The Benefits and Challenges of Integrating BIM into Fire Safety Design

Soheila Bigdeli

Here's how the benefits of Building Information Modeling (BIM) can be better utilized in the Fire Safety Engineering field.

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Modern architecture, new developments in material science and progressive evolution of the built environment have led to a significant increase in the complexity of buildings. This evolution from “standard” building formats towards more complex geometries also requires transitioning from 2D design methods to 3D design solutions. Building Information Modeling (BIM) addresses traditional design methods' shortcomings.

What is BIM?

By using an aggregate model (typically 3D), BIM provides an intelligent, model-based process for collaborative design of a building throughout its life cycle. BIM ultimately enables digital prototyping of the building. This allows an individual to check every detail before starting the construction and permit process to manage future changes better.

Rather than relying on separate sets of drawings, different team members - from clients and site managers to designers and health and safety advisors - can benefit from one coherent system of computer models. It allows architects, owners and contractors insight into how their contribution fits into the overall project.

Automated Design Check Using BIM

Achieving the true power of BIM requires all involved teams to use digital models. The Fire Safety Engineering field has, however, not yet been able to benefit as much from these recent developments as have other construction disciplines. The Society of Fire Protection Engineers (SFPE) has identified multiple layers of information that, when added to the BIM model, enable the effective and productive implementation of requirements and allow for the identification of possible clashes at the very early stages of the building design process.

This includes information about fire compartment boundaries, fire extinguishers and evacuation routes, among other things. However, because fire safety checks are usually not performed until the final design phase, designers have little incentive to include this data in their model. Often, it becomes necessary only when a conflict is discovered following a labor-intensive review of 2D design plans against fire codes.

Although the capabilities offered by BIM make it possible to automate the design check process, full automation has not yet been achieved. So far, several not-so-successful attempts have been to develop a fully automated code compliance checker in a BIM model. Many developers and academic researchers are still trying to harness the power of BIM to gather the required data from the rich information provided, execute the rules, and highlight the nonconformities. This effort is still ongoing. Once the tool is available, it will enable iterative design checks at earlier stages where resolving conflicts and nonconformities is less costly and easier.

Integrating BIM Use in Performance-Based Design Studies

Performance-based design studies that require more information about the building are becoming increasingly important. BIM models can support performance-based design as they have the potential to ease the input of information, making performance-based simulations in different design phases less time-consuming.

Knowing the building’s exact geometry, the material properties of walls, doors and windows, the location of detectors and sprinkler systems, and information about the HVAC systems can save a lot of time for fire safety engineers. Unfortunately, while IFC data models used in BIM can be fed into the Fire Dynamic Simulator and Pathfinder tools (the two commonly used tools for fire and smoke spread simulation and evacuation analysis), not all the required data can be transferred into simulator tools yet.

Integrating BIM and the fire safety discipline can help fire safety professionals focus on more complex safety issues rather than spend hours collecting data. With the current attention BIM is receiving from both the industry and academia, the future seems promising. Learn more about Jensen Hughes fire safety design and consulting services.

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About the author

Soheila Bigdeli
Soheila is a project engineer with experience in process safety, fire safety and research. She has a broad range of expertise, from detailed fire safety design in buildings to oil and gas and petrochemical plants.
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