Heritage Buildings and Digital Tectonic

Project Description

Heritage Buildings & Digital Tectonic is an SUTD / IDC research project in collaboration with ASD History, Theory and Culture, investigating the impact of mass sensing, parallel processing and additive manufacturing technologies in the context of conservation of architectural artefacts of cultural value. The project explores the opportunity for an integrated workflow of artefact reproduction from data acquisition using 3D scanning equipment, processing large volumes of generated highly complex geometrically raw information and the production of large scale physical prototypes using conventional 3D printing systems. Our goals are classified as:

  • Education: Create a contemporary approach and a new learning experience for history and theory of architecture via both literature study but also hands-on on-site empirical acquisition of information via digital technologies and (re)production of artefacts as an active form of learning.
  • Practice: Mitigate obstacles in traditional conservation methodology by the integration of precision data measurement (3D scanning), virtual restoration (3D modeling) and reconstruction (3D printing).
  • Research: Advancement of the state of the art practice of historical building conservation via development of new computer aided design methods with focus on the state of geometry and material but also the craft/fabrication processes.



Undrawable Architecture

Undrawable architecture is a term we coined to denote processes of tacit tectonic knowledge passed along generations which was never formalized and/or products of artisan craft work of phenomenal complexity that were manually (re)produced but never rationalized.

While today it is possible to geometrically model historical artefacts using computer aided design methods it is foreseeable how impractical an enterprise as such may be. Conventional digital tools adhere to a reductionist paradigm: we use computer models as accurate yet coarse but nevertheless effective abstractions of reality. We work analytically using Cartesian constructs but we are aware that we can only physically construct approximations thereof.

However when confronted with artefacts governed by radically different regimes of thought and modes of production we may naturally raise questions on the efficacy of (pre)rational methods: it is perhaps no longer only a question of feasibility, that is whether or not we can effectively reverse engineer craft work, but also one of whether it fundamentally makes sense to do so.

We approach digital conservation from a data oriented perspective, operating on large sets of raw information produced and processed by scanning, computing and prototyping technologies. The decision for taking a materialist approach, that is a paradigm where the more true data the merrier, offers us an opportunity to examine an alternative mode of digital praxis where focus is shifted away from expressing and retaining well-defined explicit relational design states of geometry to an arena of big data and flows.

If nothing else, raw-data digital design and fabrication technologies offers an opportunity to defer rationalization, which implies interpretation, and perhaps make the best use of the a methodology that bridges from digital sensing, that is 3D scanning, to digital manufacturing, that is 3D printing, which are both equally oblivious to the apparent complexity of form.



Case Study

The challenges identified through a case study of an ongoing completed historical conservation program for the Yueh Hai Ching Temple in Singapore, highlight the opportunities for future research in the areas of high-performance materials for digital fabrication, information rich scanning systems acquiring data beyond geometric features, decomposition, manufacturing and assembly strategies for large scale fabrication, information systems for storage and processing of high-volume heterogeneous databases.

Architectural artefacts span a wide range of scales, from hundreds of meters to fractions of a millimetre. Unfortunately, there exists no technology capable of addressing the entire range without shortcomings. We thus defined multiple levels of resolution for data acquisition: Building Scale: using long-range terrestrial light detection and ranging technology, generating registered point-clouds, and Component Scale: using near-range structured light equipment generating photo texture mapped meshes.



Large Scale 3D Printing

We investigated the feasibility of 3D printing for real scale artefact reproduction. The granite dragon carving mounted on the wall of the Yueh Hai Ching temple during its restoration program in 1996 was removed in order to restore the wall to its original ceramic shards ornamentation. This provided the research team the opportunity to carry out trial experiments without the need to take precautionary measures necessary with historic artefacts. Geometrically the wall is highly complex featuring deeply concave and undercut surfaces with impressive fine details given its extremely hard material


Technology Development

Our attempts to operate on massive data sets using architectural computer aided design software was utterly unsuccessful because they were not designed for such purposes in terms of both memory management and available editing tools. Instead we used a range of speciality commercial, open source and in-house developed tools. At the point of publication we are the alpha stages in the development of “Digital Heritage”, an extension of a commercial CAD application to mitigate the aforementioned obstacles and enable architectural historians and domain experts to access the data under a familiar computing environment. We are able to load very large sets by employing view optimizations, we offer selection filters to clean up point clouds, prototyping tools for producing 3D printing ready files and exporting methods for storing data in optimized format for offline and online applications.

Digital Heritage also includes a web application viewer, using experimental graphics acceleration technology and dynamically loads point cloud and meshes via progressive streaming of compressed geometry. Click below to load the demo.


Stylianos Dritsas
Design & Computation
Assistant Professor, ASD
Kang Shua Yeo
History, Theory & Culture
Assistant Professor, ASD
Song Pei Yeo
Undergraduate Student
Research Assistant
Yi Qian Goh
Undergraduate Student
Research Assistant


Project Gallery


Dritsas, S. and Yeo, KS., 2013, Heritage Buildings and Digital Tectonic, Architecture Design (AD), X. De Kestelier & B. Peters (eds) Issue: March 2013, Wiley & Sons Publishing, London, UK.

Dritsas, S. and Yeo, KS., 2013, Undrawable Architecture: Digital Workflows for the Conservation of Heritage Buildings and the Discovery of Digital Tectonic, In the proceedings of the Association for Computer-Aided Architectural Design Research in Asia, Open Systems, CAADRIA Conference, Singapore.

Yeo, KS., Dritsas, S. and Wee, ST., 2012, Ideals versus Reality: A Fine Balancing Act in the Decision Making Process of Architectural Conservation, In the proceedings of the International Conference on East Asian Architectural Culture, Convergence and Divergence: Contemporary Challenges in East Asian Architectural Studies, EAAC Conference, Hong Kong, China.


The researchers acknowledge the SUTD-MIT International Design Centre for funding this project, Ngee Ann Kongsi for the permission to acquire data from their temple, GPS Lands (Singapore) Pte Ltd for kindly offering technical assistance with LIDAR technology and Mr. Chan Chee Wai, Resident Technical Officer, for assisting the on-site data acquisition.