The documentation of historical engineering works

Robert McWilliam, MSc International Heritage Visualisation

Winner, GSA’s Sustainability in Action Group (SiAG) inaugural DDS Sustainability Degree Show Prize, 2016


Robert McWilliam has investigated how to engage volunteers and the wider community in efforts to improve the documentation of historical engineering works – major civil engineering landmarks and related artefacts. The work recognises the importance of documenting and understanding the national civil and engineering built heritage, and the role that documentation has in supporting ongoing conservation, preservation and restoration works.

For such structures their conservation enables continuity of use or effective re-use while securing their cultural significance. The intention is to minimise any changes required and take advantage of the resources already expended in creating these artefacts, with the proxy indicator of embodied carbon used within the whole life-cycle assessment (LCA) of an element of infrastructure. These objectives converge with the primary concept of sustainability by advocating using the existing heritage in a way that meets the needs of today with least compromise in meeting future needs.

Data about numerous older re-usable, or occasionally reproducible, components is required for safety and other checks of the complete historic structures under consideration. This data needs to be to an equivalent level of detail as found in the data bases of contemporary components and specifications.

The task of assembling such a catalogue of historic components will be lengthy and demanding. Communities of volunteers were identified who could begin by combining the existing knowledge and understanding of surviving old trade literature with 2D images of older re-usable artefacts. Within the next decade it is expected they will be joined by the generation whose careers have been dominated by 3D CAD.

This transition could be expedited if visualisation techniques were begun by the present volunteers using photogrammetric 3D visualisation. In a reflexive series of field trials representative components were photographed and processed as 3D models using various combinations of off-the-shelf cameras and specifications of Agisoft software. It was concluded that the overall results of the trials were sufficiently useful to initiate working partnerships of like-minded communities to produce a comprehensive electronic catalogue of historic construction components.

One example (shown above) is an 1892 knuckle-joint bridge bearing mounted on guided rollers used for a railway bridge in an area subject to mining subsidence, but deposited in a museum without considering its potential for continued use after the bridge itself was refurbished.

The proposed historic catalogue would relate directly to UK government requirements and increasing construction-industry practice of using an aspect of visualisation technology which combines an overall 3D visual model of the complete intended works with the electronic exchange of all the technical data required for its implementation. This technology is known specifically as Building Information Modelling Level 2 (BIM2). BIM2 requires data relevant to a project be shared in a managed 3D environment with data created in separate discipline-based models attached. This is more demanding than earlier versions of BIM whose common data environment (CDE) required a standardised approach to data structure and format.