New technologies can be a ‘risky field’ for builders

0 234 Technology

by Shannon Moneo

Construction is an industry built on unceasing innovation, which often pressures its major players to adopt the latest products, even before the goods or services have been proven to work.
New technologies can be a ‘risky field’ for builders

"New technology is always a risky field to venture into for consultants and builders," says John Singleton, managing partner at the Vancouver law firm Singleton Urquhart. "With new products or leading edge technologies, history has shown that without careful investigation, they may not work as told by the manufacturer."

Singleton, a lawyer since 1969, and a widely-recognized expert in construction law and professional liability, is one of three speakers at Buildex Vancouver's New Technologies, Products and Relationships: Risks and Rewards session on Feb. 24. Through his work on several precedent-setting cases, Singleton has found that a product which appears to perform well at first, can erupt into a huge problem three or four years later.

Singleton singled out asbestos, once touted for its fire protection and insulating capabilities. It has ended up costing Canadian companies millions of dollars to remove and replace the carcinogen. Singleton also spent many years working on B.C.'s leaky condo cases, discovering that the use of face-sealing products, which trapped warm air and moisture in the building envelope, contributed to the $2 billion fiasco.

More recently, the widespread adoption of green building practices has led to projects being marketed as being green when they are not. Certain technologies, like geothermal systems, don't function as promised. Or products, which earn LEED points, can cause problems, such as bad air quality, he explains.

As well, ratings, such as LEED, are transitory. Platinum LEED earned a decade ago, wouldn't qualify for the same standing today, Singleton says.

While not brand new, but slow to catch on in Canada, Building Information Modeling (BIM) is creating tensions within the construction industry because the process needs active involvement from a project's main players.

The flip side of having multiple input, is that liability is spread amongst several parties, so determining who is at fault becomes a challenge, Singleton says.

Jeff McLellan, vice-president for BFL Canada Insurance Services, and also a panellist at the session, agrees that novel systems such as BIM have proved challenging for the industry because each party looks to allocate risk and responsibility.

Typically, each project partner wants to blame someone else when things go wrong.

"In a traditional contract, they're looking out for their own best interests as opposed to the project's best interests," McLellan says.

But, when using BIM, the project team should be cohesive, should want the project to succeed and should avoid finger-pointing.

"BIM's not just technique. It's the whole process," says McLellan.

Because the construction industry normally operates in silos and doesn't unite to work on a project, it becomes crucial that a collaborative approach, and "philosophical buy-in" are adopted, a big shift for the industry, he says.

So, while the use of BIM requires a new approach and adds new costs to a project, such as training, there are long-term benefits, like the creation of a live model of the structure, which makes maintenance and renovation far easier, McLellan says. BIM is also tipping the scales of power on projects, says a member of the board of directors of the Canada BIM Council.

In the past, architects, who produced the many renderings for a project, held sway. Increasingly larger general contractors are grabbing the reins to take advantage of techniques like BIM, to mitigate risk, says Scott Chatterton, BIM manager with HDR/CEI Architecture Associates. Going almost hand-in-hand with BIM, is the Integrated Design Process (IDP).

IDP is being used to deal with problems and different interpretations of a project's progress. As with BIM, rather than doing their work independently, all the players get together to craft the project.

The grey area around IDP, related to its novelty, are questions about what happens when a project fails part-way through, Chatterton says.

From a liability standpoint the use of BIM and IDP represent the unknown because projects that have been completed using the systems haven't been around long.

"We're at the embryonic stage of what claims could be," says McLellan, who has worked in the insurance industry for almost 20 years, including three years in London, England.

Compounding the challenge is that the insurance industry is always playing catch-up when it comes to new technologies.

"We're always behind. It's, how quickly do we react?" McLellan says.

Related, is that changes in the construction industry are moving at warp speed, so it's difficult for all involved to stay abreast of crucial developments, Singleton adds. To mitigate risk, he advises that companies fully investigate new technologies or products, use skilled expertise for advice and don't rush to be a first adopter. "Don't use the product because of a glossy brochure," Singleton advises.

Chatterton says it's a trade-off. If companies don't adopt new techniques, they'll be left behind in a very competitive market.

Still, companies try new products, and if they don't work, will put them aside and move on, he adds. "When we're designing, we're conscious of new materials but if the client doesn't want to use it, it's back to the tried and true," Chatterton says.

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