BIM and fire protection engineering


Industry acceptance 

Figure 4: BIM helps coordinate a Las Vegas nightclub design. Courtesy: JBA Consulting EngineersThe BIM technology discussed thus far is available; however, as with any new technology deployed, it is not error-free and at its full potential. The primary limitation for BIM technology today is the amount of content available from manufacturers and in a coordinated standard. Every project that uses BIM technology can be set up slightly differently, such that training is required for each model and the content from manufacturers, if available, may not integrate seamlessly. The amount of information in the model also varies depending upon why BIM was used. 

While there are leaders and innovators in BIM technology, there is no well-established protocol that allows everyone to take advantage of the powerful tools that can be developed. In this digital age, where design and construction teams are spread throughout the globe on one project, it is challenging to find agreement on a common standard. Multiple nationalities may be working on a project in the Middle East, and each has its own belief on how the standard should be implemented. Without proper content development and standardization, BIM could develop into a poorly functioning or dysfunctional model. Sometimes too much information does not make the model efficient, whereas too little does not make efficient use of the model.

A BIM model that is set up well and monitored continually will have coordinated, integrated, and searchable databases of information. A BIM model becomes not just a 3-D model of the building to search for fire protection equipment or features. It becomes a database of information that can be used to identify trends, estimate repair costs, or monitor functionality. It can also help with integrating the life safety systems across multiple trades. 

Industry must embrace the technology by having all manufacturers create common standards for BIM tools. Many fire protection companies have developed BIM content but may limit availability to users or specifiers. Because there are always costs associated with developing content, there may be hesitation based on the return on investment for developing content when manufacturers have a large library of products. Alternatively, if designers have access to a manufacturer’s complete product line while designing in a model, they may prefer that product line to another that does not have sufficient information for their building. 

The content currently available from most manufacturers is also generally limited to product specifications as noted above. A pump may have its performance data. A sprinkler may include its appropriate listings and approvals as well as coverage data. A speaker/strobe may indicate the sound pressure level and light intensity of the appliance. 

However, as manufacturers take initiative to really develop the content as it relates to their products, BIM becomes an even more powerful design tool. Because clash detection has been established in models to avoid conflicts between mechanical, electrical, and plumbing equipment as well as for wall construction, manufacturers can develop content specific to the listings of the products.

For designers, engineers, and AHJ, BIM will be invaluable as manufacturers include all listings and restrictions for their specific fire protection products. When a designer puts a sprinkler in a model that is too close to a ceiling, beam, or other obstruction, a notification could be established in the model identifying that there is a conflict with the sprinkler and another object. Fire alarm speaker BIM content could be developed that establishes when minimum sound pressure levels are not achieved as a result of distance to other speakers or obstructions from walls and doors. 

If the proper models and design content are developed in unison, the ability to design could become significantly more efficient. Sprinklers can be located based upon spray pattern development and viewed in the model. For aircraft hangars or other places where water monitors are used, spray patterns based upon flow and pressure data can be integrated into the design to optimize layouts in conjunction with anticipated obstructions. Fire alarm appliances could be distributed based upon acoustical properties of walls, floors, ceilings, and finishes. 

Even passive fire protection elements, such as wall construction or through-penetration firestop systems, could use content development. Often, designers use the same assembly for penetrations because they are familiar with it and believe it complies with the assembly and the listing. If through-penetration firestop companies provide a content library for their products based upon wall types and listings/approvals, confusion regarding compliance could be mitigated. The wall and penetration are selected and the content library automatically selects the most appropriate penetration fire-stop system. 

While some manufacturers may be lacking in content development, they are not alone in having work to do. Designers have to coordinate with model developers. Fire protection engineering is not limited to active and passive fire protection systems; designers could work with developers to improve BIM. Specifically, the means of egress of a building and features associated with it are equally, if not more, important. Model building codes often prescribe minimum lighting levels, travel distances to exits, and distances for exit signs. BIM can allow designers to fully coordinate and automate egress as models change. 

Models could be developed to assign each space with an area and use such that spaces can be “populated” according prescribed densities of people. A theater with 1,000 fixed seats and a 1,500-sq -ft stage may have 1,100 people assigned to the space. The space requires a minimum of four exits, and the main exit must accommodate at least one-half of the total occupant load. The model could be set up to assign people to egress through specific doors and paths. If the occupant load increases during the design of the building, notifications can be set up to warn designers that occupant loads exceed available egress widths. 

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