  • Contains 59 radio stations and six TV studios
  • The project was “rebased” in 2006, adding another four years to the timescale

The project to renovate Broadcasting House was completed incredibly late and well over budget, all under the scrutiny of very unhappy license fee payers, who failed to see the value for money that the £1bn project provided.

Blame for the mismanagement of the renovations was placed squarely upon the BBC itself, rather than the architects involved, not least in a critical report from the National Audit Office. The corporation’s lack of experience and expertise to assist the project team in delivering a successful conclusion was ‘without precedent’.

Contract variations, changes to the scope of the project and disputes over the facilities management of several BBC properties, including Broadcasting House, caused many of the delays and cost the BBC around £45m.

Wembley Stadium

Contractor Multiplex claimed for £253 million from engineering consultants Mott MacDonald, the largest construction claim in UK history.

Top facts:

  • Encloses 4 million cubic metres under its walls and roof – equivalent to 25,000 double-decker buses
  • The deepest of the piles that form the foundations were as deep as the Twin Towers were tall
  • Pitch uses a combination of real and synthetic grass to strengthen the playing surface

Completion of the new Wembley Stadium was initially planned for 2003, three years after the demolition of the old ground, but a series of difficulties meant that work did not begin until 2002 and was plagued by issues throughout construction.

The contract was awarded to one of the lowest bids, and the cost of the project rose by 36% between acceptance of the bid and signing the contract. That the final cost was £300 million over budget implies that the estimate of project costs was rather unrealistic.

The stadium’s distinctive arch design was responsible for multiple construction delays, as the arch itself was designed as a load-bearing structure to reduce the need for supports that would block internal views. A design of this kind was unprecedented, which meant it was impossible to provide a realistic estimate of timescales and costs.

Other setbacks included a steel rafter falling from the roof and causing workers to evacuate the stadium, sewers underneath the stadium buckling under the weight of the works and foundations of abandoned construction projects being unearthed whilst lowering the pitch. Multiplex, the firm contracted to build the stadium, missed multiple handover deadlines as the project dragged on.

Edinburgh tram system

Edinburgh City Council was forced to take out a loan to cover the cost of the project with over £200 million interest, so the total cost could be nearly £1 billion.

Top facts:

  • The tram network covers only half the area originally proposed
  • This also means the tram fleet ordered and paid for is twice the size that was eventually needed
  • Public confidence in the project fell so low that many believed an April Fools joke that its Spanish-made ticket machines would only accept Euros.

Edinburgh Trams took much longer than expected to get on the right track. Contractual disputes over funding led to delays that came to a head when Transport Initiative Edinburgh (TIE) filed legal action against the contracted builders, BSC, while construction was still ongoing. TIE objected to delays in the project caused by requests for additional funding, despite BSC having agreed to a fixed-price contract. BSC, on the other hand, alleged that TIE had not diverted underground utilities in time for track laying to begin.

Once funding increases were approved, they did not stop – by June 2010, costs had risen to over £600 million, leading Edinburgh Council to consider cancelling the contract with BSC. Instead, TIE was disbanded, leaving project management in the hands of independent consultants Turner & Townsend. While the new managers did bring the works back on schedule, Edinburgh Council voted for further expansions to the track, driving costs up even further.

Public perceptions of the project did not help matters, and additional costs came from giving in to requests for various groups – Lothian Buses, Edinburgh’s primary bus service, requested the introduction of ticket machines to reduce dwell times at stops, but were unpopular with the public so were scrapped in 2011, only to be replaced with newer versions in 2014. Cyclists voiced safety concerns, resulting in repairs, and Edinburgh Trams funding special cyclist training. This seems typical of the whole project, with poor planning in the early stages meaning all parties were constantly playing catch-up.


Top facts:

  • The full HS2 network will span 330 miles and could concrete an area the size of Manchester
  • More than half of the 140-mile route between London and Birmingham will be in cuttings or tunnels
  • Trains will run up to 400kph, making HS2 the fastest train network in Europe

Construction on HS2, a high speed rail network connecting London Euston with the Midlands, North of England and Central Belt of Scotland, has not even begun, but all the classic signs of a project beset by delays and cost increases are already in place.

A contentious political point, it took three years for a decision to be made as to whether HS2 would even proceed, finally getting the go-ahead in January 2012 – although plans could still be scrapped depending on the way the political tide turns. Various legal challenges have already been made to the project, primarily from wildlife groups who allege that the government has not carried out adequate environmental assessment of the impact of the network.

Projected costs have already risen to around £50 billion, with many estimates putting the final cost closer to £70-£80 billion – original costs have already been found to be entirely speculative. It’s possible that things will run smoothly for HS2 in the future, but it already doesn’t seem likely.