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Building Information Modeling and FPE
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Issue 58: Building Information Modeling and FPE

By James P. Begley, P.E.

Imagine a design tool that automatically informs the designer where panic hardware is needed along an egress path or when a combination fire/smoke damper is needed in a ductwork penetration. Such a tool would seem farfetched; however, this future may not be too far away.


Building Information Modeling – more commonly known as "BIM" – is the current technology du jour in the building design and construction community. SFPE recently published a "Position Statement" that explored the current state of BIM implementation in the fire protection engineering community and provided direction to the industry for future needs for further implementation and increased efficacy.

This article summarizes the key points of the position statement and the status of BIM in the fire protection engineering community. As both the technology and its use are quickly evolving, it is important to understand what BIM is, what its current capabilities are and, maybe most importantly, what the future may bring.

What is BIM?

BIM is essentially an interactive electronic database that allows the categorization of enormous amounts of information applicable to particular building components. Individual building components are assigned attributes in a database, resulting in a population of data that can be referenced during the design phase until long after building occupancy.

Most design professionals are familiar with the three-dimensional (3D) design capabilities of BIM. The benefits of these capabilities are twofold: an increased ability to demonstrate a visual building representation to the client during the design process while offering clash detection capabilities.

While 3D building representations are common as an artistic conceptual design tool, BIM portrays the actual design in three dimensions. This is beneficial in providing both the client and design team actual building design visualization.

An offshoot of this representation affords BIM unparalleled design phase conflict resolution. Where building utilities overlay one another in a 2D plan, a 3D model demonstrates the actual spatial location for increased coordination and clash detection. With 2D designs, this coordination occurs more often than not during construction based upon as-built installations, resulting in project delays and cost increases. With 3D modeling, design teams are able to identify conflicts in advance of construction.

As beneficial as BIM’s 3D output is, its database capabilities are even more powerful. The ability to assign component characteristics allows both designers and building users the ability to access more facility information from a single source. For instance, if one were to click on a backflow preventer, one could see its model number, date of installation, and recent flow test results, amongst other information.

As the common saying goes, "information is king”. As the accumulation of information increases within the model, the model becomes a more beneficial resource. It is this information that presents the greatest potential for both current and future BIM use.

What its Current Capabilities are?

Although BIM is an incredibly powerful tool, there has been minimal development of fire protection engineering-specific information relative to larger disciplines. Currently, readily available information is limited to basic sprinkler and fire alarm system components whereas the coordination capabilities are practically limitless. This is being driven by industry demand and the consideration that fire protection is seen as ancillary to more primary building systems (i.e. structural, mechanical, electrical).

Take the example of common fire safety drawings. In a standard representation, life safety drawings indicate such information as occupant loads, means of egress routing, fire-resistance rated separations, and measurements associated with means of egress, such as common path of travel and exit access travel distance. In BIM, additional pertinent information not normally represented on life safety drawings can be provided, such as door hardware – builder’s or panic. This capability is available with current technology, but industry has yet to embrace it.

What’s in Store for the Future?

The next great frontier of BIM capabilities lies not only in the population of fire protection-related information, but also in the integration of performance-based design packages, allowing for the integration of smoke control analysis software and fire and egress modeling.

From a fire protection standpoint, a variety of information sources are capable of being input. These can include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • Sprinkler response time index (RTI), temperature rating, and orifice size
  • Detector temperature rating
  • Notification appliance candela ratings and speaker wattage
  • Fire pump flow and pressure characteristics
  • Fire door, window and barrier fire-resistance ratings

Additionally, further detailed information is capable of being collected by associating the components with other documents. In this manner, complex information - such as maintenance records, fire pump curves and manufacturer’s operation manuals -can also be referenced. The benefits to the end user are tremendous as all pertinent building information is contained within a single model for easy access and use – hence the name building information modeling.

BIM is capable of identifying where fire, smoke, and combination fire/smoke dampers are required. Damper installation requirements are driven not only by the fire-resistance rating of the penetrated barrier, but also the barrier type. Where fire-resistance rated barriers are identified in a BIM model, the type of damper required for the ductwork penetration could be automatically identified. In a similar manner, life safety models could not only identify where panic hardware is installed but also when it’s required.

Sprinkler system hydraulic calculations could be integrated into the base BIM model, so that when piping network modifications occur, the calculations themselves are automatically updated; however these capabilities are still being refined. This refinement is currently ongoing only in fire sprinkler design specific BIM-compatible software such as AutoSPRINK or sprinkCAD and not the most common BIM software. Likewise, fire alarm system designs could automatically perform battery and power calculations, alerting a designer when system performance capabilities are being strained.

The development of BIM data has an economic impact, thereby resulting in the slowed development. Similar to the availability of electronic specifications and details in the past, as the use of BIM increases and manufacturers begin to provide relevant data, designers will be gravitate to those with the necessary information. As the adoption of fire protection engineering within the BIM community progresses, the possibilities are practically unlimited.

For further information, see the SFPE Position Paper - Building Information Modeling and Fire Protection Engineering.

James Begley is with TERP Consulting

  1. Position Statement P-05-11, "Building Information Modeling and Fire Protection Engineering," Society of Fire Protection Engineers, Bethesda, MD, 20814.

Related Articles:

4th Quarter 2011 - Building Information Modeling for Fire Protection – Steven A. Jones
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. Increasingly, fire protection engineers and trades are being asked to work in a BIM environment. This article covers getting started in BIM; the current level of BIM usage for fire protection; how BIM is used for fire protection; and the future of BIM in fire protection. READ MORE

Spring 2008 - Use of Fire Test Data in Computer Modeling -- Arthur J. Parker, P.E.
When modeling a fire with a well-characterized fuel source and a known heat release rate, such as alcohol, the modeling effort is relatively easy. The modeling effort becomes more difficult when the goal is to predict the heat release rate for a particular fire scenario in advance of conducting a test, and the fuel chemistry values are unknown or not well-characterized. This article describes how these parameters are measured and developed, and how they are input into fire models to solve real-world problems. READ MORE

Spring 2008 - Use of Fire Models in the Design of Fire Alarm Systems – NEMA
How models can be used to predict thermal and smoke detector response — and why smoke detector operation/response is more complicated to predict. READ MORE

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