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Teamwork sometimes awkward, but bottom line counts in business

Architects, engineers merge with fast-track construction

Architects and engineers have traditionally worked somewhat independently from each other. But marketplace demands have pushed the pairing of the two groups with fast-track construction.

“People want instant gratification,” said Jody Tidwell, director of business development for Philadelphia-based W. G. Yates & Sons Construction Co. “They want it built now. That’s just a sign of our times and society in general. It’s not going to change.”

Steve Davis, an architect and partner of Canizaro Cawthon Davis of Jackson, said fast-track construction is more difficult because assumptions have to be made before all the facts are known.

“There has to be enough flexibility to change the project once you’re into it, because you will wind up with revisions,” Davis said. “The client doesn’t always know what he wants when a project is started — the number of employees or the layout of the facility — and you have to be able to adapt.”

Fast-track construction may be more difficult for engineers, Davis said.

“They like clearly defined problems,” he said. “It’s a difficult task to come up with solutions that give enough flexibility to go in different directions.”

Nelson Douglass, an engineer and president of Cooke Douglass Farr Lemons/LTD Architects and Engineers in Jackson, said fast-track construction projects are challenging.

“You have to coordinate the architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical aspects all at one time, and you’ve got to make it work to the civil and landscape plan, and work in interior design all at the same time,” he said. “This is the way it’s mostly going to be done in the future. Almost every agency of the federal government already dictates it.”

Having teams of designers and engineers sometimes has its disadvantages, Douglass said.

“We recently lost a federal courthouse job in Biloxi,” he said. “We had a fine team of engineers and we had selected a world famous designer, but that designer wasn’t selected by the GSA, so consequently another team won.”

Technology has facilitated fast-track construction projects, but has also contributed to the blurring of lines between the roles of architects and engineers, with some overlapping of functions between the two groups.

“When you compress the construction cycle, from concept to finished product, it means there’s a lot of work that must go on simultaneously,” said Dr. Wayne Bennett, dean of the Mississippi State University School of Engineering. “It increases the need for coordination because ordinarily you’ll have several cycles. The architects will work on a plan. The engineers will take the output of that and work on it. Then they’ll get together and have discussions to work out problems. The architects will make changes. You go through that two or three iterations. What’s happening with fast-track construction is that architects and engineers are cutting down those two or three iterations and working in parallel. The engineers may be working on the HVAC system before they have the final details from the architects and it does require more collaborative work.”

Kathy Mangialardi, an architect with Dean and Dean/Associates Architects P.A. in Jackson, said fast-track construction projects are “a little riskier.”

“Even though you’re saving the client time and money, you’re not doing a full set of documents,” she said. “But as long as the integrity and quality of the facility are met, it’s OK.”

The upswing of fast-track construction? Saving time and money. The downside? Construction documents aren’t as sound; many on-site decisions are made.

“I know fast-track construction is the way society is moving, but I’d like to see the two aspects of the project kept separate,” she said. “The time spent with the clients in the initial stages in programming and schematic design keeps getting shorter. Those phases are being cut out, and in order to get a quality facility, you really need to spend time with the client to determine their needs.”

In most cases, architects and engineers work well together on compressed building schedules, said Judy Adams, executive director of The Consulting Engineers Council of Mississippi.

“The two groups have a real good working relationship,” she said.

But teamwork isn’t necessarily the biggest problem in fast-track construction. It’s the need for qualified professionals, Bennett said.

“We have not been able to supply the demand for engineers — especially civil engineers for consulting firms,” he said. “In many cases, some of our alums who own their own businesses call and say, ‘Wayne, I desperately need one, two, or three engineers.’ In many cases, they think I can walk out of the office, pick a student out, and say ‘you’re going to work for such-and-such,’ but of course, it doesn’t work that way.”

All said, fast-track construction is nothing new, said Tidwell.

“We’ve been doing it for 37 years now, and our success with fast-track projects has become one of our assets,” he said. “A prime example was when we fast-tracked Dudy Noble Field at MSU. We tore it down after the regional playoffs, and had the new stadium up before the next season. How many years ago was that? And all the casinos in Mississippi were built that way.”

Yates & Sons, which has no design department, works with various architects throughout the state and region, Tidwell said.

“It’s never been a problem,” he said. “Architects and engineers have worked side by side quite well to get a project delivered on time and to the customer’s satisfaction.”

Davis said fast-track construction is becoming commonplace on private projects, too.

“If the owner occupies a building six months early, the revenue increase more than makes up for the changes,” he said. “What if Nissan could begin production six months early? The extra cost would be more than worth it.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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