Canadian Consulting Engineer

GOING BEYOND: Structural Engineers Fast+Epp

In a low-rise building on West 1st Avenue in Vancouver, not far from artsy Granville Island, are the offices of Fast + Epp, structural engineers. In the same building, in an office behind, works one o...

January 1, 2001   By Bronwen Ledger

In a low-rise building on West 1st Avenue in Vancouver, not far from artsy Granville Island, are the offices of Fast + Epp, structural engineers. In the same building, in an office behind, works one of the greatest and best known architects of Canada — Arthur Erickson. The two firms make comfortable neighbours. Indeed, hearing Paul Fast, P.Eng. lovingly describe the lobby of the Fast + Epp offices, waxing lyric about its composite concrete and wood beam framing and its wafer-thin concrete reception counter, Fast begins to sound more like an architect every minute.

Fast started the firm in 1985 after spending two years designing Expo ’86 structures with one of the most innovative structural engineers in Vancouver, Bogue Babicki. Babicki is the engineer who designed, for example, the Westcoast Energy Building on West Georgia Street in 1969, an office tower which seems literally to hang from a concrete core by exposed steel cables. Fast was deeply impressed by Babicki’s daring inventiveness and expressive structures. He recalls Babicki one day talking to an expert from Texas who was questioning Babicki’s decision to hang a spiral staircase off a geodesic dome. The expert was cautioning Babicki that this “has never been done before.” According to Fast, Babicki looked the expert straight in the eye and said, “Well, that’s exactly why I want to do it.”

The partnership of Fast and Epp has taken a few leaves out of Babicki’s book, although up to now they have worked only on mid-size projects. Fast and his friend Gerald Epp, P. Eng. became business partners in 1987. The two had met in engineering school at the University of British Columbia. “I think what brought us together,” says Fast, “was that we both had a common interest in more innovative design.” They also had a lot of other traits in common. They were born in the same year, married the same year, graduated the same year, and were born and raised in B.C. (Fast is from Vancouver, Epp from Kitimat). Both have also fathered very large families. Fast has nine children, Epp eight.

Since graduating, Epp had also been working with some of the more imaginative local structural engineers. He had worked for C.Y. Loh, and also for Geiger Engineers on installations at Expo ’86, including the undulating and expressive “Highway 86.” Indeed, it was Fast and Epp’s shared experience at Expo ’86 that indirectly resulted in the birth of the partnership. In conjunction with architects Paul Bridger (now deceased) and Peter Busby, Fast had submitted a proposal to Ebco Aerospace to re-use some of the modular pavilions for an aerospace centre the company wanted to build in Delta, B.C. That plan didn’t appeal, but the owner was convinced to try a high-tech, exposed steel tension structure, a kind of building that had rarely been done in Canada before. When Fast got the 4,600m2 job, his first large commission, he needed help and decided to call in his friend.

That project, Fast says, “really got us launched.” Since then, they have become prized collaborators with many of Canada’s most gifted and award-winning architects. Well-known names on their list of clients are Busby & Associates, Patkau Architects, Bing Thom, Larry McFarland, Architectura, Peter Cardew, and Arthur Erickson himself.

Working for such designers allows Fast and Epp to work on highly unconventional buildings, buildings with irregular volumes, customized parts and careful detailing — projects like the Barnes House perched on a rock in B.C. by the Patkaus or the inventive atrium roof in the North Vancouver Municipal Hall by Busby & Associates. Most recently Fast and Epp have been exercising their creative skills on four of Vancouver’s new Skytrain stations.

Fast says one of these transportation projects, the Gilmore Station (with Busby & Associates) is, “as close to structural engineering heaven here on earth as you can get.” He goes on: “It really gives you a chance to flex your mind and come up with some different ideas and solutions, and to contribute to the appearance of the building.” He becomes excited when he talks about finding a new wood composite material called Timberstrand for one of the station’s roofs. They are pre-bowing and tensioning 64 of these large panels which will be dropped into place over the station. Epp is just as enthusiastic about his engineering designs. He begins a conversation by telling you what a great day he had at the weekend doing the post-tensioning for a bridge structure that spans a large courtyard and carries three storeys of concrete residences.

They consciously go beyond function into aesthetics. “The general requirement of engineers,” says Fast, “is that you produce a technically sound design that is in conformance with the codes, and which is economical and practical. We like to add the third dimension and say we also think it should be aesthetically sensitive and viable.” Obviously this kind of dedication sometimes means they spend extra time on projects, and that can reduce the project’s profitability for them. But Fast is sure the effort pays off through more referrals, and says that most of the architects appreciate that their approach takes more dedication, and pay accordingly. At any rate, the engineers seem to live well off their reputation. They employ 17 full-time staff, and as Gerald Epp says, “We haven’t had to do a huge amount of pounding the pavement for the last few years.”

New enterprises

What they have done, though, is branched out into two new construction ventures. A couple of years ago, the two partners took a hard look at their business and a hard look at the size of their families, and realized they had to create more opportunities within the firm.

With their characteristic inventiveness, they have started two design-build companies that may be unique. Fast is in charge of DesignBau, which operates in Germany. The company is introducing the North American wood-framing method of construction to a country that otherwise builds with screwed-together prefabricated panels or concrete block. Fast, who speaks German fluently, launched operations in 1997. They now have a permanent small crew designing and framing houses and small buildings near Dortmund. The company isn’t making a fortune yet, but he believes the European market of 600 million people represents a huge potential. The North American framing method is cheaper and quicker than the German approach, according to Fast, especially now that they bring lumber in from Sweden rather than trying to ship it over from Canada. The company’s long term goal is to design-build both standard wood frame structures and high-end timber-steel structures throughout Europe.

Epp’s business baby is a firm called StructureCraft Builders. This company operates from the Vancouver base and specializes in the design-building of unique structures — so far, mostly exposed timber and steel roofs. An example is the Vancouver Aquarium project that won a Canadian Consulting Engineering award this year, where StructureCraft built the unique pyramid roof and bow-mullioned windows over the aquarium. Other projects include a 15,000-s.f. space truss timber roof over a school in Washington State, and an exposed timber sales pavilion.

StructureCraft allows Epp to operate in the tradition of the master builder, which he enjoys. He likes the fact that he can talk to the architects about the design up front, and can encourage them to look at the buildability and economics of the structure before things go too far. And at the other end of the design process, the engineers also have more control because they can work on refining the detailing at the shop drawing stage rather than leaving things to the contractor. “I find that the construction process informs the engineering,” he says. “And by getting your two-bits worth in during the shop drawing stage you can come up with details that not only satisfy the architect, but are economical as well.”

With engineers who are so creative and dedicated to the craft and aesthetics of building, one can’t help wondering how they stay on good terms with architects — especially th
e award-winning kind who are often strong-minded individuals and like to control the design themselves. Fast admits that sometimes you have to be “sensitive” and have “patience,” but insists their goal is to walk in tandem with the architect and help them achieve great results.

What about at the end of the day when the architect stands up and receives most of the applause for the beauty of a building design, how do they feel then? Epp doesn’t see a conflict, pointing out that the great buildings where the structure has been expressed (Saarinen’s for example) have always involved a close collaboration between the two disciplines. “Good architects,” he says, “know that elegant structures have always been the domain of both the architect and the engineer.”


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