BIM and you: know its benefits and risks

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is coming, and as Lee Iaccoca (and many others, probably) put it, you'd better be prepared to lead, follow or get out of the way. What is BIM? A Building Information Model is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, and as such, it serves as a shared knowledge resource

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is coming, and as Lee Iaccoca (and many others, probably) put it, you'd better be prepared to lead, follow or get out of the way.

What is BIM? A Building Information Model is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, and as such, it serves as a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle from inception onward.

But just because an industry group defines BIM this way, doesn't mean that this is how people are using the term. Despite its use to describe any digital products, BIM is not just the use of computers and electronic data for construction. It is rare for a contractor with more than just a pick-up truck and ladder to not use computers. Computers are used for communication, accounting, estimating, project management and design. More and more plans are distributed in electronic form and take-offs are done with estimating software. I mean, pencil-and-calculator estimating is “so last century.” There are legal issues with all of this technology. You are probably stuck with that limited warranty on the shrink-wrapped CD, and it's your fault if you send in an electronic bid and it is filtered out. We pretty much have answers to the questions, knowing how they will come out.

A new ballgame

Unlike the technologies I mentioned above, which all generally stay within the control of the party using them, BIM is intended to be “collaborative.” It is the most inherent characteristic of BIM that the data not be retained and controlled by any one party. As Peter Arnesault, American Institute of Architects, National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, LEED AP, noted, in a recent Architectural Record article, the key to BIM's usefulness is the fact that it becomes a long-term shared resource for a building or facility from the earliest design conception through construction, during the years it is operated and maintained, through any alterations, additions and adaptive re-use, all the way through to the end of its useful operating life.

In order to do this, it is considered necessary that the contractors and suppliers introduce their data into the model. In the design phase, this can allow for three-dimensional modeling which, among other things, can identify conflicts among pipes, chases, ducts, beams, etc., allowing for much more efficient construction. In the construction phase, it requires all parties to continually provide their input as to changes, so that the model contains all as-built data.

But, as Arsenault notes, the model doesn't get wrapped up and put on a shelf once the project is built, only to be consulted if renovations are considered. It continues to be used, and modified, on an ongoing basis to record all maintenance and modifications. It is the life story of a project, contained in computerized form. It avoids the need to search out old information at a later date and format it for use with current data. All sounds pretty neat, right? Who could object to using BIM? What could be bad about collaboration and efficiency? You'd be surprised.

How much risk you may be taking on will depend on what the parties intend to do with BIM, and what kind of agreements they come up with. The most important questions a contractor can ask, then is, “What do you mean by BIM and how are you going to use the data?” At one end of the spectrum, BIM can be used merely to describe a three-dimensional view of the designer's creation. At the other end, BIM can facilitate a truly collaborative process where contractors, end-users, designers, etc., jointly develop a design.

You see, there is lots of room for the little legal demons to come out. The AIA and ConsensusDOCs both have developed documents for use in BIM projects and neither of them really wants to take a position on all this — they advise the users to come up with the right agreements. With nearly half of all contractors, engineers and architects using BIM (according to McGraw Hill Construction's 2009 Smart Market Report: The Business Value of BIM) it would seem as if we would want to get a handle on these risks sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, it takes several years for court cases to work their way through the system and result in reported decisions that we can rely on.

There needs to be a clear understanding of what the entire group means by the term BIM. In next month's article, I will go through the legal issues that need to be addressed.

Susan McGreevy is a partner at Stinson, Morrison, Hecker LLP, Kansas City, Mo., 816/842-4800, e-mail to [email protected].

TAGS: Law