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Image via The Severn Partnership, Chartered Geomatics (Land) Surveyor – click here for more information

I recently was invited to attend a roundtable discussion hosted by the RIBA Journal and AluK. The subject was ‘Digital Architecture – what does it mean for architecture and architects?’ There were nine of us round the table and I seemed to be the voice for heritage in the room.

How the construction and management of buildings is affected – or not – by ‘digital architecture’ is not something I had formalised ideas on.  However I have often wondered if the redevelopment of large heritage schemes would potentially miss an efficiency trick by being slow on the uptake of BIM (Building Information Modelling).

Oriel Prizeman recently questioned what would drive this sector forwards in this respect. Her paper earlier this year, published in the Journal of Architectural Conservation, March 2016, proposed ‘deep renovation’ would be the economic whip: digital models can demonstrate and predict the physical and environmental performance of a building which could be used to make improved decisions on the treatment of sensitive heritage fabric in measures to save energy (click here for link).


Fig. 8 from the Journal of Architectural Conservation, March 2016. ‘Lister steps pointcloud of main reading room’

Across the pond Quinn Evans Architects has developed a 3D model of Mount Vernon, Washington’s mansion. This has started to take advantage of the extensive ability to enrich a, sometimes, basic model of a building with data: data on construction materials, the date of construction, and even different craftspeople. The data is then searchable, and by colour-coding can be quickly visualised for a wide range of users, not simply those professionally trained in hieroglyphics and intelligent interpretation (click here for link).

Another use has been that of enhancing the visitor experience at heritage sites. Flushing Meadows in Queens, New York, for example, was the site of two World Fairs (1939-40 and 1964-65). Digitisation of what the site looked like before deconstruction has created an ‘augmented’ reality – as opposed to virtual. The user engages via a phone app, thus drawing together enhanced data with a common interface.

So, to be brief, a picture of heritage engaging with digital tools is starting to emerge and find its feet, but one feels it has only dipped its toes into the digital landscapes of our near future.

But perhaps this view of ‘digital’ architecture has been too narrow….

…back to the nine of us in the room…

…We discussed the influence of the full breadth of ‘digital’ upon architecture – most obviously with BIM as a starting point, but we wound our way around:

the influence of software,
the type of people needed to run with the digital phenomenom,
the design process and the way client teams work together,
how and when manufacturers step in,
the removal of contractual barriers to realise the full potential of ‘digital’ on the construction industry,
clouds for the sharing information,
and the integration of social media.

The discussion features in this month’s (July) RIBA Journal so I shall not dwell further, but suffice to say it was incredibly positive to my mind that regardless of a project’s starting point – from scratch, or with an existing building – BIM is not the silver bullet we might be lead to believe. It is a tool amongst many, and it is the selection of the most appropriate tool for the job that is important. It is necessary that we explore and test the benefits of each tool type to establish pre-commencement criteria for selection. With respect to heritage that seems to be where we are at the moment.

But unless the outcomes are shared I suspect heritage risks being left behind with the tail wagging the dog. We have already seen the dominance of particular 3D software packages and its snowball effect.  Unless a meaningful benefit of particular digital tools can be demonstrated they risk being ‘archived’ before a foothold is established.

The way in which project teams work needs to be more fluid and collaborative in order to take efficiency advantages technology can offer. Not only time is money, knowledge is too, and the sharing of it helps projects move forward more smoothly and cost effectively in the longterm – and to its benefit the heritage view is usually one of the longterm and posterity.

To move the heritage sector forward I believe the ultimate outcomes desired should be clearly established – be it more cost effective property management, thermal performance, the preservation of sensitive fabric, a central database of historic information, and so on. It is likely there is currently ‘an app for that’ and BIM may not be the only tool in the box.