Digitally rebuilding the Houses of Parliament
If you were given the choice to either renovate a normal, three bedroom semi-detached house, or to help rejuvenate the Houses of Parliament – one of the most iconic parliamentary buildings in the world – you would pick the latter, no matter how daunting the task appears.
The Palace of Westminster has stood in London for almost a millennium in some form or another, though its current, most famous iteration as the home of the British democracy, was rebuilt in the 1800s.
In October 2019, the UK decided to undertake a massive restoration of the “New Palace” – built in 1840 after a fire had decimated much of the old Palace of Westminster – with the repair bill estimating anywhere up to £20 billion in costs and decades of work.
To help with the restoration, the government tasked UK-based architecture firm Building Design Partnership (BDP) to develop a digital twin of the building. They needed an exact likeness, but one built in a simple way so that it could be understood by anyone.
“It’s huge. It’s got 100 staircases, 65 different floor levels, and it’s got a lot of history,” said Elliott Crossley, director of Digital Delivery, BDP, at London’s Digital Construction Week. “There’s a lot of things to unpick to make sure it’s fit for purpose.”
Having suffered two fires and a failed 30-year reconstruction project in the mid-1800s, many features and systems in the new palace – as it’s now known, had never undergone major renovation, and the heating, ventilation, water, drainage and electrical systems, to name a few, were and remain extremely outdated.
“There are issues,” Crossley admits. “Things have been patched up over time and there are lots of problems that we’re trying to work out.”
BDP continues to work in collaboration with several companies on The Restoration and Renewal (R&R) Programme, including Donald Insall Associates, Alan Baxter Associates, and Hoare Lea, as well as a number of SMEs. Crossley’s first port of call in 2017 was to create a digital record of the Palace.
Creating a digital Palace
Surveying company Plowman Craven worked alongside BDP to create the digital record. It scanned around 10,000 different locations to get the highest possible resolution image of the building.
Plowman converted the image into a BIM-Revit model – essentially a 3D model – of the entire building that BDP would use as a design tool. The model could interrogate spaces without the need to be physically present and it also allowed Parliament to go about business as usual.
With a physical palace and a 3D model at BDP’s fingertips, Crossley considered how he could use the two to inform design decision-making. And he first decided to add data to different objects.
“Where there is a window we can now classify that as a window. We can look at sizes, we can look at geometry and we can bring in more legacy data that can be attached to individual objects.”
“But,” he added. “we can also do that at room level”.
Enter digital twins
BDP is in the process of gathering information about how rooms in Westminster are used and what could be changed to manage space more efficiently to optimise Parliament as a business-model.
“What we’re trying to do with the digital strategy is gather information from lots of different sources and pull it into a graphical interface. If you open a model it should be a route to access information of the space you’re looking at. It shouldn’t be anything more technical than that,” Crossley says.
Yet during the build of the digital twin, the company was stumped trying to get the biggest Revit model it had ever seen into any of the current graphical software: “It was just a non-starter”.
“We had to almost reverse engineer the building to recreate optimised low-level geometry to be able to run the building through different software,” Crossley adds.
BDP spent six months with visualisation company Wiley & Co rebuilding the entire external facade of the Palace. It incorporated Meta’s Quest Pro software into the model to show stakeholders and the public a sense of what it could look like but in doing became aware of the limitations to virtual reality.
“You get into the (House of) Commons chamber and if you wander outside of a wall you just fall off because you can’t get the entire building into these systems right now.”
With a white card model [a small visual representation] that Wiley & Co built, BDP took this and made it an immersive experience using 3D real-time creation tool Unreal Engine.
It created “compelling graphics that resembled computer game type technology”, according to Crossley, “rather than an old workflow where you set a camera, you decide what’s going to be in the view and then you add materials and everything else.”
“Here, in Unreal, you’re creating a real world virtual environment that has texture and is as close to reality as you can imagine. You get animations, you get images, you get interactive walkthroughs that all have the same look and feel.
“This is now an environment that we just walk around. You could have it in a meeting and discuss ‘oh what does it look like from this angle?’ You don’t then have to go and spend three weeks creating a new graphic, you just move there. It’s a live real-time environment.”
Crossley adds that the digital model can also be manipulated to create “trigger” [unreal] events that can help expand design options and facilitate a conversation around what is possible through the digital twin.
The heritage collections
With a digital twin of the palace made, the next job for BDP was to incorporate Parliament’s heritage assets into the model – all 26,000 of them – which are managed by in-house teams using a database.
BDP, alongside its partners, understood that not all assets would be able to have a digital replica, but would digitise the assets that could. Beginning with statues.
The company located all 600 statues in the Palace via a laser scanner and created a 2D object through Point Cloud [a set of data points in a 3D coordinate system] to represent a placeholder for each figure, “and then you pull in all of the data that comes from the in-house teams”.
Previously, the digital director said that “people will go on site, you’ll take a photo of something and then you’ll hand-mark-up to annotate.” But Crossley asked: ‘What if we leverage the Point Cloud as a photograph and used Revit objects as the hand-mark-up?’
“The objects carry the data which means we can click on them it will tell me the history of the painting for example, the sizing, how to demount it, how to protect it, and we can also link in other information.”
From a user’s perspective, Crossley says this is really powerful. Stakeholders, and anyone involved in the R&R project, can see there is a digital version of a room and discussions can be had over how to renovate space.
The R&R Programme is still ongoing and BDP is currently testing ways to better visualise the heritage assets. It’s using an AI-generative app which takes a 2D photograph and from it produces an 3D one.
“When you zoom in it’s not great. But as a way to turn our 2D ‘placeholders’ into something that looks a bit more like a statue. It enhances what we can show.”
The company is also taking areas in the Palace that were incomplete when first scanned, such as the heritage asset tiles in the lobby, and using the digital twin to hand-create these assets and reflect the finished product.
“Technology has the power to really communicate the heritage, the history and the stature of some of these spaces,” says Crossley. “What was the white card model now really has a sense of history and place.”
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