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By: Gary Prather – Travelers

Building Information Modeling (BIM) promises to reshape the future design – and the way design professionals do business, but these basic risk management considerations should be taken into account to determine if BIM is right for you. To boldly go where no man has gone before. Such was the mission of the Starship Enterprise and its crew in the hit sci-fi TV series Star Trek. And such is the mission of the design technique known as Building Information Modeling (BIM).

BIM is a design method using computer technology to represent building components and systems, both functionally and graphically, and allows for the ongoing coordination among various parties. Design information for every aspect of the project is input into one database, so it can be accessed by various people. It also allows for additional drawings and information to be added to the database and enhances the coordination process, as it allows, for example, the architect’s drawings and shop drawings to be integrated into one coordinated model.

The result? When fully implemented, BIM will enable multiple users to collaborate in the design process. Indeed, BIM is on the mind of every owner, project/construction manager, and builder across the country. And while human transporters à la Star Trek are not yet a reality, BIM promises to reshape the face of future design.

How Does BIM Work?

BIM essentially leverages 3-Dimensional computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) by incorporating component-rich databases for all relevant design elements. Thus, rather than having only two-dimensional drawings to work from, designers and contractors can have access to all information, being able to readily flip through the models to glean information from the various designs. Through the collection and integration of all pertinent design information, a more coordinated, efficient, and error-free design process results.

As the use of this technology grows, 3-D BIM models should ultimately replace today’s plans and specifications, serve to streamline the cumbersome submittal process, and transform today’s solo-driven design-construction industry into a more collaborative process that benefits from the skills and expertise of all of the participants in the design process.

Is BIM The Way To Go?

As the design-construction industry grapples with cyber design, design professionals will face a barrage of questions about the new model. For example, designers may question how BIM will change the way they do business, and whether their instruments of service change from paper files to electronic media or from two-dimensional drawings to three-dimensional models.

Questions may also arise about what level of financial investment will be required in order to access the new technology and, perhaps more importantly, what the return/payback period for BIM will be. Designers will also want to know whether their liability risks are going to change, and if so, whether their insurance will also change in order to be consistent with their needs.

While there are more questions today than answers, before implementing BIM, design professionals need to consider some basic risk management ideas to determine if BIM is right for them. Some of those considerations include:

Process Changes – BIM requires new business models, hardware, software, and human capital. The costs and risks associated with the hardware and software investments may pale in comparison to those costs involved in hiring and training staff to manage BIM-driven project delivery. Younger design professionals will embrace BIM, while older, experienced staff will likely struggle with the move from CADD to BIM. Meanwhile, firm leadership will need to balance the cultural change to BIM to ensure the new technology does not replace practical design experience.

Management Practices – New business processes require new management practices. Managing BIM’s fluidity and blurred lines of authority and accountability demand more control and understanding of the technology driving the model. Project managers need to become skilled in all aspects of the firm’s selected BIM platform. CADD is a drawing tool that is relatively easy to manage without understanding the technology. BIM is a complex design tool that requires an in-depth understanding of the software to effectively manage and satisfy design accountability.

Contract Considerations – For the most part, professional associations are taking a wait-and-see approach to BIM. BIM-related service agreements, for the foreseeable future, will be authored by owners, design professionals, and their legal counsel. Design firms are cautioned against executing BIM agreements without first having their legal counsel and professional liability carrier review the agreements for insurability.

Going forward, the industry will develop a better appreciation of how the risks should be distributed among the design-construction team, including the owner, designer, contractor, subcontractors, and suppliers. To realize the potential benefits of BIM, the risks need to be shared equally, as information also needs to be shared.

Equal Considerations – Inputting a manufacturer’s proprietary software information into a BIM model has the potential of creating a closed specification. Designers need to use care in building the model so that the Building Information Model they use is not limited to a single source, unless an owner specifically requests this.

Software Warranties – Software manufacturers are careful not to over-promise or guarantee the adequacy of their products, which puts design professionals squarely at odds with the project owners who, in order to fully reap BIM’s benefits, want everyone on the project to have access to the BIM. Thus, the coordination process through BIM could mean the industry will struggle with this risk vs. reward debate until all parties work together to develop new contract forms that clearly address, assign, and share risk equitably.

Design Creep – The ease by which design changes in BIM can be made increases the risk of design and scope of services. Information, including design elements, is input into the BIM database, and the database interconnects elements of a building design. So when a change is made to one aspect of the design, for example, all related designs would be reconfigured accordingly. The urge to use BIM’s flexibility to make change upon change right up to and including bidding and construction must be aggressively managed and purposefully constrained. While making changes in BIM may be easy, budgets and design-construction schedules are not as pliable.

