BIM-ing on uncertain foundations

30 August 2013

By Vincent Connor in Hong Kong

There’s a real buzz in the industry in Hong Kong about the potential benefits of Building Information Modelling (BIM) for employers, consultants and contractors. As a result BIM is now a frequent requirement on larger and more complex projects.

Yet, consultants and contractors do not consistently take these BIM obligations seriously. If they ever get round to reading the BIM part of their contracts, they often fail to think through the consequences of BIM.

Let’s look at a fictional example, loosely based on ongoing projects in Hong Kong.

The Railway Corp is building a new train line. Builders Inc won the contract to build an underground station on the line with the accompanying approach and exit tunnels. The contract is one of many interfacing packages on the project. There are also line-wide electrical and mechanical contracts which cross through all the stations along the line.

Builders Inc has to prepare a BIM model based on drawings given by Railway Corp’s consultants. It has to coordinate all other disciplines in the BIM Model and those of all interfacing contracts. Once prepared, the model has to be sent to the engineer for review. Builders Inc needs to tell the engineer of potential problems identified by the BIM Model and seek their clarification. All of this has to be done in three months. Easy right?

The truth is that in Hong Kong, most ‘Builders Incs’ have not taken the time to reflect on their BIM obligations or to consider what happens if they don’t comply with them.

For those few ‘Builders Incs’ who take their obligations seriously, there are a few key messages that they are starting to take on board as they integrate BIM into their way of working, and take on this new role alongside their existing role as contractor:

  • Losing the right to claim if a clash between elements of design isn’t identified by the BIM;

  • Expansion of scope and responsibility; and

  • Diffusion of responsibility.

Losing the Right to Claim

One area where awareness is starting to increase is the consequence of not complying with BIM obligations. It’s very common now for contracts in Hong Kong to require that the Contractor prepare the BIM within a few months of starting the job.

Once prepared, they are required to use it to raise queries with the Engineers / Employers usually regarding clashes which are shown to exist and/or aspects of incomplete design.

If it isn’t prepared and submitted within that time, then there is a consequence: the contractor may lose the right to claim either an extension of time or costs for any event which he should have foreseen using the BIM.

So, Builders Inc needs to take a close look at its BIM obligations under the contract, and understand not only what it has to do, but also understand what he has to lose.

Expanding Scope and Responsibility

This is one area where there isn’t a lot of awareness yet, but perhaps a sense of dawning recognition. Contractors are getting to grips with the idea that actually they have been asked to do two jobs: one as contractor (the one they expected to sign up for) and the second as BIM information manager (the one they didn’t).

The BIM manager’s job is to take charge of the virtual model and manage all the information that comes from the project team. This is often a very challenging job.

Most people think this is just a ‘technical’ job, involved with keeping computers running, inputting data, and running simulations. Yet this is to scratch the surface of this important role.

BIM requires a change to how work is done. To get that process started great care must be taken to ensure that all parties agree how the BIM is going to be used, how data is to be added and removed, and to ensure that the information is reliable.

This requires skilled and trained staff, delicate discussions between the parties and common (or at least interoperable) software used by all parties.

Builders Inc here usually avoid eye-contact when you explain this to them….

Diffusion of Responsibility

A little appreciated aspect of BIM is how much the model will change as the project continues, with the BIM being continually updated as clashes are dealt with, variations are issued, the consequences of variations identified and so on.

This means that accurate record keeping is needed to track changes. Yet, Consultants and Contractors, used to change management on paper, seem stumped when it comes to managing electronic changes.

Of course, the software provides a means to identify who made what change…but what happens when cumulative changes reveal an issue? Can it always be traced back down to what information was provided wrongly?

BIM in practice is having the effect of diffusing design responsibility and making it harder to allocate to any individual party involved in the increasingly-complex contractual matrix

Two ways to manage BIM risk

As a greater appreciation of BIM and its consequences grows in Hong Kong, especially amongst the many ‘Builder’s Incs’ realising what they’ve signed on for with The Railway Corp and other clients, smart contractors in Hong Kong are learning to keep an eye on two things when they deal with BIM:

Understand: They’re learning to read their BIM obligations carefully, including identifying the details of those obligations, checking for compliance and understanding the consequences of non-compliance. If they don’t have it themselves, they buy in the right specialised consultancy help, to deliver their BIM burdens.

Contract: They’re learning what kind of framework is needed to manage BIM risk. Most current contracts here provide an inadequate framework to manage BIM risks. There is slowly starting to blossom local awareness of additional protocols or BIM specifications which need to be in place before they can accept BIM obligations – or if they have no choice but to accept them (as is usually the case here), how they can sleep more comfortably knowing it’s being managed.

Vincent Connor is head of the Hong Kong office of law firm Pinsent Masons

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