Technology and Transformation in Architecture

Integrating architectural services into a more collaborative design and construction process is transforming practice today. And younger architects are leading this transformation. Design creativity and instantaneous communications are two key characteristics of the youngest generation in the architecture profession. Rapid changes in technology provide transformational tools to enhance both creativity and communication.
3d rendering model construction site

New technological tools such as building information modeling (BIM) can produce significant benefits for architects and for the various other stakeholders in the construction process. These tools enable design firms, other construction-related professionals, and construction teams to better collaborate on the details of designs, explore constructability, and determine the sequences of construction. With better coordination and detection of conflicts in structures and systems, design firms can avoid many design deficiencies that show up when construction occurs—as well as the construction documentation problems that lead to delays and change orders during construction. The expectations of clients can be shaped digitally before a project is produced physically.

Design integration

Many construction firms recognize that they have much to gain from the budgeting, scheduling, means and methods opportunities intrinsic in BIM, and therefore are advancing far more rapidly into integrated design and construction than many design firms. The growth of integrated design-build entities is aided by changes in technology and client demand for more efficiency – and less litigation – in the project delivery process. Many traditional construction companies are evolving by adding architects in-house. In other situations, clients perceive the value of selecting contractors early in the creative process and creating contract vehicles to “team” independent design firms and construction entities into various levels of integration in the project delivery process.  In part, this is a reaction to the experience that many clients have had in contractor-led design-build where the client often loses a level of control of the design process because the architect is a subcontractor who must answer only to the design-builder on non-code design issues. This exchange of architect responsiveness for time and cost efficiencies does not always meet the needs of the client.

digital blueprint

The perils of subcontractors

Design firms, especially those that have served as prime design professionals, recognize that their preferred futures are not as subcontracted design participants in a developer or contractor -controlled design-build project delivery method. In order to avoid losing design control while in a subservient position on a design-build “team”, design firms may be put at risk by increasing their contractual liability exposure through “flow-down” and “skip-over” provisions. Often archaic state registration laws concentrate design exposure on the design firm, leading many to preserve their independence and financial viability through participating in a project-specific integrated project delivery process. But integrated project delivery (IPD), while preserving the independence of the architect, does not also preserve the independence of the design. Nor does it insulate the architect from professional liability exposures by replacing them with contractual liability exposures.

Confusing responsibilities

The movement toward using a collaborative system enabled by BIM and demanded by clients for efficiency presents challenges to traditional legal concepts and might create exposures not clearly covered by available insurance products. Young professionals need to be aware of how their legal status affects their insurance coverage, of the challenges presented when assuming a role as part of an integrated team, and how their cash flow changes when they have profits–or both assets and profits–at risk on in an integrated project delivery system. And if architects assume, through BIM protocols, the responsibility as the model manager, they need to recognize the security and productivity problems that could be created by any failure in the use of collaborative technology.

Insuring exposures

The production of cost-efficient, deadline-specific projects that meet regulatory requirements and expected quality levels has always been an aspiration of the construction industry. Now, because of technological advances, these goals may be more easily attained through an integrated practice methodology led by design professionals. Integrated practice, in which the bright line between design and construction is blurred, is facilitated through the use of building information modeling (BIM) technology. Certainly the use of BIM in a shared risk/reward project delivery system could mean fundamental changes for how design professionals practice, opening up new opportunities for service and reducing exposure to communication and documentation problems that now lead to so many professional liability claims. But it also could mean that many professional liability and general liability policies cannot respond to assumed exposures.

ipad blueprints

As the construction industry consolidates around the use of BIM, professionals may take the lead as project information integrators. Licensed professionals may be in the best position to control the overall process and create the database of design/procurement/construction information provided to or managed on behalf of the client. The options for a more specialized or focused role will likely also remain.

The coverage provided by professional liability insurance is fairly well-defined through policy language and court decisions. Coverage under the Victor and CNA program is broad and is essentially based on the question: ‘Was a cost, loss, or damage to another party the proximate result of negligent professional services by the policyholder?” While professional liability coverage is not meant to cover technology-based risks such as lost data, virus corruption, or general software glitches, it does cover broadly defined design services, regardless of the means of communication or the form of the instruments of service.
digital 3d city

Insuring a refabricated project team

As collaborative design efforts develop, non-licensed parties will increasingly provide design elements in the real-time database. Tracking responsibility for design input should still, however, be possible. While harm caused to other project stakeholders in an integrated project delivery system might be rectified through contractual remedies, the legal system requires that parties rectify harm caused by their negligence, and any party providing negligent design input should be liable if that negligence causes harm to others–including the client and end-users of the facility. Even now, contractors and others to whom design responsibility is distributed can be insured for their negligence in creating or furnishing design information through specialized project-based policies that can cover any IPD party providing design services.  Often, however, integrated project delivery places the coverage burden only on licensed design professionals.

Increasing exposure

Architecture firms that have moved toward integrated practice can provide enhanced professional services whether or not projects are delivered through an IPD system. As services are expanded, however, exposure to risk increases. In most cases, services such as visualization studies, cost analysis, energy audits, scheduling, and post-construction advisory and management services fall within the scope of CNA’s professional liability insurance coverage. The “integration consultant” role, focused on managing the BIM model, involves professional services but also includes exposures for security breaches and other technological risks that may be outside its scope.

Although the party responsible for administering the model is charged with providing and controlling the technical resources needed to enable connectivity, host the files, manage access, and ensure security, the increased use of information through electronic means creates exposures for all participants. For instance, while BIM will likely increase the quality of construction documents, the possibility of software errors cannot be eliminated. In addition, all firms could be harmed through security breaches that introduce viruses or worms into separate computer systems or that divulge confidential or proprietary information not meant for release.

Project teams should assess the potential of electronic data loss or software error whether due to viruses, software corruption, hardware failure, or system destruction such as by power surges, fire, or water damage. Appropriate precautions must be taken to reduce the risk through system backup, protection from unauthorized access, and protocols for project participants. These precautions will also reduce the likelihood that issues may arise from incompatible software, viruses, or other security breaches.

Fluidity in the profession

Working with a real-time, centralized project database creates a work environment of collaborative design. The process has the potential to transform design and construction and result in a refabrication of the project team and a significant change in how an architect provides services and how an architecture firm is structured. More than ever, architects must analyze their role on each project based on the technology used and the delivery system crafted for that project.  Younger architects need to realize that to stay in business–and to remain a professional–architects must embrace this instability and learn to adapt to client demands and technological changes.


Victor and CNA work with the AIA Trust to offer AIA members quality risk management coverage through the AIA Trust Professional Liability Insurance Program and Business Owners Program to address the challenges that architects face today and in the future. 

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