In summer 2005, with two-and-a-half months to convert a nursing home to a 256-bed college residence hall, Philadelphia Biblical University, Langhorne, Pa., established a fast-track construction schedule. By finishing the project in time for it to house students that fall, the university was able to avoid the high cost of renting accommodations for students.
Putting a building project on a fast-track schedule is the exception in the construction industry, not the norm. But it can be the best approach when the value of finishing by a certain date outweighs the risks of compressing a project's timeframe.
Compared with a standard schedule, fast-track building increases the risks and challenges for both the education institution and the builder. Yet, in certain cases, it also increases the rewards. If an institution has something to gain by accelerating its construction project, it is important to learn what it means to “fast track,” assess the risks and costs, and then be sure it is feasible to do what is required to complete the project.
How it works
A standard construction-project schedule consists of an orderly sequence of events that offer the best chance for the desired result. Design documents are completed with as much detail as possible before orders are placed and construction begins. In a typical fast-track project, however, the ideal sequence is changed, with actual construction beginning while final design plans are still being drawn.
For example, a recent residence-hall renovation at Susquehanna University, Selinsgrove, Pa., was put on a five-month fast track. The university pre-ordered critical equipment and started construction before finishing the design, because the alternative of paying for off-site housing and transporting 150 students to campus each day was not a feasible option. The university chose the design-build construction delivery method primarily to accommodate its fast-track schedule.
Philadelphia Biblical used the construction-management approach. Both methods allow accelerated timeframes. The traditional design-bid-build method, however, cannot be “fast-tracked,” because it requires completing all design work before bidding begins. With any delivery method, however, stepping outside the standard sequence and timeframe inevitably increases project risks.
What are the risks?
When a project proceeds with a compressed construction schedule and changes the ideal sequence of events, it automatically increases the chances that something will go wrong, which in turn can bump up costs. Officials at Philadelphia Biblical estimated that the residence-hall project cost the university 10 percent more than it would have on a standard construction schedule. Without completing all the design details in the planning stages, it is more difficult to budget accurately, and schools can expect more change orders and, therefore, more expense.
Plus, pre-ordering materials and equipment sometimes results in extra storage costs if deliveries arrive before the installation date. And locking in orders early reduces the flexibility for changes later in the process that would be less costly to accommodate on a standard schedule.
For example, pre-ordering a rooftop heating and cooling unit also determines the electrical design needed for that unit, as well as the size and design of the steel beams that hold the unit and the building. In a worst-case scenario, an institution could later find it needs a different unit size, resulting in cancellations, re-orders, delays and additional costs.
For these reasons, even the best-managed fast-track project can be stressful.
The ability to finish a fast-track project on time without sacrificing quality comes down to the experience of the construction manager and the subcontractors' on-site supervisors. A good on-site supervisor can devise solutions and make the right decisions for unexpected challenges that arise. Timely material purchases and effective communication among the builder, engineers and architects increase the likelihood of success. Timely and clear communication among all team members requires that everyone is available consistently throughout a fast-track project.
Twomey is president of High Construction Company, Lancaster, Pa., a firm that specializes in design-build, general contracting and construction-management services.
Tips of the track
- Determine whether the cost benefits of accelerating the project's schedule outweigh the risks of fast-track construction.
- Choose the design-build or construction-management method for the fast-track project. Both involve the builder early, which enables the builder, designers and institution to address challenging schedule issues together from the start.
- Plan to be available for timely communication with the builder and designers. A fast-track timeframe will succeed only if each member of the construction team, including the education institution, can be reached easily when key decisions need to be made.
Percentage of additional costs that Philadelphia Biblical University, Langhorne, Pa., had to pay for its residence-hall project by using a fast-track schedule.