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.
Whats in a name?
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 dependenciesidentifying
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
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 modelssometimes called virtual
buildings or parametric design systemsare 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 AIAs 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
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.
[Editors 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 AIAs
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