The office won a commission to transform a decaying, post and beam barn from the 1700s into an home. Toward the end of the work day I rode an old motorcycle down colonial roads to the site in Newtown, a 40 minute drive from our office in Wilton. The experience was magical. Like many young architects I dreamed of creating beautiful and meaningful buildings in picturesque settings. For hours I measured every wall, door and window with a tape measure, noting the dimensions on a clipboard. I snapped Polaroid photos to tape to pages in a manila project folder. These photos would help me remember details when I was back in the office. The design team would use them to communicate with each other and with companies bidding on various aspects of the project.
The puzzle didn’t solve..
What happened next led to HELIX. The day after measuring the barn. I sat down at my desk and began to recreate the barn on paper (velum actually). But the puzzle didn’t “solve”. Somehow the combination of individual measurements didn’t equal the overall room dimensions. Some of the windows were different sizes. I could see the differences in the photos but not in the measurements. The roof was particularly difficult. There were trusses and collar ties that didn’t match the pattern of the rest of the barn. Pieces had been moved or changed over time. To accurately capture the building dimensions I returned to the barn with a long ladder and another person.
The barn project took several trips to capture accurately. The roof structure, and stone foundation walls were never really accurately represented. However many photos we took, important information was missing. The joy of the first visit turned into dread of yet another evening or weekend of unbillable time spent at the site.
Things have improved since the late 1980s. Single point laser measuring tools replaced the spring-loaded, metal tapes, transits and levels that we used back then. 2D digital photographs replaced the wonderful, old Polaroid photos that would fade as the project neared completion. Things are changing again.
More budget for “Architecture”
About a year ago we started building the HELIX platform. Our goal was to simplify and improve the process of capturing buildings digitally. We wrote software to make it faster and easier (and less expensive) to produce plans and 3D models of buildings. We wanted to help architects spend less of the design budget on capturing existing conditions so that more could be spent on design. We thought (and still think) that with an accurate and easy to share digital model of the building better designs would be possible.
By putting thorough photographic information next to 3D models on a phone or laptop, design ideation, planning, and construction communication would be improved. Clients, architects, contractors, and subcontractors could visit buildings, in detail, virtually. Accurate information would lead to bids with less “padding” for unknowns, better decisions could be made, and fewer mistakes would leave more money for “Architecture”.
A recent project produced 1/4 of a Terabyte of information, roughly 1/50th of the total data stored in the Library of Congress.
Today, we “shoot” the entire building, inside and out, top to bottom with laser scanners (LiDAR) and drones. We take hundreds of photos. Not just snapshots of important details, but 360º photos of every inch of the space. A typical office project might include 500 photographs, and 100s of scans. One recent project produced 1/4 of a Terabyte of information, roughly 1/50th of the total data stored in the Library of Congress. The HELIX platform handles this enormous quantity of data easily. HELIX simplifies assembly and delivery of complete “site surveys”, 2D plans and 3D models that anyone with access can look at anytime, anywhere from a phone.
For now we still do most of the photography and measurement ourselves, but the HELIX platform was built for others to create digital twins on their own. It takes us just a couple of hours to train new college interns to successfully use HELIX to generate digital existing conditions models. We believe that the process of documenting the building in-person is an important part of the design process, so we built HELIX for you to use.
The Newtown barn took a couple of weeks to document in the 1980s. An infinitely better, more comprehensive and more accurate digital twin of the same barn would take us a day or two today. As you may have guessed from the photo at the top of the article, the “manila folder” and all of the Polaroids of the project are lost to time. The HELIX twins created today will be around as long as the Internet.
We are beginning to open access to the HELIX platform to select architects. If you are interested in learning more feel free to read about what HELIX includeshereor watch a short introduction video here.