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Business

Construction mishaps 'Made in Germany'

Skyrocketing costs, delays - and then there's botched work. A lot is going wrong on German construction sites. Are Germans no longer as meticulous and thorough as their reputation suggests?

Germans are hard-working, punctual and industrious - they have the reputation of being able to achieve whatever they set their minds to. However, in many large-scale projects in Germany, one can find unexpected problems: delays, cost explosions, botched work, embezzlement and corruption.

One example of this is Berlin's central train station. Originally estimated at 300 million euros, the structure ended up costing 1.2 billion euros. Currently under fire is planning for the Willy Brandt Airport in Berlin-Brandenburg, the completion of which has been repeatedly been postponed, leading to ever-increasing costs. According to media reports, construction of the airport is now estimated at 4.3 billion euros - 50 percent more than originally budgeted.

Doing the math

Peter Tzeschlock, chairman at the international building consulting agency Drees and Sommer, believes that calculation errors are not the cause of the mishaps. He puts forth one main reason as that commissions have been awarded over the past few years to individual instead of general contractors, particularly for large-scale projects. This has forced building owners into coordinating all interfaces between the contractors by themselves, Tzeschlock said.

"As long as the client can manage this, he can reduce costs by up to 30 percent," Tzeschlock said. With large-scale projects valued at hundreds of millions of euros, this could amount to a huge savings potential. But the building owner also bears more responsibility - when something goes wrong, it can usually be traced back to some mistake made in these interfaces.

Graphic showing the Elbphilharmonie concert call.

The Elbphilharmonie in Hamburg has had problems even before construction began - due to safety disagreements over the roof, work has stalled since November 2011

Quote low, charge high

But according to Volker Cornelius, chairman of the German Association of Consulting Engineers, change requests made during the construction phase may also drive up costs. Those changes not only cost time, but also cause clients to sometimes pay more than necessary: "You realize that construction firms try to come up with all sorts of ideas to make up for the low costs stated in the original calculation," Cornelius said.

Companies originally quote very low because commissions are put out to tender. While public clients may be obliged to select the "most economical" bid, it is in fact the cheapest offer that typically gets chosen, Cornelius said. Otherwise, the authorities involved are obliged to extensively justify why they chose the more expensive bid.

Franz-Josef Schlapka, professor at the University of Applied Sciences in Neubrandenburg, believes that construction firms deliberately set costs too low in order to win the tender. "If they stated the actual costs, then the project would probably end up being rejected," he said. And those who want the project completed often prefer to not reveal all costs known to them.

According to Tzeschlok, changes not only increase costs, but they also carry other risks. For instance, shortly before deadlines, constructions companies tend to work faster in order to avoid postponement and stay on schedule. "What comes out in the end is botched work. You try your best to meet a deadline, but it's not really possible," Tzeschlok said. Which results in lower quality, he added.

Rescuers stand on top of the ruins of the city archives in Cologne.

Deadly consequences: The collapse of the historical city archives in Cologne claimed two lives

Reputation abroad

In some cases, botched work can also be criminal. The historical archives of the city of Cologne collapsed in 2009, leading to the deaths of two people. It is believed that contractors used inappropriate materials while constructing a subway line underneath the building, which caused it to cave in.

But despite such negative examples - cost increases, delays and even crime - the German construction industry still enjoys a good reputation abroad, said Tzeschlock.

Tzeschlock said corruption in Germany occurs on such a small scale, that it's barely perceived abroad. "We've never been asked about it while travelling abroad - and we sure travel a lot," he stated.

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