July 16, 2010

Team approach, risk sharing necessary to make most of BIM

Building Information Modeling is a powerful design and planning tool that can make construction speedier, more efficient, and reduce construction disputes, says James LeBer, a London Ontario-based litigation specialist and vice-president of the London and District Construction Association.

But for the technology to achieve its full potential, a fully integrated project delivery approach system has to be in place, he cautions.

Not only do computer software programs have to be compatible but all major project partners, including the design team architect, engineering sub-consultants, the contractor and the major subcontractors have to be equal partners.

If that co-operation can be achieved, they will be participating “in the most comprehensive partnering session one could devise. It’s like a practice run.”

“First they build it (the project) virtually. Then when they get to the field, they will be building it for a second time,” said LeBer, the guest presenter on BIM at a Toronto seminar.

While predicting that BIM integrated project delivery “will fundamentally change” the frequency and extent of design-error driven construction disputes, LeBer didn’t hold out the possibility such errors can be eliminated entirely.

And that, in turn, raises a whole set of questions such as whether a design error can be attributed to one person or the entire planning group. Other issues that need clarification include the appropriate allocation of risk and whether a contractor’s contribution might it expose them to design liability.

The answers to those questions should be found in the contract documents. However, while some standardized documents are under development and in use in the United States, they haven’t been published yet in Canada, he pointed out.

“We will have to tackle these issues. We need to do that without creating new and unrewarded risks.”

For example, he said that unanticipated poor soil conditions, which can lead to construction claims, are often encountered when new construction is tied in with existing buildings or where there is significant renovation.

As BIM is focused on new construction, the question of how these site conditions are managed and who assumes the risk has to be determined by the contract provisions, he said.

But BIM does offer the promise of a cost-effective and collaborative problem solving approach. Where integration of new construction with an existing building is required, laser surveys can capture and incorporate three-dimensional details into the model, he said.

LeBer said potential problems or deficiencies can often be detected by owners or their representatives by simply walking through the site — an exercise that can be significantly enhanced by “walking” through a BIM building model.

A major — and still not fully realized feature of BIM 3-D models — is a time component that can show a sequence of construction across time. With this application there is the prospect of significantly improving the pre-fabrication of some components and the schedule times of installation crews and trades, he said.

The audience was cautioned that BIM won’t eliminate poor workmanship. But the speaker took the position workers’ efforts to do good work are often thwarted by factors such as poor materials, improper tools, or difficult working conditions such as time, lighting and weather.

“When you consider these factors, again it can be argued that BIM will play a part in improving the incidence of construction deficiencies.”

In an interview following the seminar LeBer recalled the comments of an audience member, a retail facility owner/developer who has had a number of buildings designed with BIM.

“He thought they were more efficient.”

Still, the full potential of BIM won’t be realized until there is an equal division of risks and rewards by all members of the design and construction professions. “You don’t want too many free riders,” said LeBer, using the analogy of a steel fabricator who appreciates the fact a structural engineer delivers BIM-created drawings but doesn’t invest in its own BIM system.

He also suggested local construction associations should follow the lead of London, Ont., which last year became the first in the province to establish a BIM training centre.

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