Vancouver engineer’s career has been marked by risk-taking,
innovation and international recognition
Early in his engineering career, Paul Fast was mentored by a man whose example nourished his love for adventure and innovation.
Bogue Babicki, the engineer who designed a geodesic dome for Expo ’86, was challenged on his proposal. The design, he was told, had never been done before. “That’s exactly why I want to do it,’’ the man replied.
That attitude, Fast says, has influenced him throughout his professional life.
Forging new paths has led to many awards and international recognition for Fast’s firm, Vancouver-based Fast+Epp.
In 2021, Fast was awarded the gold medal by the Institute of Structural Engineers based in the UK. He is only the second Canadian, and one of only a few people outside of Europe, to win the prestigious honor since it was first awarded 100 years ago.
A citation read at the awards ceremony in London, England mentioned his “world leadership in the design of architecturally expressive structures that incorporate unconventional use of materials, including hybrids of wood, steel, and concrete.”
A career that Fast describes as “a wild ride, a real adventure” had humble beginnings. For the first 10 years, his work focused on stick frame buildings.
“I would have never thought that I would end up on the engineering world stage.” Success, he says, arrives as a result of “faithfully doing good work, and creative work in the small little projects you get, and then you don’t know what else will come your way by way of opportunity.”
From those beginnings, Fast+Epp has grown to a firm that has close to 150 employees in three countries. It has Canadian offices in Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary, US offices in Seattle and New York, and German offices in Darmstadt and Stuttgart.
For more than three decades, Fast has been the design lead on many of the firm’s most significant, award-winning projects.
- the Olympic (speed skating) Oval roof in Richmond, British Columbia;
- the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre;
- the 18-storey TallWood House at the University of British Columbia;
- the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
Fast had a 27-year partnership with colleague Gerald Epp, from 1987 until 2014. In 1997, the two men established StructureCraft, a separate company to manufacture high-end timber structures.
Epp quarterbacked that effort, which brought many of Fast+Epp’s ambitious timber projects to fruition. Eventually, it made sense to separate the two firms, and the men parted amicably.
Fast has become recognized as an expert in mass timber design and construction. He teaches courses on the subject at the University of Illinois.
In the 1990s, he got involved in projects that lent themselves to incorporating a timber component, instead of relying simply on concrete and steel. When his firm became involved in the design of rapid transit stations in Vancouver, he proposed using wood in the roofs of the SkyTrain stations.
The design of the 2010 Olympic Speed Skating Oval lent itself to another innovation. BC forests were being infested by pine beetles, causing many trees to die. The wood could be used for construction, provided it was used within two years.
The resulting structure, designed by Fast+Epp, was advertised as the largest hybrid steel and wood arches ever built. The project cost Fast sleepless nights along the way. He was told that if the arches didn’t collapse during construction, they would collapse immediately after being erected. “That was a mega risk, but we pulled it off.”
“In the end, everything worked out fine.”
Fast was grateful that the architect and city of Richmond “hung their necks out the window with us” on a risky, but ultimately rewarding design approach. “It got worldwide attention, too, not just because of the pine beetle wood that was employed, but the nature of the entire design.”
Without buy-in from the client and the architect, innovative design is not possible, he explained. Fast uses a classical music analogy to explain the decision making hierarchy in building projects. He refers to the architect as being the orchestra conductor, while the engineering firm plays second violin.
Textbook definitions suggest that architects are more responsible for how the building will look from the inside and the outside, while structural engineers focus more on the building’s stability and skeletal aspect.
Fast is inspired by the beauty of the natural world and has tried to bring that aesthetic sense to his firm’s projects. Achieving that goal has required sharing credit for the firm’s concepts.
“We have to make our ideas the architect’s ideas, because the design world, as you can appreciate, is not devoid of some significant egos. It’s just some tricky waters to navigate.”
Fast has learned to work well with many architects, including a family member. His oldest son is an architect. On some projects, “he’s my boss, and sometimes he is the one that whistles the tune, and I gotta jump.”
Fast has also had to persuade other industry partners about the value of mixing various materials in project design. “Everybody cooks their own soup,” he said by way of explanation.
Steel fabricators focus on metal, the carpentry world is good at making things with wood “and the twain rarely ever meet.”
“They don’t like to necessarily work together, but they are now increasingly doing so. And it’s great to see because then you get the best of both materials contributing their strengths, and their weaknesses.”
Gaining a foothold in the European market also required considerable perseverance on the part of Fast, who is fluent in German.
“That was a really steep uphill grind,” he recalls. “It’s just very difficult to start branch offices in that country.”
Even with a German partner, the venture took eight years to become cash flow positive, and several more years before the investment began to return profits. “It all worked out well. Now we have very good traction, we have a very good staff and we’re doing fine.”
One of the pleasant surprises arising from that journey was winning the contract to rehabilitate a historic pavilion in Mannheim, beating out international competitors.
Pleased as he is with the international recognition the firm has gained, he is equally grateful for the company’s culture. “I’m really satisfied that, once again with God’s help, that we’ve been able to establish a work environment where people want to be.”
“It’s one thing to be satisfied with projects, right? But it’s another thing to also have a staff here that loves to be together and with one another. That’s very gratifying.”
Fast and his wife have nine children. Several of their sons have followed Fast into related careers. One son, Tobias, has joined Fast+Epp. One of their twin boys works as a developer, and another in managing construction projects. Yet another son is a photographer who has captured the results of some of the Fast+Epp projects.
The Fasts have 20 grand- children, with another on the way. Paul Fast finds himself torn these days between the adventure of new projects and the desire to spend more time with his grandchildren, some of whom have already accompanied him on hiking or hunting trips in the BC wilderness.
Last year he took on two junior partners as part of the journey towards selling his ownership of the company. Fast+Epp also has a number of phantom shareholders, key staff who share in the profits and the equity growth of the firm without the liability or risks of being formal shareholders.
You can see more of Fast+Epp’s award-winning projects by visiting fastepp.com/firm/awards.