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A Cautionary Digital Tale of Virtual Design and Construction

Insurance settlement related to a building information model shows that BIM without communication can be costly

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A lawsuit over construction of a life-sciences building at a major university stands as the first known claim related to the use of building information modeling by an architect. Furthermore, the claim and its settlement serve as a cautionary tale to others using BIM, says the insurer.

Renderings courtesy of Astorino
FIVE LEVELS OF DEVELOPMENT A manual of graphical standards to help clarify and standardize BIM contract deliverables is expected in about a year. Level 1 is Visualization.
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“The creators of BIM claim its use reduces risk, and indeed it can—like any other tool, if it is used right,” says Randy Lewis, vice president of loss prevention and client education at the Denver office of XL Insurance, which provides professional liability insurance to licensed design professionals. “If you don't use BIM correctly, you can get into trouble.”

For the life-sciences building, the architect and its mechanical-electrical-plumbing engineer used BIM to fit the building's MEP systems into the ceiling plenum. But the design team did not tell the contractor that the extremely tight fit, coordinated in the BIM, depended on a very specific installation sequence.

When the contractor was about 70% through assembly, it ran out of space in the plenum. “Everything fit in the model but not in reality,” says Lewis.

The contractor sued the owner, the owner sued the architect, and XL brought in the MEP engineer. “It was a very costly claim to negotiate,” says Lewis. XL did not litigate the claim because it would be difficult for any jury to comprehend.

Lewis declines to offer specifics on the project, other than to say the building is open. He also declines to name the players. As far as the settlement goes, he will only say there was a “pretty significant cost,” totaling millions of dollars, which was shared by the architect, the MEP engineer and the contractor.

The problem was poor communication. “The design team never discussed the installation sequence with the contractor, and the contractor wasn't sophisticated enough” to understand the importance of assembling the components in a certain order, says Lewis.

Insurers advise designers not to get involved in means, methods, safety and sequencing. But for this project, even though it was delivered under a traditional design-bid-build contract, it was not enough for the architect to say “I designed it, it fits, here you go contractor, figure it out,” says Lewis.

In the BIM world, parties are encouraged to communicate with each other and make suggestions, says Lewis. That did not happen on this project, he adds.

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