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Fast-track construction becomes the norm
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Client, architect, and Construction manager must perform a delicate balancing act to shrink the construction process and save time and money.

By Barbara Knecht


Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s ARCHITECTURAL RECORD / AIA Continuing Education article.

1 LU/1 HSW

Learning Objective:
After reading this article, you will be able to:

1. Describe situations where fast-track construction is used.

2. Explain how fast tracking works.

3. List the advantages of fast-track construction.

This article is a companion piece to this month’s Digital Architect story. You must read both articles to answer the continuing education questions.

A Manhattan developer accelerates construction to accommodate a tenant displaced when the World Trade Center was destroyed on September 11. A Connecticut school needs a new dormitory ready for occupancy when students arrive. Researchers must be in their company’s new laboratory in order to beat the competition to market with a new product. A sports-apparel company, forced to vacate its leased facility, gives its architect a scant eight months to design its new headquarters. All these projects were fast tracked into existence because clients are increasingly unable and unwilling to accept the protracted schedule of conventional construction.

Photography: © Assassi Productions
The structural system for the 330-foot, curved-and-canted spine curtain wall was the most technically difficult problem NBBJ faced in designing the Reebok Headquarters.

Fast-track construction has been around for decades (see Digital Architect) and now, according to some industry associations, accounts for as much as 40 percent of building projects. Briefly stated, fast tracking compresses the project schedule by running design and construction phases simultaneously. For example, in a typical fast-track project, foundation and steel packages are purchased before the building layout is fixed. Design may run as little as a week ahead of construction, and myriad design decisions are made in the field.

Time is money

Paradoxically, while the decision to fast track a project is nearly always an economic one, the final costs are generally unknown during the process. For commercial owners, the potential for profit is worth the risk; whereas, for many not-for-profit and government owners it is essential to know the total cost going in, so that they do not pay too much for any one item. (This is often true even if they underpay for other items and the total cost is the same.) These kinds of assurances are unlikely to exist in a fast-track project. “I think it is safe to say, depending on the construction manager and the level of documentation, you may need to buy at a little more inflated price, but if you are saving time, you should be able to make it up on the interest on the construction loan and should be able to collect rent sooner [on a commercial building],” says Joe Aliotta, principal of New York–based Swanke Hayden Connell, who estimates that about a third of his firm’s work is fast tracked.

The usual way of controlling cost is to have a guaranteed maximum price given by the construction manager during the later phase of design development or early phase of construction documents that is based on a good understanding of the architectural intent. In the early stages, the architect has to anticipate and describe design elements not yet shown, while the construction manager will need to extrapolate potential costs based on experience, and both must communicate their assumptions to the owner. As the design progresses, it is the construction manager’s role to manage the costs. As the price of one item escalates, the cost of another will have to be reduced. Some contracts will carry a design contingency, which is likely to be consumed by the end of this phase. An experienced team with good communication skills will keep to the budget through construction. Still, it is a journey into uncertainty.

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