Designer Scott Page Creates Spectral 3D Scans Of Buildings

Scott Page utilizes 3D scanners to create haunting images of architectural sites.

Scott Page is captured in one of his 3D building scans. 

There is something otherworldly about 3D scans. Perhaps it's the vectors of light on geometric surfaces, typically hung in a black void, that make these architectural spaces and other environments pop. The level of detail is stunning. Building innards and exterior landscapes become illuminated like the stage of a theater. This wasn't by industrial design, but it's definitely an upside of the process. And it is these image qualities that people are starting to exploit in interesting ways.

In the UK, ScanLab founders Matthew Shaw and Will Trossell are known for their mind-bending scans of geographical spaces, including their recent work in the Kiedler Forest of England. While they capture natural landscapes, Berkeley-based designer Scott Page offers another point of view. His 3D images are, as he notes on his blog, an attempt to map a panoramic view of an interior space. Striking though they are, Page's 3D scans are really about function. As he says, the artistic quality of the images is a byproduct of an effort to help builders. The multiple points of view that merge into a single image can help restore, preserve and document historical and other architecturally-vital buildings.

Take the New Clairvaux Monestary's chapter house restoration project in Northern California, for example. It originally stood in the Cistercian Monastery of Santa Maria de Ovila in Trillo, Gaudalajara, Spain. William Randolph Hearst had the chapter house disassembled brick-by-brack and shipped to California. The stones eventually came into the possession of the city of San Francisco, which later gave the stones to the abbey. Page scanned the chapter house before its windows and doors were added, allowing him to document the monk's reconstruction effort. Page's scans expose the nooks and crannies of any given space, allowing architects and builders to eventually make structures live in a new way.

I had a chance to speak with Page via email about his 3D scanning process, his early photographic influences, and architectural spaces he would most like to scan. Page also shared some never before seen images of his 3D scanning of the New Clairvaux Monastery.

Bernard Maybeck's First Church of Christ Scientists, Berkeley, CA.( Later addition ~1927)

The Creators Project: How did you get into 3D scanning? 
I purchased my equipment for practical reasons—to speed up the tedious documentation of buildings that I often had to do when starting a new project. The 2008 housing bubble gave me extra time to experiment with new equipment and software. I didn't expect the dramatic results I was seeing from the scanner. 3D imaging is both practical and intriguing. In fact, most people are attracted to the striking images before they fully grasp the power of the technology. You have to deal with the existing world, too, and 3D scanning is presently the quickest, most accurate way to capture the natural and as-built environment. 

Which 3D scanner do you use, and what are its advantages and disadvantages?
I use a FARO Focus3D laser scanner, a medium range unit, compact in size and weight, well suited for interiors and buildings smaller than a skyscraper. It is highly portable, powered by a powerful lithium battery that will operate for half a day before being swapped. An internal digital camera colorizes the millions of x, y, z laser points, giving the scan images a more photographic look. 

A typical, single scan takes from 3 to 10 minutes to complete. Individual scans are unified in a process called “registration." The resulting 3D “point cloud” can be viewed from any angle, and later sliced into unique 2D images for the plans, sections, and elevations that architects typically produce. It's a hybrid process that merges reflective light (digital photography) with invisible laser (infrared) light. It can slice up a building like an MRI sections a brain. 3D laser scanning and photography are merging as light sensors and software work together. Image quality and speed will only improve.

Bernard Maybeck's First Church of Christ Scientists, Berkeley, CA. (partial view) (Designed: 1910)

Do you find anything particularly tricky about the 3D scanning of structures and spaces?
Because the equipment only captures surfaces that you can see with your own eyes, it's necessary to position the scanner from multiple vantage points to minimize voids. Likewise, we use a variety of specialized targets to unify scans via triangulation, and their placement takes care to set up properly. 

We try to do the scanning without others in the area, but this is not always possible. A target blocked by a curious onlooker can make registration difficult. Shiny black surfaces, mirrors, and artificial lighting can also affect the quality of the scans. The internal computer does its best to average extreme lighting conditions, but it's imperfect. Perhaps, it's these very quirks that make the scan images something altogether different than photographic images.

You've noted that you owe a debt to early photography. Which works in particular do you feel inspire your 3D scans? 
Window at Le Gras, the first successful, permanent photographic image by Nicéphore Niépce has certain similarities to point cloud images produced from 3D laser scanners. It's this grainy, fuzzy masterpiece that started the revolution in photography. It's hard not to love it. Rapid improvements in image quality, exposure time, and price made photography commonplace by the late 19th century. I expect the evolution of 3D scanners to follow a similar path. At present, the high cost of the equipment is keeping the process out of the hands of most A/E offices, but it is only a matter of time before everyone has access to one. 

Window at Le Gras (above) was one of the first photographic images, created by Nicéphore Niépce in 1826/1827.

There is something ghostly about your 3D scans. Is that simply a byproduct of the scanning?
While there are technical differences between various scanners, they produce very similar results. Because the software filters out the sky and other features in order to save memory, one can select any background color desired. Black is often used to increase the color depth (the 'black velvet' effect), thus adding to the dramatic appeal of the image. Surface transparency is another property available from the software that adds to the 'spooky' feel, allowing one to see the inside surface from the outside plane you are looking through. Objects that are behind you can end up in the image in front of you if the transparency setting is high. 

Can you talk about your work at the New Clairvaux Monastery?
I had the opportunity to scan both the exterior and interior of the “chapter-house” before the doors and windows were in place. This really simplified the target placement, allowing me to share the targets for both areas. My scans will document this phase of the 12th century church's reconstruction, that is one of the oldest relocated European buildings in North America. It's doubtful that the scan data will survive as long as the church, despite the best archival practices available. Digital information has not yet been perfected for long term storage, and may not last as long as books from the middle ages, hand written on animal skins. (Oakland's CyArk will archive the data.)

12th century, Reconstructed Chapter-House: New Clairvaux Monastery, Vina, CA

Any architectural sites you'd love to scan?
I appreciate the soaring ceilings from grander times. There is nothing more dull than a typical 8' modern ceiling. I'd love to scan Labrouste's reading room in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, or his Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève with its wonderful steel arches. I'd like to scan Berkeley's UC Art Museum—a rambling 'modern' concrete building that will probably be torn down due to seismic risk. I received permission to do the scanning, but ran into issues regarding the art's copyright laws. It's ironic since the building is more culturally valuable than much of its contents.

I've always appreciated the work by the neoclassical architect, John Soane. It would be fun to capture his London house, now a museum. India's Jantar Mantar, a collection of fourteen major geometric devices for measuring time, predicting eclipses, and tracking stars, would be a fantastic place to scan (once you kept the visitors away). Several of India's step-wells (Gujarati and Rajasthani architecture) are also of interest to me for their striking geometry and scanning challenges.

What do you hope to do with 3D scanning as the technology becomes more refined?
It's possible to adapt the scanner to capture thermal images, which would leverage the value of the data. For a few extra minutes of scanning, this information could also be recorded and used for energy analysis.

Software is on the horizon that will partially automate object recognition for walls, planes, doors, windows, etc. At some point, drones might do the entire operation and I'll only be sent for coffee.