Building Information Modeling (BIM) is rapidly changing the ways companies work together to design, build and operate projects. About half of the owners, design professionals and construction companies in North America are involved to some degree with BIM, and that number could pass three-quarters by 2015.1 Increasingly, fire protection engineers and trades are being asked to work in a BIM environment.

Getting Started in BIM for Fire Protection

Many fire protection companies began working in BIM by adapting their existing technology tools to try to fit the new way of working.


For example, add-on software is available for Auto CAD that can turn a 2D line into a 3D solid. This enables drawings where everything is elevated to the right height. This approach is not ideal, but it's workable. Another is a specialized fire protection software program called Autosprink that draws everything in 3D, calculates hydraulics and prepares a printout list or a file for fabricators.


Software also is available that can reference 2D drawings and trace them into BIM. The software Sprink CAD permits a direct integration into BIM that saves time and improves efficiency.


Current Level of BIM Usage for Fire Protection

Most fire protection companies are seeing an increase in BIM requests. Unfortunately, the economic downturn has reduced new construction and generated more renovations and upgrades, where BIM is not as prevalent. Anecdotally, BIM projects represent 15 percent of current work, up from about 3 percent three years ago.


How BIM Is Used for Fire Protection

The powerful spatial coordination capability of BIM (also known as clash detection') is the primary way projects involving multiple trades are taking advantage of BIM. Conventional coordination, done with transparent drawings on light tables and between crews in the field, yields mixed results. On a BIM project, the discipline-specific models produced by engineers and trades can be evaluated together as if they were in a single model by uploading them into specialized software programs, such as NavisWorks, Solibri or BIM Sight, that can read multiple file formats concurrently. This way, geometric conflicts between the models can be resolved virtually by the project participants before they create physical problems in the field. (see illustrations as an example)



This model-based approach to spatial coordination is quickly becoming standard practice. The trend is starting to create a disadvantage for trades that are not modeling their work. Some contractors have adopted the position that if any trades are not doing 3D modeling with the others, then the non-modeling trades will have to coordinate around the ones that do. This represents a potentially major change in the traditional pattern, which has always been sprinklers go around everybody else', because now if sprinklers have a layout that goes in the building model and HVAC doesn't, sprinklers take precedence.


As a result, fire protection contractors are being careful to implement software that works in the leading clash-detection programs. This software includes Autosprink, NavisWorks and the HydroCAD programs.


The use of BIM also is expanding beyond piping to include fire alarm control panels, pull stations, smoke detectors and many other elements of the total fire protection package. Fire alarm manufacturer Notifier got involved in creating BIM-compliant information about its products in response to demand from the marketplace for product information that could work in BIM.



The Notifier catalog of BIM content has been available for several months and appears to be getting attention from specifiers. This manufacturer is seeing double-digit monthly downloads from the various places they are making it available, which include, Autodesk Seek and the website. The company also has conducted presentations to more than 1,000 A/Es around the country to explain how BIM content helps the project process.


There is a growing demand for manufacturers to create content to support the full range of fire protection in BIM.


BIM is impacting design and craft labor as well. While 3D BIM is more design-intensive because it requires more steps, the extra work during design is more than compensated in the field benefits. For example, locating anchors in precast concrete that has been modeled can quickly recoup the cost of modeling through fewer field adjustments.


Increased prefabrication is one of the major reasons BIM is gaining such popularity among trade contractors across the United States, especially structural and MEP. Interestingly, this particular benefit has not impacted fire protection trades to the same degree because they have been extensively prefabricating for years.



As more construction industry firms begin adopting BIM, cultural challenges as well as technical ones present themselves. In general, people who started out in 2D have a harder time shifting to BIM because they are used to interpreting what they see in their mind's eye into 2D views on paper. For people with less experience using 2D views, the shift to BIM seems to be easier because they don't have to change an ingrained practice.


This gap creates opportunities for a growing number of outsourcing BIM service companies, many of whom routinely create comprehensive BIM models for project teams from a variety of 2D and BIM source materials. Often, existing staff do not have the time or expertise to shift quickly to BIM, so they find consultants who offer amore efficient way to make the transition.


Different owners also are implementing BIM to varying degrees, which impacts its effectiveness for fire protection contractors. Some building owners require all trades to extensively model, coordinate and prefabricate their work. Others are less stringent in their demands, so sometimes just a few of the trades model because the others do not have the capability. This reality limits the benefits of BIM because not all of the information is available in a BIM format for optimal coordination.



The Future of BIM in Fire Protection

BIM is deployed on some healthcare projects because of the critical requirement for trade coordination. For example, a new form of agreement called an Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) contract calls for the owner, architect and general contractor to all execute a single, joint agreement. This agreement establishes specific metrics for performance that will influence incentive compensation, waiving the right to litigate against each other. IPD is intended to create a true team approach, where the best interests of the project drive everyone's behavior rather than individual company priorities. As part of the process, all parties to the IPD agreement complete monthly surveys to rate each other's performance and identify any potential issues before they develop into problems.


This approach to fire protection in BIM is very comprehensive. Everything from sprinkler pipes, valves and fittings all the way down to fire alarms, dampers, sealants and caulking will be modeled in BIM. This will ultimately tie to the owner's facility management model.

For example, firewalls are very critical to track in a healthcare project. So, in the field, penetrations in fire walls can each be bar-coded, providing the owner a statement of conditions and an understanding of where all penetrations are located. That serves as an immediate indicator of the location along that fire wall, and allows the user to pull up what penetrations are in that area, pop a ceiling tile and then scan the penetration. The system will tell the user who installed it, when it was installed and what system it is.


After construction is complete, when a trade contractor comes in, the system will produce a work order before raising a ceiling tile and making a penetration. The contractor will take before-and-after photos and then scan them in so the owner will always know who, when and what assembly was installed. The benefit of this approach is expected to payoff in the many years of modifications that will take place above the ceiling in a facility.


Stephen A. Jones is with McGraw-Hill Construction.


  1. The Business Value of BIM, McGraw Hill Construction Smart Market Report, McGraw Hill, New York: 2009.