Building information modeling, commonly referred to as BIM, is a technology that has the potential to revolutionize the process of project design and construction. According to the president of the Mechanical Contractors Association of America, BIM is becoming a “growing factor” in how contractors do business in the U.S. BIM makes it possible to create three-dimensional, geometric computer models of a building that can then be navigated like a video game and updated on an ongoing basis. BIM models produce detailed electronic and hard-copy construction drawings that show a significant amount of detail. There are advantages and disadvantages to using BIM and it is important that contractors recognize the effect this technology may have on their work.
Advantages of BIM
- Visualization- BIM models are relatively easy to understand and show depth and elevation in a clear, visual way. On a non-BIM drawing, a contractor may not immediately understand how an entryway will look once it is completed. However, on a BIM model, the entryway appears on the computer screen in a way that mimics its finished look.
- Collaboration-BIM allows for unprecedented collaboration on design. BIM models give all contractors an opportunity to sit down together and work through issues before construction begins. This is especially useful in the case of “clashes” that can lead to the “stacking of trades” – areas where two different contractors plan to install material in the same space, sometimes at the same time. Instead of addressing clashes in the field, where resolution may require that one contractor remove and reinstall its materials or suffer delay, settling clashes on the BIM model means the resolution occurs before any work is done.
- Flexibility-With BIM, it is easy to make design changes. A change to the BIM model automatically updates all of the individual drawings that are affected by that change. For example, if a foyer is added to first floor on the BIM model, all the drawings showing the first floor will now also show the details necessary to build the foyer. Once the change is made to the BIM model, it is unnecessary to make manual changes. The designer simply needs to print new construction drawings.
Disadvantages of BIM
- Training and Software Costs-The use of BIM requires significant training and as with any software program there are costs associated with the software such as purchasing, licensing and training. A contractor may need to upgrade its computer system to effectively use the BIM software.
- More Work Upfront-BIM requires more effort at the outset of a project. When BIM is used, it is insufficient for a contractor to simply submit plans for its own work and then begin construction. The contractor must first sit down with the designer and other prime contractors and create the collaborative model.
- Disruptive- Although one of the advantages of using a BIM model is that changes can be made quickly, BIM can disrupt the general procurement and construction process when ordering items that require a long lead time. For example, a contractor may need to order material based on the dimensions of the design. Ordering this material may take weeks or months. If the dimensions change, as may occur when multiple contractors are inputting information into a model on a continual basis, the contractor may be left with insufficient time to order the material.
Legal Impact of BIM on Contractors
The use of BIM radically changes the relationship between the contractor and designer, and potentially increases the legal risk for contractors. In traditional projects the contractor typically has no significant involvement in the design process and must rely on the drawings provided by the designer. Accordingly, many jurisdictions permit contractors to sue a designer for professional negligence if there are errors and omissions in the design drawings. Because BIM allows contractors to be actively involved in the design process, it becomes more difficult for a contractor to successfully claim that it relied upon errors and omissions in a drawing.
BIM is still a relatively new technology, and there have not been many court cases addressing issues relating to errors and omissions on BIM projects. In jurisdictions where courts have allowed contractors to sue designers for professional negligence, it seems likely that courts will allow prime contractors to sue each other for errors and omissions on BIM projects. Given this risk, contractors should carefully examine all contracts on BIM projects to ensure that they are tailored to address the relationships and liabilities in a way that accounts for the unique aspects of a BIM project.