Blurring of Design Responsibility – BIM may make some design professionals uncomfortable and others downright fearful when it comes to affixing their seal to the design documents. What control over the design will be relinquished to the software providers, contractors, subcontractors, manufacturers, and suppliers? Where is the line between the designer-of-record and the other entities supplying input to the model? Can the designer-of-record demonstrate his/her control over the design without being a “BIM Expert”? Without adequate supervision, is BIM similar to the risks associated with off shore outsourcing? Until these questions are answered, the industry can expect that BIM models will be used as design tools, and the two-dimensional drawings and specifications will continue to serve as the contract documents that everyone relies upon.

A Higher Standard of Care? – BIM touts its ability to eliminate design conflicts, reduce errors, and limit omissions. But a question remains – will the use of BIM raise the standard of care? Will design professionals using BIM be held to a standard of care equal to perfection or something very close to it? It will be a long while before there is case law addressing these questions. In the short term, designers need to be proactive in defining and reinforcing the concept that the standard of care for BIM-delivered projects as being the same as the standard of care for conventionally-delivered designs.

Model Control & Maintenance – BIM project teams will need strong individuals to manage model input and changes. Controlling access to all the “pieces and parts” will be a daunting task. Updating and tracking model changes requires a sound document control protocol to assure all team players are using the most current version of the model. More challenging is assigning work packages that allow design teams to work independently as well as collaboratively while coordinating their efforts. The BIM gatekeeper must possess the technical and managerial skills to effectively control model inputs and outputs.

Sharing Model Data – Consultants, contractors, suppliers, and subcontractors all benefit from sharing project information. The very value of BIM is predicated on the electronic collaboration using the BIM model as the central depository for project data. Design professionals, when asked to provide BIM-related information, should require an executed disclaimer similar to those currently being used in conjunction with providing CADD files. There are simply too many unknowns today to settle for anything less.

As BIM technology advances and software reliability is tested under the fire of real world design-construction, more will be known about the quality of the BIM-generated information.

Software Compatibility – The International Alliance for Interoperability (IAI) is taking the lead in making design-construction software work in concert with each other. IAI is closing the gap, but there is much yet to be done. The risks associated with working across software boundaries will continue to be a concern for the foreseeable future.

The Devil Is In The Details – Managing the design process to allow for adequate detailing and quality assurance/control activities remain the biggest issues facing design professionals – BIM or no BIM. BIM is not a panacea for poor project management. Issuing construction documents without the proper attention to detail and quality reviews is almost always a function of budget and schedule failures that leave little or no time and money to do the job right. Sound project management, not BIM alone, will help solve this all too common problem. While BIM provides the promise of improved design coordination and fewer field conflicts, designers must still allocate the required resources to avoid problems.

The cornerstone of any design firm, whether CADD driven or committed to BIM, is well-trained people supported by good business practices, sound risk management, and visionary leadership. There is much more to be written about BIM, its revolutionary promises, its efficiencies, and its risks. BIM has the potential of changing the way we all do business.

Gary Prather is the director of Risk Management for the Architects and Engineers program at Travelers. He can be reached at 816.444.5065 or gprather@travelers.com. This article is used with permission by ArchNewsNow.com, see http://www.archnewsnow.com.  It is re-published here in ConstructionRisk.com Report, Vol. 9, No. 8.

Comment by K. Holland – Publisher:

I am pleased to be able to re-print this important article in this issue of the ConstructionRisk.com Report because it highlights key issues and urges the kind of caution I’ve been arguing for in discussions with design firms that are getting more involved with BIM.  There are significant new risks that need to be taken into consideration.   I believe that until new risk management techniques have been worked out and new contract language has been developed to allocate more of the risk to the project owner and other parties instead of leaving all the risk with the design firms, BIM poses a serious new risk to design firms and the insurance carriers that insure them.  At this early point in the adoption of BIM, insurance carriers may be wondering whether to assign additional costs and premium for design firms undertaking significant projects utilizing BIM.  This will be an ongoing discussion.   At the upcoming Construction SuperConference being held in San Francisco, December 12-14 there are three separate sessions addressing BIM.  Based on the speakers and the agenda for these sessions, this may be a good way to quickly get up to speed if you are interested in learning more about BIM and project management and risk management issues surrounding BIM.