The form and substance of the construction industry has seen some radical changes in the first decade of this century. The use of public private partnerships or P3’s (see
Letter of the Law
, Spring 2010) to rebuild public infrastructure has spread from the United Kingdom to the four corners of the planet and becomes more popular with each passing project. The “greening” of the building industry has created a whole new industry within an industry through the United States and Canadian Green Building Councils, imposing new standards on the industry for becoming environmentally correct.
The use of alternate means to litigation for resolving construction disputes has become the norm rather than the exception. And now the way in which the industry will go about the business of designing its products is undergoing radical change with the introduction of Building Information Modelling or BIM (see
Letter of the Law
Taken together, these changes have made the industry more efficient, more productive, more environmentally friendly, less litigious and, perhaps most importantly, more attractive to the consumers of its products. But with these changes comes a cautionary note. Each of these developments comes with the risk of significant liabilities if participants in the industry are not familiar and skilled in their understanding and use of these new concepts.
BIM brings the construction industry into the digital age. The software is a powerful tool for the industry and is taking construct ion design to an entirely new level, bringing both significant advantages and risks. Properly managed, BIM will take the design aspects of the construction industry into a new era. Improperly managed, it will take the industry into new errors.
One of BIM’s prominent advantages (and of another new delivery model, Integrated Project Delivery or IPD) is to encourage more collaboration among those involved in the design and construction of a building. By sharing digital drawings at the outset of a project design consultants as well as builders and trades can resolve design problems early in the construction process rather than halfway to completion or, even worse, afterwards. Participants can share and review the base digital drawings of a project with each invited to make changes to the imagery to optimize design and construction solutions.
This element can certainly reduce the potential for conflicts between both the designers of various components of a project and between its design and construction aspects. The consequent outcomes should be fewer claims and projects completed on time and within budget. The completed buildings should be more functionally efficient for the owner and the occupants. Just as with the P 3 or IPD delivery models, BIM users can identify the root causes of potential problems before construction and eliminate them before they become vexatious.
This collaborative effort brings risks, however. Participating in a design decision can mean sharing responsibility for that decision with others. For example: if a builder suggests changes to the design of a building component and those changes are adopted in the final drawings produced under the seal of an architect or engineer, the designer will have effectively taken responsibility for them. The designer and builder will share culpability if the change proves defective. So “assumed responsibility for others” becomes a real risk for consultants. From the contractor’s perspective, this collaborative effort can entail exposure to claims for design errors and thereby place their general liability insurance coverage in peril (because it commonly excludes liability arising out of the provision of professional services). In response, the insurance industry will undoubtedly develop new products to deal with this situation.
Looking ahead, all those who plan to work collaboratively on a construction project from the design stage onwards should adjust their risk management strategies. First, they need to adopt appropriate standards for the use of BIM and identify the appropriate skill levels for personnel that use this software. They also should adjust their contracting practices to take account of responsibility in a shared setting. Finally, they should revisit their insurance programs to be certain they have coverage that is robust enough to protect the collaborative design process.
Another attractive feature of BIM for designers is its ability to plan “greener” buildings that are more energy efficient, produce less waste, and can meet the requisite Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard. As attractive as this feature is, it also layers new technologies on new technologies that are subject to evolving standards over time — success at meeting today’s standards may well not meet tomorrow’s.
LEED criteria have gone through a number of upgrades since their inception earlier this century. Products and design solutions meeting present standards are often new and may not live up to their announced advantages during a building’s life cycle. Using BIM software to analyze these “greening” components can result in conflict and design error. Again, responsible risk management would entail that all those working on a project are familiar with the “greening” industry as well as BIM.
BIM software enables contractors to prepare construction schedules by applying
4 D dimensional models and cost estimates by using 5 D modelling. As such, BIM offers a valuable tool to builders and trades for assembling their bids and making construction preparations. Assuming the information contained in the base digital model is accurate and complete, this should result in more accurate bidding and scheduling. In turn, there could be fewer procurement and scheduling claims that are frequently sources of contentious and expensive litigation.
As builders and trades place greater reliance on digital models prepared by design teams, the former may have more occasions to bring claims against the latter because of misinformation in the digital model (whether in a digital drawing itself or in the non-digital information resulting from the model). Recognizing this, design consultants must take appropriate steps to make sure the information they input is complete, accurate and up-to-date.
For fabricators BIM offers the opportunity to prepare more accurate shop drawings. They will be better able to understand the design concepts and limitations on other components of the building in which their products will be incorporated. Consequently, there should be fewer conflicts arising from differences between shop drawings and the base drawings for a project.
If this advantage is to be realized, employees in fabrication plants will have to become familiar with BIM and how to use it in conjunction with their company’s own software (which is often proprietary). In this instance too, a design team must ascertain that the information imparted in its digital model accurately represents the information that the fabricators will rely on. Moreover, BIM should not be a substitute for the usual cautionary notes that impose ultimate responsibility on fabricators for the design inherent in their shop drawings.
A BIM digital model should be a boon to those responsible for maintaining a facility over its life cycle. They will be able to refer to a wealth of information that can enable more efficient and cost-effective maintenance, a major cost component in any project. Again, however, this advantage brings new risks for the design team. Facility managers will rely on their digital models for decades so design teams face continued exposure to claims for incomplete, inaccurate, or out-of-date information. This indicates that the information in the digital model be as complete and comprehensive as possible.
BIM is expected to enable a design team to be more productive and therefore capable of generating enhanced margins. While this is admirable, it should not generate a mindset that improves the bottom line by simply producing drawings more quickly. Nor should this advantage lead to a sense of false security that the BIM model alleviates the need to take requisite care when making design decisions and producing the final model.
Hyperlinking information in the digital model requires special mention. Although hyperlinking to a product manufacturer’s information or product literature is undoubtedly useful (it certainly enables a better understanding of the building component and design intent), there is an attendant risk — by identifying the design literature on the digital model, a designer may be taken to have accepted responsibility for what appears in the product manufacturer’s literature. While a designer can always disclaim such responsibility, this would seem to defeat the purpose of providing hyperlinked information. In any case hyperlinking is more attractive than the practice of allowing a product manufacturer’s literature to simply repose in designers’ files and never come to the knowledge of trades, fabricators or facility managers.
As BIM evolves and gains wider acceptance in the Canadian construction industry, there will undoubtedly be adjustments in practices, of both risk management and contracting, by the industry. Many of the potential problems noted above will be appropriately managed. The need to properly handle BIM technology, and the multiple advantageous uses to which it will be put, mandates a major adjustment in risk management strategies by all participants in the industry.