A high-profile tenant is interested in a facility somewhere in a specific county. They will bring over 1,100 jobs initially (with expansion to 2,500+) to the local economy and name recognition within the commercial real estate market. What’s the catch? Their new, very large facility must be designed and permitted within four months, followed by 10 months of construction — an extremely fast-track schedule. If the owner/developer team can’t guarantee this schedule can be met, the deal is off, and the tenant will go elsewhere. How does one ensure that the project follows this aggressive timetable so that the user and those jobs come to the chosen county?
A fast track schedule brought a major tenant - PricewaterhouseCoopers - to MetWest International in Tampa’s Westshore Business District.
Using a fast-track methodology is a must in this case. Fast-track delivery is a method of implementation where various elements of both the design and construction phases overlap to expedite completion of the project. This approach is highly applicable to site development-related design and permitting, as this typically defines the critical path to the all-important “start construction” date. Particularly in commercial real estate, where move-in and occupancy dates are critical, fast-track design and construction can make the difference between obtaining a major tenant or missing out on an opportunity for the local economy. Going the fast-track route, however, comes with some challenges. These five tips can help.
- Complete your baseline work early. Early completion of baseline work (including geotechnical, traffic, survey, wetland, and cultural resource investigation) is essential to “jump start” the design process. Otherwise, design work is ineffective and weeks/months can be lost in the project schedule.
Robert Cunningham, a 35-year land survey veteran with Stantec, advises owners and developers to “release the survey early, as a part of the due diligence process, or immediately thereafter. The engineer’s hands are tied until the survey work is complete.” Cunningham says he is encountering more and more major site development delays because owners are not releasing the survey work early. “It’s becoming a major issue affecting project milestone deadlines and overall schedules,” he says.
Early release of all baseline work can present a significant financial exposure; however, that risk needs to be considered in context with the overall risk management program for the project since these costs typically represent less than 1 percent of the total project construction cost. Bottom line? Start your baseline work as quickly as possible; you’ll be glad you did.
- Go with a one size (almost) fits all approach. Projects with established prototype building designs lend themselves very well to fast-track development. The prototype design can be adapted to the site early in the process, ideally during the due diligence phase, allowing everything else to be accelerated (final site design, permitting, approvals, construction time). Many commercial/retail tenants have set move-in deadlines, keyed to occupancy dates or seasonal cycles. Prototypes are typically flexible and may adapt to different sites without substantial modifications. Therefore, reuse of a building design reduces design time because, in theory, the majority of design has already been completed.
Kent Walling, director of Operations–Central Florida for Taylor and Mathis of Florida, LLC, used a prototype for the MetWest International office project in Tampa’s Westshore Business District. “Our MetWest 2 tower was the same basic building design as MetWest 1. We just relocated the tower and saved significant design time,” he says. “Because we used a prototype design, a pad-ready site, and completed zoning beforehand, this project cut nine months off the schedule. This would have taken much longer on any other site and we could have lost a major tenant.” Due to the fast-track design, MetWest 2 was able to attract a significant occupant, a 240,000-square-foot, built-to-suit office for PricewaterhouseCoopers.
- Know your partners and communicate! Strategic and established relationships with local, state, and federal agencies are critical to any successful project. Most owners/developers rely particularly on their civil engineers to push a project along due to their understanding of local conditions and requirements. A good rule of thumb is to have your engineer solicit initial input from the regulatory authorities via informal reviews, before formal submittals. This can be mutually beneficial, and gives the team a feel for potential issues, scheduling objectives, and anticipated requirements. Also, holding regular and frequent meetings makes important dialog and decision-making easy.
“We see a fewer number of turn-arounds and steps in the review process when the consultant has taken the time to reach out to us before the process starts,” says Yolanda Triplett, Program Development supervisor with Orange County, Florida. “Our pre-review meetings allow the customer to establish a personal relationship and discover our expectations. It’s really an essential component to fast-track permitting any project.”
- Embrace — and manage — change. Although not ideal, a fast-track situation typically requires “locking in” a footprint and site plan very early, knowing or expecting there will be changes. This is particularly relevant to the civil/site engineering aspects of the project — given civil design is typically on the schedule’s critical path. The key is to manage the change process and not get caught off-guard when the architect moves a door, adds a service bay, or reconfigures a parking lot. It’s typical to have different versions of a site plan, particularly in the early phases. Direct the civil engineer to submit these plans early to get the site permitting process started. When plans are resubmitted, integrate these design evolutions and communicate (and document) these revisions with the project team. Even with the best of intentions, not all revisions or refinements will be accomplished in the design/permitting process; expect them to continue into the construction phase. Changes will happen, but stay on top of them and manage the process!
- Make decisions in real time. Establish a streamlined decision-making process and make sure you are focused on making timely project decisions to keep the design moving forward. Without clear direction and owner/developer approvals, the design team will not move at full speed.
Tampa’s Westshore Business District, mentioned above, is located in Hillsborough County, Florida, which has established fast-tracking procedures for projects. “Once applications are made, up-to-the-minute progress updates on the status of the review process are provided, thus allowing the designer to respond quickly and in real-time,” says Jim Ford, interim building official at Hillsborough County. “Our fast-track projects continue to be a success largely due to the attention to detail and unending communication of all members of the team, including the developers, designers, and tenants.”
Back to our opening scenario. This fast-track requirement was the case in Tampa Bay, and the project team made it work, following the tips above. The owner chose a consultant firm that they trusted and, working with the appropriate agencies, they cut the design and permitting time in half. The design documents produced were high quality because the designers already had the benefit of client direction and agency input, well before plan submittal deadlines.
Timely decisions, prototype design, pre-submittal meetings, and owner commitment were all key aspects in the Amazon.com Fulfillment Center project.
Constant communication was a key factor to the success of the project and included real-time collaboration between the owner, tenant, project developer, business park master developer, real estate brokers, architect, civil engineer, construction manager, attorney, and other team members. In the end, Tampa Bay will be the proud home of the new Amazon.com Fulfillment Center in Ruskin. The 1.1-million-square-foot facility is set to open this September after a tight, 13.5-month project schedule. The team’s ability to work together and secure this tenant will bring a net gain of 2,500 jobs (including permanent and seasonal once fully opened) to the local economy, a boost that could have been missed if the fast-track challenge wasn’t embraced.