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Short project timelines force architects to keep pace.
AECOM's Long Beach Court Building.
Courtesy AECOM

In the final days of completing the Soto Building—the latest addition to the University of Southern California’s Health Sciences Campus—in time for school this month, carpet had to be remade due to a milling flaw, drywall was being installed and then repaired as furniture was delivered, and a small fire broke out after a welding torch malfunctioned. The 120,000-square-foot, three-story facility designed by AECOM made it in record time after beginning construction in August 2010. It will house the Keck School of Medicine’s Department of Preventive Medicine as well as offices, a fitness center, and a cafe.

This scene of pre-delivery pandemonium may be all too familiar to many architects. An environment born out of new financing structures and changing client expectations has project teams racing to meet design and construction deadlines that would have been unheard of a decade ago. How firms deal with this new world will determine their ability to sustain themselves in the future.

With six months or more being cut from some new project schedules, “it’s the time needed to let things sit and vet things out that’s being compromised,” said Carlos Madrid, the Soto project designer for AECOM. With the slow economy, most firms don’t have a choice but to say, “yes” to compressed timelines, no matter how demanding. “You cross your fingers and close your eyes,” said Madrid.

Though accelerated design and construction schedules leave architects in a frustrating position from a quality-control standpoint, they have big payoffs for building owners. The amount of money saved by purchasing lower-priced steel before drawings are done or landing a big tenant by being first to the market may far outweigh the costs of change orders resulting from hasty decision-making. “In all honesty, that might be the smartest thing you can do for the project,” said Rob Jernigan, principal and managing director of Gensler Los Angeles, of the financial risk-mitigating strategies many private sector clients are using to hedge against market volatility. “The good news is that through BIM models we’re getting more efficient, effective, and smarter about how to phase projects,” he added.

As more public-sector clients enter partnerships with private-sector entities, the pace of government projects is changing, too. “These days we’re doing more work on a public–private partnership basis, where time is money,” said LA-based AECOM principal Paul Danna. “Once a contract is awarded, the sooner the project can be completed, the greater the financial benefits to the team.”

Many eyes are on the firm’s Long Beach Court Building, the first civic building in the United States to be delivered through a public–private partnership. Under a performance-based infrastructure agreement, a consortium that includes AECOM will be responsible for financing, designing, building, operating, and maintaining the 500,000-square-foot building for 35 years. More common in Europe and Canada, the arrangement could hold promise for U.S. public buildings as well.

The courthouse began post-competition development in January, broke ground in May, and should be occupied by the fall of 2013. In this case, keeping a fast-paced construction schedule is in everyone’s best interest, even the architects’. “There is a heightened concern, awareness of quality, and thoughtfulness about maintenance that comes to bear because our team will be responsible for this period of time,” said Danna. “While it is adding pressure because of timing issues, the nature of the delivery method is in support of developing better-quality buildings for the long term.” Architects will know for sure in almost no time.

Jennifer K. Gorsche