But innovation is no magic wand. For example, innovation has a complex and ambiguous relationship with the important matter of legal liability.
To take one side of that relationship, a new technology such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) can be useful in managing risk during the design and construction process, says Scott Chatterton, BIM and quality control manager with HDR | CEI Architecture Associates, Inc. in Vancouver.
"BIM provides more information than printed documents," he said. "But the traditional process is a constraint on the use of BIM, because designers are legally required to hand over printed, two-dimensional design documents."
Nevertheless, says Chatterton, some regional districts are asking for three-dimensional (3D) BIM designs.
"And some big contractors are taking 3D models and working from them, in addition to the required 2D models," he said.
Smaller contractors have been slow to adopt BIM, Chatterton says.
"By not adapting and embracing the new digital technologies, they risk being left behind," Chatterton said. "Fortunately, there is free software online which they can use to make 3D models. In addition, some construction associations offer BIM training."
BIM and other new technologies can help owners and contractors stay on top of complicated, fast-paced projects, says Chatterton.
"Buildings are becoming more and more complex and the timeline to push drawings out has been dramatically reduced," he said. "BIM and other software like it are useful for communicating the design intention of a project. Designers can walk their clients through a model and validate a design before construction begins."
But like the connection between innovation and legal liability has another, contrary side to it. In addition to managing risk and liability, innovation can increase the tension between them and it.
"It's important to be cautious," said John Singleton, managing partner with lawyers Singleton Urquhart in Vancouver. "There are solutions that might work in the lab, but not in the real world. When things go wrong on a project, somebody's left holding the bag and paying for it, because it always comes down to money."
Singleton cited the example of a now-discredited building material.
"When it first came in, asbestos was thought of as a cure for fire-proofing buildings," he said. "But later on its health risks were discovered and it cost trillions of dollars to replace."
Another example of misplaced optimism is face-sealed design, he says.
"It was introduced with great optimism, but was later found to not work in B.C."
The inherent tension between innovation and liability can put a damper on the speed at which new ways are adopted.
"New, innovative ways of working together are being picked up by the construction industry, but only slowly," said Seema Lal, of SHK Law Corporation in Vancouver. "Many contractors are not always sure who is legally responsible if there's a defect somewhere that needs to be corrected and an innovation in the design process might be responsible. And many designers, for their part, are very protective of their fields of expertise."
Despite the slow pace of innovation adoption in the Canadian construction industry, new technologies such as 3D printing and integrated design process (IDP) will become more accepted in the future.
"Collaboration is a good thing," she said. "Early clash detection enables owners to have a better idea of the project cost and how much space will be available for the general contractor to work in."
Lal says IDP will become more common as owners, especially in the public sector, come to see its benefits and insist on it.
"But it isn't something that most general contractors will suggest," she said. "The traditional way of delivering projects, such as design-build, is not going away soon."
Like Singleton, Jeff McLellan, vice-president, client executive, with BFL Canada Insurance Services Inc. in Vancouver, counsels caution in innovation adoption.
"It's important to pause and take the time to do things right," he said. "Nobody should charge ahead with something new, pretending they know what they're doing if they don't."
Still, caution should not become an excuse for timidity.
"In Canada it's the architects who are taking the lead with new technologies, while in the United Kingdom it's contractors," said McLellan. "Why are relatively few Canadian contractors adopting new technologies? In many cases it's just resistance to change."
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