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Lea K. Schneider

When It Comes to Existing Buildings Projects, Prepare for the Unexpected

August 2019

Lea K. Schneider
Published in the OSB Construction Law Section Newsletter, August 2019

Building materials and labor costs are at or near all-time highs.  Consequently, a number of building owners and developers are looking to existing buildings to create growth opportunities at a cost savings.  Developers may look to existing buildings to adapt a space for a new tenant or upgrade an existing building to allow for more modern use. Rehabbing existing structures includes varying level of uncertainties.  This is particularly true in existing buildings, when what lies beneath the floor and within the walls can be a mystery.  Worse yet, prior building modifications frequently vary in approach, material and quality throughout the building

Building Information Modeling (BIM) has a number of benefits that improve coordination and efficiency.  BIM allows project teams to efficiently identify and resolve issues before work starts.  Ideally, the streamlined communication between design professionals and contractors reduces costs and litigation exposure.  As a result, it is no surprise the BIM use is the standard for large commercial projects.  However, even the best technology has its limits.  When a design professional's knowledge about the structure of an existing building or its systems is limited, designing and implementing adaptations or upgrades can be challenging.

Handling the difficulties that come with limited information needs to be addressed at the beginning of the project.  The design team and client need to set expectations and understand the project goal.  The goal of the project will determine the level of information needed.  Generally, minor aesthetic changes require less detailed information and documentation than projects that require more significant changes (e.g. installation of heavy machinery, moving or altering walls, replacement of mechanical, electrical, or plumbing systems, or incorporation of a fire protection system).

BIM models can be generated a number of ways.  A design professional can start by entering the available historical information into the BIM file.  If historical documents are unavailable or incomplete, laser scanning is one way to supplement information.  A laser scan provides architects, engineers, and contractors detailed information regarding volumes of spaces.  The scans can be used to generate the BIM model or be overlaid on the BIM model to help verify that the available information is accurate.

The BIM model is used to create the drawing set the contractor will use for construction.  When an architect or engineer does not know what is concealed within an existing structure, they are forced to model the unknown, which then produces drawing sets that reflect portions of the building that are known with certainty, along with portions that are merely an educated guess.  Thus, it is important for the owner, design professionals, and contractors to discuss and understand what is known and what is not.

Because the unforeseen is almost a guarantee in an existing building, it is incumbent upon design professionals to make sure the owner is allocating a sufficient contingency to allow for the necessary flexibility to address the complications that may arise, including asbestos abatement, existing code violations, or any number of complications that could not be determined from historical documents and the other information on hand.  (For the sake of the project, hopefully the discovery does not include 10,000 year-old mammoth bones like those discovered during a 2016 expansion project at Oregon State University's Reser Stadium).

It is critical that construction contracts involving existing buildings address how unexpected conditions will be addressed, how deviations from the BIM model will impact the project, and who is responsible for coordinating and maintaining the BIM model.  Further, open communication between the design team and owner is necessary to appropriately manage timelines and prepare everyone to expect the unexpected.

Contact Lea at lschneider@sussmanshank.com or (503) 972-4257.

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