In my roles as both a licensed “Fire Alarm System Designer” in Ohio and a provider of fire alarm training seminars I’ve often been asked about the software I use to prepare drawings for fire alarm plan submittals. I know from experience that the search for the right program can be overwhelming. It can also be costly since some of these drawing programs are expensive. Additionally, learning how to use them can sometimes turn into a vocation unto itself.
Building Information Modeling (BIM) is the buzz word throughout today’s architectural and engineering communities. BIM 3-D modeling programs allow each building system to be layered onto a drawing to allow for more accurate ordering of parts, as well as increases scheduling control over the different construction trades. By modeling the project using the BIM process, there is much less chance of a conflict involving a clash of equipment or construction methods. The BIM goal is to allow the 3-D virtual construction of a building to identify problems before they occur by moving all the coordination of trades into a very detailed planning phase.
An over-simplification of a scheduling problem which could be averted using BIM would be, for example, the pouring of a concrete floor before the electrical conduit or the water pipes beneath the floor have been laid. A more cogent example might be one where the layering process allows the building owner to realize beforehand, that the large mural of their company’s founder planned for the lobby will cover the fire alarm system’s graphic annunciator. Another example might allow the architect to see early on, that the location of the EXIT signs planned for the corridor side wall will obscure the view of the hallway strobe lights. The layering process can also allow the fire alarm installing company to reserve the space needed to install strobe lights on ceilings from being hijacked by the background music installer.
The most common BIM package, sold as “Autodesk Building Design Suite 2013,” starts at around $5,000. You must have your fire alarm drawings prepared using this format in order for your layout to be combined and compared with other building system drawings using the BIM process. If you have never used this level of design software, you can expect to spend 40 hours a week for the next year learning the basics. Your reward will be the ability to transfer and trade drawings between architects and engineers knowing that you will have compatible, complete and accurate translations of each originators’ work.
It is all about compatibility. The industry software standard for architectural drawings is the Autodesk.dwg file format. However, if you do not have the time or money to invest in full blown Autodesk software, there are several excellent alternatives. First, there’s their Autocad LT version, selling for under $1,000. Importing others’ Autodesk drawings, so that you can add your fire alarm symbols, won’t be an issue if you keep it all in the family. I don’t use Autodesk software for my drawings, so I need to eliminate compatibility issues when importing Autocad.dwg drawings prepared by others. It seems all drawing software manufacturers advertise the ability to import dwg drawings, but I have had mixed success with all the various releases and versions of Autodesk and with all the software drawing programs I’ve tried. I now just avoid the entire compatibility issue and use the program Visio Pro (now owned by Microsoft).