Techno World

The pressure on productivity from the recession has continued to the drive toward finding technologies that will help firms do more with less. "I'm seeing the fine-tuning of existing technologies that have the ability to pay dividends in both the design and construction processes. Easier-to-use tools that are more mobile, faster and cloud-based are changing the market," says Moos.

Younger designers are helping to drive much of the technology revolution. "The new generation of consulting professionals thinks in a different mode than the consultants of just 15 years ago. They think in terms of the 'technology insert,' " says Kurt Bergman, CEO, Michael Baker International. He says his firm encourages creative thought, lets them push new technology inserts and supports them with its application development team.

However, this increasing reliance on technology is reshaping the role of the designer in the project delivery process. "We continue to be involved in an increasing amount of design-build projects, integrated-project-delivery projects and projects with negotiated contracts with general contractors [that] come aboard during the design phase," says Devereaux of Harley Ellis Devereaux. "The conventional delivery method of design-bid-build seems to be diminishing."

Contracts Are Behind the Times

For many designers, building information modeling is a big advance in the construction process, but many worry it poses unforeseen legal or contractual snags. "The legal profession hasn't shifted [its] thinking to three-dimensional digital models yet but, rather, continue to draft contract language that focuses on contract documents as represented by two-dimensional sheets of drawings and the accompanying books of specifications," says Devereaux.

Devereaux says design content and specifications that exist only in the 3D model must be duplicated into separate 2D specification books, which is inefficient and could introduce the potential for errors. "We simply won't reap the full reward of increased efficiency from BIM until such time as [owners and contracts] accept the digital model as the primary conveyance of information," he says.

Another concern is the level of design detail that can be incorporated into a BIM model raises an expectation that designers will increase their level of design coordination of all these details, "of course, all within the same fee structure as when we designed in 2D," says Clay Seckman, senior principal at Smith Seckman Reid Inc. He says the best approach is to create buy-in on the level of detail and coordination in deliverables. Explaining responsibilities beforehand "seems to be more impactful to managing liability than having the right contract language," he notes.

Many designers urge the adoption of a common legal understanding of design standards in contracts. "The standard of care has to be reasonable, not perfection, because BIM will not result in perfect drawings," says Anjanette Bobrow, an attorney with Syska Hennessy Group Inc. She says owners need to understand that a contingency for construction coordination issues during construction is still going to be necessary. "Ownership of the BIM model is also an issue, so an electronic data transfer and use agreement should be utilized setting out how and who can use the model," she says.

"The contractual vehicles that facilitate the BIM process have not kept pace. Integrated-project-delivery methods and guiding concepts emerging from [American Institute of Architects'] contract documents begin to establish fair and reasonable expectations for those pursuing BIM as a process," says Charlie Williams, design director of information and technology at LPA Inc. "These methods and concepts need to be an integral part of contractual vehicles used by designers, builders and owners."

However, once the legal and contractual issues are ironed out, BIM could go a long way to avoiding disputes. "As we see BIM being used more and more, theoretically, there could be a decline in professional liability claims over the next few years because of the ability to discover design errors and omissions prior to the start of construction," Bobrow says.

Worried About a Lost Generation

The recession could not have come at a worse time for design-firm staffing purposes. At a time when many baby boomers are considering or entering retirement, industry firms were forced to lay off people, usually from the younger and less experienced staff members. Many of those laid off have left the industry, creating a lost generation of talent. Now that the market is beginning to turn around and more baby boomers are closer to retirement than they were in 2008, when the market cratered, demand for experienced staff and young people is becoming more urgent.

This has caused many design firms to worry about the future of the profession. "There is a dearth of professionals, and we expect a battle for talent for very few fresh graduates and also for mid- and senior-level engineers," says Mardam of Stanley Consultants. "We anticipate a shortage of project managers with solid and successful experience with integrated project delivery," says Keen of HDR. "We are putting an emphasis on providing our budding project managers with top-notch learning experiences."

But some design firms say now is the opportunity to put their best foot forward in recruiting young talent. "The drive to find, hire and retain top talent can't be viewed as an added burden in this rebounding economy. It is an opportunity for firms that can differentiate themselves and become a magnet for the best engineers," says Wasilewski of CDI Corp.