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Tuesday29 July 2014

Scanner offers a better understanding of space

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The Bartlett has a 3D scanner on loan that has useful architectural applications

It’s a familiar scenario. Your latest building has completed, but you are not happy. And neither is your client, because the finished building doesn’t look anything like the detailed designs you gave to the contractors, let alone the glossy 3D visualisation you paid a small fortune for to ensure you won the project or had it approved by a difficult planning department.

So how do you show a disgruntled developer exactly what happened? Bob Shiel, senior architecture lecturer at the Bartlett, thinks he’s found the answer. It’s cumbersome, it’s ugly and it’s called the Faro Photon 120.

The device is a high-resolution scanner which creates a point cloud image, a virtual three- dimensional model created from thousands of points of information. And the Bartlett has been lent one to research its use.

“We all know perfectly well that over the last five centuries there’s been a difference between what gets drawn and what gets built,” says Shiel.

“Builders interrogate drawings and interpret them and an architect reviews that and says, well that’s close enough to what I was getting at. But that gap is now getting narrower and narrower. The issues around who is responsible for what the building is are getting intense.

“High-resolution scanning has a lot of potential in that regard. It comes in as an arbitrator in a way and scans what got built, which allows you to map that over what got drawn and see the differences.

“You can understand all the decisions that were made that did not necessarily come from the design files,” he says.

The scanner can document an object up to 153m wide with a 2mm error margin for scans taken from a distance of 25m. The results are similar to a computer-game-style environment which the user can explore virtually. These environments can then be exported into cad, Rhino, or any other relevant software for analysis, manipulation or replication.

Projects demanding the replication of existing building fabric are among the most popular applications

The Faro Photon 120 is one of the world’s largest commercially available 3D laser scanners, and is already used by surveyors, engineers and planners. The FBI and the Metropolitan Police have used it to capture perfect images of crime scenes and it has also been used to analyse problems in nuclear reactors.

Although the possibilities of layering completed buildings over original design files are intriguing, the most obvious application of the technology lies in refurbishment and restoration projects.

Heritage projects, especially those demanding the replication of existing building fabric, are currently among the most popular architectural applications of the scanner, according to Faro.

Faro isn’t the only company manufacturing this sort of scanner. Its major competitor is camera manufacturer Leica, and both have been successfully supplying them to surveyors for some time. But Faro hopes that architects will see the work being done by the Bartlett and begin to exploit the scanner’s potential in their own work, which explains the commercial thinking behind lending academics some £70,000 worth of equipment and software.

Although prohibitively expensive for all but the most wealthy practices, access to the technology is already available via a number of specialist service providers. Shiel thinks it could eventually have a similar impact to Autodesk’s cad/ camera, which allows architects to scan drawn plans into a cad database.

“I don’t think they’ve really thought about what it means in terms of visualisation and representation on one level, and that’s fascinating,” says Shiel.

“But on another level it can help us to understand space, and that’s a far greater challenge that we are only just beginning to get our heads around.

“You could scan a building when it’s minus 20 or plus 40°C and see what is going on and really start to understand the detailed differences that are occurring to the same building over time and in different circumstances.

“You can map one model over the other. You can be designing and building at the same time, getting very quick feedback telling you where things are going and what the difference is between the design and the building. But the accuracy is the big thing. It opens up new potential.”

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