Finished in a Flash

Finished in a Flash

Considering a fast-track construction plan? Here's a look at what crowding a project calendar will really cost a campus.

WHEN THE UNIVERSITY OF CENTRAL Florida's enrollment explosion more than double the number of students since President John Hitt’s arrival in 1992, the institution’s 5,000-seat arena wasn’t cutting it anymore. The student head count at UCF’s main campus in Orlando is now up to around 43,000. But despite assurances of the sort we see in the movies, when administrators began planning for a new arena a few years ago they knew it wasn’t as simple as just getting the project going and everything would be fine. For starters, points out CFO William F. Merck, such a project needed to be subsidized.

 

“We wrestled with it for a while, and the idea that surfaced was a town center, with multiple projects bundled into one big project that could cross-subsidize,” he says. Final plans called for housing with 2,000 beds, 80,000 square feet of retail, two 700-car parking garages, and a 10,000-seat stadium. The $314 million price tag had the potential of ballooning if the project team didn’t get cracking.

That’s why they opted for what architects and project managers call “fast-track construction”: a strategy that runs design and construction phases simultaneously. For UCF’s project, fast-track construction shaved off at least two years of the timetable. According to industry data, as many as 40 percent of building projects in this country go up under a fast-track schedule, and campus construction makes up a hefty portion of that percentage.

“It is absolutely a trend,” affirms Dara Colleary, a project manager with Consigli Construction who worked on creating a 25,000-square-foot library at Salem State College (Mass.) in just 24 weeks, ending four days ahead of schedule even at that fast clip. It was one of 25 fast-track projects on different campuses that the Milford, Mass.-based company took on in 2008.

The concept works so well that Michelle Waldon, the project architect from Boston-based ICON Architecture who was part of Salem State’s library project team, sees the lessons learned on such speedy timetables carrying over to improve more conventional construction sites as well. “I’m not saying you’ll take a two-year traditional project and cut it in half, because obviously that system has its processes,” she notes. “But the way you approach fast tracking from a management style, there’s no reason why you can’t take what we did at Salem and effectively manage it on a larger project.”

The drivers behind this popularity are intuitive. “When you’re trying to do a big project, you really do have to go fast because you make a lot of assumptions about your financial climate and the availability of the labor force,” Merck says. UCF’s addition sprung up in a mere four-and-a-half years, from the request for bids for design and construction in August 2003 to the opening of the final piece, the arena itself, in April 2008. “If it had taken us another two years, I’m not sure we would have finished given the current financial situation,” he adds.

Fast tracking also helps compensate for innate slowdowns that state universities in particular must endure. Take Mei Chang, a senior project manager at the University of Houston, for example. Before she could start gutting an existing building to build a communication and computing center, she first needed the board of regents’ approval for the plans, and then the Texas Higher Education Board, which only meets a few times a year, needed to sign off as well. “There are strict regulations that no work should begin without a contract,” she says. “And I cannot give them a contract and set them free to do the work without funds.” Nor could she work on the building while students were streaming in and out. Time-juggling alone made the fast track an attractive option.

Still, such fast-paced projects have likely hit their stride in this market, according to Fernando Brave, principal at Brave-Architecture in Houston. He has pulled off these schedules in increasing numbers during this decade but says, “I don’t see why there should be more. I think we have found a balance.”

Certainly Larry Roma knows a campus has its limits. As the associate vice president for facilities management at Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system, he simply couldn’t keep up if every project were on steroids. “We will probably handpick the specific projects that are most important to our president and senior administration as we move forward,” he says.

 

Fast tracking works better on renovation and interior projects, architects say, but this is by no means a limit. Binghamton currently is constructing a $66 million engineering and science building, complete with sophisticated labs and creative energy prototypes. “If anyone was going to question fast tracking a building, it would be this one,” Roma says. But the building’s importance to the university’s educational focus won out.

Cost is the next natural hurdle. Thanks to overtime pay, Brave estimates a fast-track project can carry a 10 to 40 percent higher price tag. When Binghamton built its downtown satellite campus, officials doubled the allotment of change orders from 5 percent to 10 percent to account for the rush job. Yet administrators who have been through it say the final number is rarely a heart-clutching moment; Binghamton wound up with just 2 percent in change orders, most likely because everyone was so focused on getting it right under the gun.

“It costs more when you lose control,” Roma notes. Indeed, in Brave’s experience the expense usually escalates when someone decides to accelerate the schedule in the middle of a project as opposed to planning it that way from the get-go. In UCF’s case, the university actually saved money on the residential towers because the team applied lessons learned on the first unit to subsequent ones in the chain. After all, not that much time had passed, so the knowledge was still front-of-mind.

Chang finds it helpful to build a good-sized contingency into her contracts to accommodate any details her team overlooked earlier or a fantastic idea that popped into someone’s head at the site. “It’s better to accommodate than sacrifice the project because the money isn’t available,” she says. Just be sure to read between the lines: This strategy offers less time to see the big picture and think about the ramifications of design approval, Brave points out.

“It’s a fact of life some projects need to be fast tracked. But if you don’t have to, I don’t know that I would advocate it,” Chang adds.

