An Updated Lab Puts a New Face on Old Buildings

Historic Preservation Professor Jorge Otero-Pailos discusses how emerging technology helps architectural restoration.

Eve Glasberg
October 16, 2019

The Historic Preservation program at the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation recently renovated its Preservation Technology LaboratoryJorge Otero-Pailos, director of the program, spoke with Columbia News about the new lab and its updated equipment, along with the importance of using digital technology in preserving old buildings.

Q. Why did the Architecture School launch a new Preservation Technology Lab?

A. To my knowledge, there is no other place in the world where researchers can experiment and study the impact of introducing new technologies to the preservation of historic buildings. Yet every time an emerging technology is introduced in an old building, our experience of it is fundamentally transformed. The lab is a radical experiment in pedagogy and research about how to best articulate the relationship between technology and historic structures. Sometimes that articulation is aesthetic-artistic, involving design; at other times, it involves cultural activism, and maybe even community building. We invite faculty, students, researchers and visiting scholars to work there on projects that question the roots of the discipline.

Q. Why is the lab focused on applying emerging technologies to historic buildings?

A. Historic buildings are some of the oldest useful objects in our society. Apartment buildings that are over 100 years old sell for the same price per square foot, and sometimes more, than new construction, but no one would dare drive around in a vehicle that old. Buildings remain useful because we adapt them to new technologies and, with each one, come new challenges, which our lab is addressing—everything from machine learning algorithms that monitor surface conditions to new sustainable heating and cooling systems and chemical products, as well as illumination, olfactory simulation and 3D replication technologies.

Q. What is at stake in introducing these new technologies?

A. We are so used to living in old buildings as if they were contemporary that we take the technological feat of adaptation for granted. But it’s actually very difficult to adapt an old building, especially when it’s historic and the new technology must not interfere with the aesthetic experience. For example, if you had to seismically retrofit an 18th-century California mission church by placing lateral bracing visibly inside the church, you would destroy the very thing that makes that interior historic. So you would have to find a way to hide the bracing.

Jorge Otero-Pailos, director of the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, introduces its new Preservation Technology Lab.

Q. Do you consider the risks and benefits involved in applying new technologies?

A. Yes. When Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris was retrofitted to meet modern fire safety standards, the decision was made not to put masonry walls in the attic as firebreaks because preservationists felt that this would destroy the historic integrity of “the forest,” a framework of 13th-century wooden beams that formed Notre-Dame’s roof. Instead, smoke detectors were installed, which, as we now know, did not work as planned. So one has to consider what is an appropriate technology in each case, not only in terms of how it will affect our experience of an historic building, but also our safety, mobility and other factors—including whether it is appropriate to use a smartphone to experience enhanced reality in an 800-year-old Buddhist temple that was designed to focus our attention inwardly.

Q. Is mediating the experience of historic buildings with enhanced reality ever appropriate?

A. Yes. Such technologies can help put buildings back together, some of which are, quite literally, all over the place. For instance, the Church of San Baudelio de Berlanga in Spain—pieces of it are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York while other parts are at the Prado Museum in Madrid. Our students scanned in three dimensions the fragments strewn around the world, and then developed an enhanced reality application so that visitors to the church could view all of the fragments in situ through their smart phones, and have a complete experience of the interior.

Q. How does a drone operate in the lab?

A. We use drones to 3D-scan buildings. A traditional street-level scanner only records what it “sees,” but some buildings such as skyscrapers or cathedrals are so big that their upper reaches and roofs are not visible from street level. The massive amount of data from these scans is then processed in the lab and turned into virtual 3D models, which are exact documents of the building as it was constructed. These digital documents are valuable as records of historic buildings that can be used to analyze their existing pathologies and to understand, for instance, if walls are leaning and in danger of collapsing. One experimental application is printing the 3D scans and using them to find replacement parts. Because 3D printers only print with certain materials, this is where knowledge of traditional building techniques is very important because one has to select new materials that are compatible with the old ones.

Q. What are some of the new courses being offered in the Historic Preservation program, and how will they intersect with the lab?

A. We have started a course called "Experimental Preservation," which teaches students how to document and reconstruct the smells of historic buildings through olfaction technologies. Smells are microscopic materials, molecules given off by a building that go up into our noses and help us form memories. In "Investigative Techniques," students learn how to draw samples from buildings in order to determine their current conditions and arrive at a diagnosis, much like a medical doctor running lab tests on patients to determine their health. The kind of portable equipment now available to students through our lab allows them to run tests that were previously unimaginable, like shooting a handheld XRF laser gun at a structure and instantly finding out what material it’s made out of. Also new is "Conditions Survey and Data Management," which combines the ability to digitally record buildings with our capacity to analyze the interactions between those buildings and people through their use of mobile devices.

Q. How do students make use of the lab’s historic collections of brick, sand, terra-cotta, wood, stone, metal and mudbrick, as well as its mortar and mosaic samples dating from ancient Rome to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater?

A. These materials constitute a tremendous resource for students and now include a collection of historic smells. Students use this “library” to learn how to identify materials in the field visually and through lab testing, an essential skill for historic preservationists because different materials have different behaviors and require specific treatments in order to be conserved.