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Getting onto the digital fast track
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by Jerry Laiserin, FAIA

Continuing Education
This article is a companion piece to this month’s Building Science story. You must read both articles to answer the Continuing Education Questions.

Popular books about the computer and communication revolutions tend to focus on speed. They say the pace of business is accelerating to computers’ clock speeds, and that time-based competition will be so fast that everything merges into a blur. These trends may hold true for industries as diverse as financial services, entertainment, and medical diagnosis, but digital acceleration has not had as great an impact on the brick-and-mortar realities of design and construction. Entire generations of software and hardware can become obsolete during the time it takes to complete a project. Still, architects are learning to hitch their creaky design and project delivery wagons to the high-speed engines of digital technology to race onto the fast track.

What’s in a name?

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The term “fast track” is a spin-off from information technology. Studies conducted for the State University of New York during its multicampus building boom of the 1960s identified opportunities to compress project delivery cycles by overlapping activities that had typically been performed in rigid sequence. New computer-based project scheduling methods placed tasks in a network of dependencies—identifying activities that had to be complete before others could start. No project could move faster than the start-to-finish chain of dependencies known as the critical path (hence the name critical path method, or CPM). If knowledge is power and time is money, CPM represented a way to transmute project information directly into dollars.

Early devotees of construction management (C/M), recognizing that keeping projects on schedule depends as much on the flow of information as it does on available materials and labor, sought to manage information to get projects on an even faster completion schedule than the critical path itself dictated. For example, if a university building was programmed to contain 30 classrooms, information about the classroom doors could be used to preorder them and process the related submittals and shop drawings long before the “purchase doors” task came up in the CPM schedule. For architects, this type of fast- tracking often involved detailing and specifying components and assemblies within a building before the overall design was finalized. Con-versely, fast tracking also could entail dividing a project into bid packages that enabled the construction firm to pour foundations or erect steel while the architect was still designing interior partitions or casework. Either way, fast-track projects pose tricky problems for managing and coordinating information.

Need for speed

Images courtesy NBBJ
Firms like NBBJ rely on data-intensive 3D computer models throughout design and project delivery. The improvement in analysis and coordination of design and constructibility issues can compress project schedules by as much as 50 percent without compromising quality or design vision.

Architects started using computers to accelerate the production of project documents during the mid-1980s, and turned to Internet-based communication to facilitate project coordination in the mid-1990s. But progressive practitioners are using other types of digital tools to perform their work faster, quicken the transfer of project information to other members of the team, and shorten the time for consultants and contractors to turn around their work products to the architect.

Three-dimensional CAD models—sometimes called virtual buildings or parametric design systems—are intended to accelerate workflow through integrated data management and automated extraction of working drawings, schedules, bills of materials, and so forth. This can put better information into contractors’ hands earlier in the project, one of the hallmarks of fast tracking. Mark Robin, AIA, a Nashville sole practitioner who chairs the AIA’s Small Projects Forum (SPF), observes that 3D modeling programs “allow the designer to input countless details into the model and to simultaneously update and track information across multiple-linked drawing files.”

In a report to SPF, Robin notes that project collaboration networks such as Buzzsaw or e-Builder help shorten project schedules by eliminating the need to e-mail files to multiple consultants, and “instead, [collaborators] will be able to tap directly into the architectural model database via the Internet, adding and extracting their information as needed.” [Editor’s note: record publisher McGraw-Hill is an investor in e-Builder.] Small firms and solo practitioners have proven “more nimble and adaptable [than larger firms] in using technology to move in and out of these new relationships,” according to Richard Hayes, AIA, Director of the AIA’s Center for Integrated Practice, adding, “Small project practitioners also are more open to networking their specialized expertise in project collaborations across greater distances.” By leveraging technology to bring the most appropriate expertise to bear on each building, architects can further shorten project delivery cycles.

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