Job responsibilities and construction fundamentals remain exactly the same on a fast-track timetable, architects insist. What changes are the number of people on the team and the intensity required to focus. Chang appointed an on-site superintendent and an on-site inspector from the university to oversee quality, and she expected her contractors to do the same. “You don’t have time to miss something and go back to fix it,” she explains. For this reason, she also appointed a dedicated champion to participate on the computing center team. As the person who eventually will be responsible for that department, “he was there every day, giving additional requirements we didn’t think of, like boring a hole in the slab and bringing down the outlets, or making something freestanding instead of attached to the wall,” notes Chang.

Merck put together an administrative team that hunkered down in the trenches on a day-to-day basis and was available nearly 24/7 to meet with groups and answer questions. He also employed construction lawyers to go through volumes of contracts and documents—outside attorneys led by in-house counsel, investment bankers, and financial advisors. “You cannot expect other people to read your mind and know what you want to accomplish,” Merck says. “We must have worked a dozen different scenarios pretty fast.” Also, he hired a developer (KUD International in New York City), a step UCF eschews as an unnecessary layer in traditional construction projects. “It was crucial. If we’d tried to manage that big beehive of activity in-house, we would have struggled,” Merck admits.

Even the director of IT sat in on the Salem State College library project, and Waldon couldn’t have been happier. “I’d say probably 90 percent of those meetings we didn’t discuss anything that had anything to do with him,” she says. “But he knew that by the time we were done with the renovation work, he needed to plot the site to get in and start the wiring. It’s not about jumping in at the final hour and saying, ‘I’m ready to go now.’ It’s about anticipating opportunities to take advantage of ahead of time.”

The Consigli team applauded Salem’s detailed and accurate recordkeeping, which meant no one wasted time exploring for piping and ductwork in the building. But even more vital, experts say, is for universities to empower one decision-maker with the authority to say yes or no on their behalf at the drop of a hat. The questions that can arise are staggering and range from whether to hook the HVAC system to a computer center or to utility loads.

“As contractors, we can’t go back to groups of people to make a laundry list of decisions on urgent matters,” Waldon says. His group got input from all departments at weekly meetings, but “still needed that one person at the table who could talk to the constituents afterwards, and make decisions fast on changes.”

This responsibility, of course, also ramps up the communication skills needed to succeed. Merck and his colleagues were explaining the complex vision to everyone from the board of trustees to bond issuers in New York City, so all could closely examine the details. “It was a lot of presentations,” he emphasizes. “Before you turn that first spade of dirt, you have to be very clear on what your project is. Once you get started, you can’t accommodate a change in direction.”

That’s why the word “compromise” becomes the project watchword. It goes without saying that administrators must give up the luxury of leisurely approval times. At UCF, it meant Merck needed to take possession of a residence hall in January and let it sit empty for six months for the sake of keeping the rest of the complex on time. (Even with the subsequent operating costs, the construction savings on this timetable reduced the cost in the end, he says.)

At Binghamton, Roma’s campus office compromises by filling the role of architect of record, which means the university isn’t sharing its state funds with area businesses. To offset that unneighborly move, he reaches out to local firms for engineering consulting services. Binghamton officials also firmly support bonus clauses—instead of punishing contractors and their subs for missing a deadline, they dangle a monetary incentive to hit it.

 

With fast-track construction, architects certainly aren’t skating around on their side of the table either. In order to secure Chang’s business, Brave had to produce 95 percent of the drawings for the computer center before Chang had the funding. That’s a trust situation many firms won’t risk.

A construction company will also need to commit to more walkthroughs and an on-site presence many firms aren’t used to, all in the name of quality control, Colleary says. In Waldon’s experience architects won’t see much difference, but they need to understand that the intensity ramps up and that that often boils down to exclusivity. “When you have a team working on an accelerated build project, they need to be focused 100 percent on the project. They can’t be working on other things simultaneously, which is very common in our industry,” says Brave. “There is less upfront work and more work during construction. So during construction you are providing a lot more additional documentation than on a regular job,” he adds. “If you don’t know that as a designer, you’re in for a big surprise.”

Binghamton officials firmly support contracts with bonus clauses-instead of punishing contractors and their subs for missing a deadline, they dangle a monetary incentive to hit it.

He left out the word “ugly” in that sentence. And because it’s ultimately the university’s burden to make sure that word doesn’t apply to any part of a fast-track construction plan, choosing the right architect becomes paramount. Brave recommends asking bidders:

  • Have you done fast tracking before?
  • Can you do it again?
  • Do you enjoy these projects?
  • How, exactly, will you finish this project in our time frame?

And this can’t be stressed enough: Institutional leaders must be dedicated. “You have to have the key people absolutely committed to the project happening properly. Fast tracking can’t be one of those afterthoughts or an ‘I’ll take care of the details tomorrow’ thing,” warns Merck. “Just like anything else in life, when things start to accelerate, you’d better pay attention.”

Julie Sturgeon is a Greenwood, Ind.-based writer who frequently covers campus construction.


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