What is “fast track” lab design?

“The term… promises efficacious and accelerated construction and we can all accept that time is money. But, is it reasonable to expect that fast track construction will always live up to these optimistic prospects?” – Arthur O’Leary FAIA (Fast Track Construction: Is It Too Good To Be True? Can It Really Deliver?)

Yep. Good question Arthur.

In my experience the answer is: sometimes. But to know how and to see some built examples, read on. 

Fast track is construction industry-speak for a procurement method to deliver projects in the shortest possible timeframe. The methodology can be applied to all building typologies but has particular implications for lab buildings. You may know it as design and construct or D&C.

Essentially the technique – if you could call it that – is to overlap the design and construction phases of a project to reduce the overall time, and therefore cost, of a project. The other primary benefit to the client is that they can move in earlier. There are of course other benefits, such as reducing risk, but that is the subject for another day.

Also, the term ‘fast track lab design’ should not to be confused with ‘lean laboratories’, although the concept of seeking cost and time efficiencies is common to both.

The methodology originated with contractors constructing primarily commercial or spec office buildings, however more recently it is being applied to more complex building types. And laboratory buildings have not escaped untouched.


Traditional programmes are fairly linear in nature with minimal overlaps (number of months indicated at top):

Traditional lab building programme
A traditional linear lab building programme

The architect designs and documents first, then the contractor constructs. What isn’t shown above is the full length (in months) of the construction period as it is contingent on  project size and complexity. In recent laboratory projects I’ve led, the construction phase has varied between 12 months to 30 months.

In a fast track situation, the various programme ‘streams’ or phases are overlapped and assume concurrent work on different phases:

Fast track lab design programme (based on my recently completed projects)
A fast track lab design programme (based on my recently completed projects)

You will notice immediately that several phases relating to the procurement phases are brought forward in the process; early works, tendering and most importantly, construction. The degree of overlap is the primary challenge for an architect as design is an iterative process so the relative luxury of revisiting things later in the design phase is often not possible.

Considerations in fast track lab design

Honing in on the specific impacts of overlapping design and construction that apply to the laboratory building typology, here are my key considerations:

Complexity. Labs are highly technical complex spaces with both specific servicing and spatial requirements. With compressed fast track timeframes; details can be missed, thorough coordination of services may not be complete and clashes arise.

Structure. Structural considerations (esp. loading and vibration) are paramount as over designed structures will result in more costly construction (eg. more concrete) and potentially take longer to construct than a more appropriate structural solution.

Equipment. Establishing allowances for major equipment or large instruments such as NMR or MRI need to be made early as possible in the process. Determining any potential future installations will allow the spaces to be appropriately master planned.

NMR quenching

End users. Unknown or changing user groups to those may ultimately occupy the labs. Consequently, there is a risk of providing a entirely generic lab that doesn’t actually suit any occupant. Modulate the lab design to meet the requirements of the immediate user consultation process and seek any further client input if the ultimate users of the spaces are unknown.

Flexibility. Understand the subtle differences and implications of flexibility /adaptability / convertibility / expandability. It is critical that adaptability (short timeframe operational changes) and convertibility (medium timeframe conversion of lab spaces to different functions) are understood as they will have the largest impact on a fast track delivery.

Experience. Ensuring that the Managing Contractor, and especially, subcontractor have experience and expertise in delivering complex, highly serviced fast track projects is fundamental.

Early works. Understand the value of early works as it almost mandatory in fast track projects, however, also appreciate the serious implications of digging before everything is known and/or the design is complete.

Early works piling

Value management. Carefully monitor the outcomes of any value management (VM) or value engineering (VE) sessions as items examined are often broad ranging but lacking in detail. Longer term consequences or interrelationships are not always clearly understood at the time, especially in relation to labs due to the complex servicing.

Right-size services. Monitor the information gathering and user review processes for the over provision of services or indeed, the under-provision of services. Both can have a massive impact on cost, construction delays and client/user satisfaction.

A laboratory service wing with quick-coupling gas outlets, local exhaust and power

Prototyping. Although time is always pressing for fast track projects, don’t cut corners for labs. They allow the client, architect, and contractors to assess. Ensure that the purpose of the lab prototype is clearly understood by all. Mock-ups of partial lab bench/services spines may be an alternative if cost and time does not permit full prototyping.

BIM. A lot of hype about the advantages of an integrated 3D model but the reality on lab projects that is still an evolving element across the wider team. Data interchange between operating system platforms and CAD software is fraught with issues.

A cutaway BIM model of the Tyree Energy Technologies Building (FJMT)

Document control. The production and distribution of information (drawings, reports, schedules etc.) is an ongoing task. With trade packaged documentation and partial documentation sets, monitoring document versioning is critical. Leverage the use of project management systems (eg. Aconex).

Lead time. Identify as early as possible in the design process any long lead time specialist materials, finishes or fitments that need to be procured for the project.

People. A result of a compressed timeframe is continued pressure on the individual team members. This can be stressful and lead to simple errors or oversights by experienced people. Expect errors and omissions but mitigate them by maintaining a multi-level quality checking system (self-check, buddy check, senior architect verification) for all drawings. Also ensure that team members take leave at regular intervals but not all at the same time!

The need for genuine collaboration

Under a fast track programme, a genuinely collaborative design and construction process is essential.

Soccer Practice
(woodleywonderworks via Flickr)

Evident in the most successful fast track research buildings is a collective team effort between client, architect, engineers, and contractor all swimming in the same direction. Strategic objectives are aligned.

However, it is a requirement of fast track lab design rather then a serendipitous event. The main reason is time. There is simply no time to waste on conflicting objectives, petty politics or hidden agendas. You just have to manage the level and type of collaboration within the project circumstances or boundaries.

Based on my experience in delivering  projects within these parameters, some suggestions for facilitating collaboration in fast track projects include:

  • Implement a tripartite strategy for dealing with issues; proactive (avoiding issues), reactive (trouble shooting) and collaborative (resolving issues).
  • Undertake an upfront design framework; collaborate with services engineers on broad strategies very early in the process
  • Likewise, when the time comes undertake detailed collaboration workshops with sub-contractors (final design, supply, installation).
  • Provide the architect with open and direct access to the client regardless of the engagement method. The ability to present and discuss person to person is essential to avoid anything ‘lost in translation’.

Armed with these strategies, the next time you are faced with a seemingly impossible programme for a laboratory building it hopefully won’t be so daunting.

This is an adapted version of my presentation at Science Industry Australia’s Laboratory Design Conference held in November 2013. Hope you enjoyed this article. If you did, leave me a comment below or send a message.