Pros and cons of fast-track project delivery
When done right, fast-track construction delivery methods can bring enormous benefits to the owner and the entire project team. They can significantly reduce the overall project design and construction schedule. Poor execution of a fast-track project will most certainly lead to problems, cost overruns, adversarial relationships and schedule delays.
The reason for selecting a fast-track delivery for a project is often because a fixed deadline exists that makes traditional delivery methods impossible. But there are also other reasons an owner may want to accelerate the schedule. Regardless of the ultimate reason, the methodology to ensure a successful project isn’t so obvious and can pose significant challenges to the entire project team.
How do you balance schedule, budget and quality? Below are key decisions and processes that should be understood by any owner contemplating fast-track delivery. Many of these ideas were instrumental in the successful, on time and on budget completion of our recent work at The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, a collaborative design partnership between Centerbrook Architects & Planners and Tsoi/Kobus & Associates.
Why go fast-track
In the post-recession period of the past four to five years, more and more owners insist on accelerated schedules. Institutions that needed to delay execution of important projects in 2008 to 2010 are pressured to “reel in” the delays, and fast-track is often the solution. Others see a competitive advantage in improving their speed-to-market to establish or increase their foothold in an emerging field. Finally, some are attempting to reduce escalation of construction costs in a now-growing market or eliminate the “lost profit” of uncompleted, revenue-generating facilities.
Select the right team
Every project needs a good team, but the fast-track process elevates the requirements for collaborative teamwork. The most important first step after deciding on a fast-track methodology is selecting experienced design and construction teammates committed to an integrated partnership.
Once the team is in place, owners must empower the core team to make quick decisions without reliance on external departments or unnecessary bureaucratic delay. It’s essential the owner is given adequate information to enable quick go/no-go decisions so the process keeps moving. The design and construction teams must have dedicated, “hands-on” personnel. They provide real-time feedback on design, cost and schedule issues as the project progresses.
John Fitzpatrick, PE, Senior Director, Facilities for the Jackson Laboratory, describes our recent collaboration: “Challenges throughout the fast-track multi-package CMR project were faced head on by the entire project team by quickly identifying issues, developing a range of potential solutions and quickly making a decision allowing progress to continue unimpeded.”
Especially on complex lab projects, delivery is only successful through a well-integrated team.
Prepare a solid schedule
In a fast-track process, the project team must recognize the schedule frequently drives the decision-making process. Designers must understand the schedule may limit design alternatives and material selections. Construction managers must be prepared to hire major subcontractors and vendors in non-traditional procurement options. In order to make these determinations, the project’s master schedule must include all key design deliverable dates, permitting review periods, procurement lead times and construction durations that drive the project’s critical path.
It’s essential that the construction manager expands and develops an extremely detailed schedule very early in the design process—often with little or no information—based on prior experience on similar fast-track projects. This schedule is then used to drive decisions, and the entire team must commit to meet or beat the required dates. During construction, knowledgeable design and owner representatives must commit to being at the project site, with the authority to make confident and timely decisions.
Keys to success:
- Reframe the instinctive fear of “speed” as a necessary and helpful boundary of creativity and innovation. There’s nothing quite like a looming deadline to focus a team’s efforts on a collective goal.
- Establish a working group of the entire owner/architect/contractor team early in the process. The owner team must be inclusive of both executive-level “strategic” thinkers and technically focused users to provide the breadth of perspective needed for quick decisions. In the absence of existing users for a future facility, select a group of “surrogates” to act on their behalf.
- Don’t sacrifice design quality. Fast projects need not be reduced to a rectangular box with no visual impact. It may help achieve the schedule, but likely will run counter to other equally important project goals.
- Make the design comfortable—not in the sense of color tones or soft furniture (which is always a good idea); but don’t be afraid to give extra space to above-ceiling utilities. Especially important in labs, a design that creates simple routing pathways for ductwork, piping, telecommunications and other systems can increase prefabrication possibilities and reduce unexpected coordination issues.
- Meet with the building authorities early and often in the process. Review the plan for phased permit approvals and inspection requirements.
- Engage a code consultant and review any complicated code issues that may require variances or code modifications. Review these issues in detail with the building authorities early in the design process.
Material and equipment selection
Constantly look for opportunities to expedite the procurement of all materials. If you don’t have it, you can’t install it. Store materials offsite well before they are needed. Seek out storage, lay-down or warehousing facilities nearby. Verify production of materials by reviewing production schedules and visiting manufacturing facilities in person. Never rely on sales personnel updates, verify with manufacturer’s production managers.
Work collectively to determine systems and materials—such as exterior skin—that minimize the number of on-site trades involved, maximize the possibilities of prefabrication and maintain the design ethos.
- Select local products when possible and avoid foreign products due to lengthy shipping and customs inspection times. This has the added benefit of also being an excellent sustainability strategy.
- Customize only in high-impact—visually, functionally or a combination of the two—areas. Intricate, complex details in back-of-house areas are easy targets for simplification.
- Avoid field measuring for long-lead items. Establish “build to dimensions” that incorporates tolerances for support materials, such as concrete or steel. This allows materials to be fabricated in advance of field construction.
- Identify the plan for phasing of separate bid and permitting packages early and get commitments from the entire team to meet this plan.
Create a Building Information Modeling (BIM) execution plan to maximize the use of BIM for coordination and prefabrication. It’s essential the design and construction team have experienced BIM managers in-house, rather than relying on outside vendors, consultants or subcontractors to run the coordination process.
- A well-coordinated BIM model helps eliminate conflicts and RFIs—changes typically not found until installation creates construction delays.
- BIM improves construction efficiencies and increases opportunities for prefabrication, thereby reducing jobsite installation times. By reducing the number of issues and conflicts through BIM coordination, subcontractors have confidence to prefabricate. Prefabrication results in improved quality, safer construction techniques, reduced field manpower requirements and faster assembly times in the field.
- Translate the coordinated BIM model directly into the field using digital layouts, such as “Total Station” devices, to precisely locate floor penetrations, sleeves, embeds, hangers and walls. This not only saves time in the field, it reduces conflicts by translating the fully coordinated information directly into the field.
- Bring key subcontractors and manufacturers—mechanical, electrical, curtainwall—onboard early in the design process. This can be handled in a truly competitive environment, while enabling the team to design and coordinate for the actual materials and equipment rather than theoretical “basis-of-design” products that may never be purchased or installed.
This key to success can’t go unstated: minimize changes. Review each change to determine if it’s absolutely critical to the project. Can it be done post-occupancy? If the change must be performed, it’s imperative the project operates an efficient, expeditious change order process to authorize work quickly. Once the work is authorized, a streamlined process must be in place to avoid any delay in payment to subcontractors.
With so many fast-track projects executed in the past few years, it’s easy to develop a skewed perspective that this is just the new norm and easy to accomplish. The necessary decisions and suggestions above help serve as a reminder of the complexities from inception through completion of any project, and demonstrate the importance of experienced, collaborative partners.
Steve Gurtel is a Senior Project manager with The Whiting-Turner Contracting Company. With over 16 years of experience, he focuses on delivery of highly complex facilities, serving clients in the S & T market. Stephen Palumbo, AIA, LEED AP (BD+C), is an Associate and Project Manager with Tsoi/Kobus and Associates, and has worked on numerous lab projects.