BIM Evolution and Fire Protection

By: Joshua D. Greene, P.E.

There was a time not long ago when the inclusion of Building Information Modeling (BIM) in a project was the exception and not the norm. Prominent architectural firms were evaluating its application on primarily large, high-profile projects. General contractors were also quietly assessing BIM’s usefulness during the construction phase, but not expending extensive resources. Owners and building operators may have been paying some attention to the benefits of BIM from a facility operations standpoint, but were not mandating its use on their projects. During those early days of BIM exploration and appraisal, fire protection engineers were largely spectators, scrambling to come up to speed only when faced with a mandate from the design team to include it as part of their services for a specific project.

Those days of early BIM application are in the past. BIM is not only here to stay, its breadth of application continues to expand. How did we get here? What are the current BIM impacts on the industry and specifically fire protection engineering? What are the expectations of the design team, and the owner/end user? Where might we focus our attention with respect to future applications and integration of fire protection concepts? The answers to these questions are too numerous and far reaching for a single article, but this document attempts to summarize BIM’s evolution and impact on the fire protection practice.

This article is divided into four sections. The first three sections chronicle three BIM evolution stages: Early BIM, Design, and Construction. These stage names and distinctions are arbitrary and are based on the major transitions in BIM use and implementation. They are included to provide simple structure to this article and should not be considered as industry terms or events. The final section of this article discusses future considerations for fire protection engineers and the implementation of BIM projects.

Early BIM

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, BIM output was primarily limited to 3D architectural renderings for use as project visualizations and marketing to prospective owners. Project deliverables remained 2D drawings, with 3D renderings delivered to owners. As a result, the impact on fire protection engineering was minimal, with fire protection systems designs and life safety assessments performed using existing 2D tools. At worst, the impacts of early BIM on fire protection engineering (FPE) firms was software purchases to keep up with the design team’s migration to a 3D-based platform.

3D Rendering of a Fire Pump Room



The next stage of BIM evolution in the industry was the move to engineering design initiatives with a 3D component. During the early parts of this stage, basic system concept designs were being coordinated in a 3D environment, often with “zones” being defined for different design disciplines. For instance, sprinkler designers were given a zone above finished ceilings and below the floor/ceiling assembly within which system piping could be run. The intent was to limit conflicts of major construction components (i.e. large diameter feed mains) by giving each major discipline its own space. 

As this BIM stage progressed and models became more detailed, the zone concept gave way to clash detection. Clash detection used individual model files created by the different design disciplines that were uploaded into the central model to identify where building equipment and components occupy the same space within the model. 

BIM Execution Plans and Levels of Detail (also referred to as Levels of Development) are tools that were developed during this BIM stage. The BIM Execution Plan provides a written framework for the design team for a specific project, identifying specific BIM responsibilities for each team member. Levels of Detail (LOD) are often referenced within BIM Execution Plans and are defined numerically, with a typical range of LOD100 to LOD500.1 LODs describe the detail required at different points, with LOD100 representing conceptual design efforts and LOD500 often considered final as-built conditions. If the project doesn’t have a BIM Execution Plan, the level of detail for each model submittal should be understood from either contractual negotiations or other agreements between the fire protection engineer and his/her client.

Fire protection system design deliverables in this BIM Design stage include both 2D drawing sheets and a 3D model. The 2D drawings are typically derived from the 3D model and are necessary for required submittals to the authority having jurisdiction for review purposes. The 3D model deliverable is for internal coordination, with the design detail commensurate with the LOD requirements documented in the BIM Execution Plan. Typically, fire protection design efforts extend from LOD100 to LOD300 levels; LOD400 generally represents detail needed for fabrication and is usually not part of the FPE scope.

The impacts of the BIM Design stage on the fire protection engineering practice are significant. The impacts can include, but are not limited to, the transition from a 2D to a 3D software platform, development of tools and design objects for the 3D design environment, and coordination flexibility with other project team members. The transition from 2D to 3D software is not only a financial investment in the program, but also an investment in new hardware to accommodate the software requirements and in training or hiring staff to work with the new software. Tool and 3D object development is also vital, as most engineering firms have longstanding tools that made 2D design more efficient; these tools often cannot be applied to 3D design. 

Coordination flexibility refers to a shift in the transfer of information during design. 2D design typically requires receiving architectural CADD files from the design team and adding FPE design information to those drawings. While this process is often still used with 3D architectural models and the preparation of a fire protection model to be added to the overall central model via upload, some design teams prefer that the design be done within a central model. Working in the central model can be accomplished via internet connection or by having designers work from the physical location where the central files are maintained. 


The current stage of BIM evolution, which has the general contractors as the primary influencers, has occurred relatively recently, though it was building momentum for several years prior. In their SmartMarket Report, “The Business Value of BIM in North America,” McGraw-Hill Construction stated that 2012 was the first year that the BIM adoption rate of contractors (74%) exceeded that of architects (71%).This stage parallels the advent and growing popularity of design-build and construction manager (CM) at risk delivery methods and the virtual design and construction (VDC) concept. While BIM started primarily as a design tool, it has advanced through the innovation of contractors to a true construction instrument. In this stage, BIM is not only a design coordination tool, but a means for managing a construction schedule and creating fabrication and other on-site efficiencies.

Many of the impacts of the construction stage of BIM evolution on fire protection are similar to those from the previous stage. Firms that engaged in BIM during the design stage have an advantage over those that did not, as they have already implemented many of the transitions from 2D to 3D. The major new impacts to fire protection engineers now revolve around the move to the contractor-led project delivery methods, which often engage fire protection subcontractors earlier in the project. This results in a fundamental change in the design process, where the fire protection engineer and the subcontractor work together to determine the best design as opposed to the traditional handoff under the design-bid-build delivery method.


To date, the fire protection engineering discipline, along with many of the other engineering disciplines, have struggled to keep pace with the progress of BIM in design and construction. Though the industry has recognized for years the growth of BIM,3 we have largely been reactive rather than proactive. Some firms and equipment manufacturers have created efficiencies for working within a BIM environment, but the FPE industry is still identifying the full potential BIM can offer. 

As an industry, we should be identifying and pushing for development of software tools and features that will make BIM designs better and more efficient. This could include tools for performing hydraulic calculations or voltage drop calculations within the native model file. It could also include means for integrating fire and egress model information within the model. We should also be evaluating areas where we can leverage the advanced collaboration and coordination possibilities that BIM offers to enhance our discipline’s offerings to the design and construction industry. This may involve incorporating better data for facility management and integrated testing and maintenance purposes, to match the burgeoning use of the model as a true building life cycle tool. BIM functions continue to expand and the opportunity to involve fire protection as a productive and integral part of BIM projects remains attainable.

Joshua D. Greene, P.E., is with JENSEN HUGHES


1 Several industry groups define Levels of Detail/Development in BIM publications, including American Institute of Architects (AIA), General Services Administration (GSA), and the National BIM Standard – United States published by the National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) buildingSMART alliance®.

2 Bernstein, H, et al., “The Business Value of BIM in North America Multi-Year Trend Analysis and User Ratings (2007-2012),” SmartMarket Report, McGraw-Hill Construction, 2012.

3 SFPE published a position statement entitled, “Building Information Modeling and Fire Protection Engineering” in October of 2011. This was a good overview of BIM with respect to the fire protection industry and offered several good ideas for advancing BIM and fire protection.