September 8, 2021

Parallels in Architecture and Historic Preservation

Reflections on Digital Documentation

Editor’s Note: This is the second of two reflections by Digital Documentation Fellows of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. All three of the fellows are architecture students at three partner Historically Black Colleges and Universities; the fellows spent six weeks working with Existing Conditions, the National Park Service—including their Heritage Documentation Programsand the National Trust to understand preservation and utilize point-cloud data to document a historic home in New York City. This program is a partnership between HOPE Crew and the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

I was first exposed to the field of historic preservation through the elective Historic Preservation 1 class at Tuskegee University, which I took as an architecture student. At that time, I realized that historic preservation is not often discussed in architecture school, and the few times the field is brought up, it is talked about as if it is something entirely different from architecture—which is far from reality. This was clear in this course where I heard from many historic preservation professionals about their day-to-day tasks, and noticed a disconnect between the architecture work and preservation, while also realizing the same disconnect existed for the field of architecture as well.

Going through the Digital Documentation Fellowship, I saw many parallels that helped me connect architecture and historic preservation, particularly around the use of technology and the importance of research.

A high-res interior scan of a room at in a historic brownstone in New York City. The colors are vivid, green, yellow, and red to indicate different elements of the space.

photo by: Existing Conditions

A scan of the interior of a historic home by Existing Conditions, the company that worked with the National Trust Digital Documentation Fellows.

Technology

One of the very first parallels I noticed was that the technology used in historic preservation is also widely used in the field of architecture. Working with Existing Conditions—the company doing the scanning at the historic home—I saw how powerful a tool like a laser scanner can be for both preservationists and architects.

Once the point-cloud data from the laser scanner was processed, it was loaded into Revit, a very popular software program in the architecture profession. During our fellowship sessions, we often talked about the various ways laser scanning could be used in architecture and other fields. We talked about how laser scanning is used to scan the conditions of an existing building that may be getting an addition. We also discussed how laser scan data can be used to re-create a structure that may have been damaged or destroyed. For example, consider how Notre Dame is being repaired to its condition before the 2019 fire thanks to laser scan data that was used to re-create the church in popular video game Assassins Creed.

Working with the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey program showed me that many software programs are used in both historic preservation and architecture. This includes programs such as AutoCAD, which was used for our measured drawings for the Holland Prize competition boards; InDesign, which was used to create the competition boards; and Revit, which was used to create the floor plans and elevations for the historic home.

Importance of Research

Another parallel I noticed was the need for research in projects. In historic preservation, research is done to determine what’s significant about a property and why it must be preserved. This research adds value to the historic property and enhances people's enjoyment of it.

For example, we were able to identify the original architect of the historic brownstone and identify the house as being of the Italianate style, which was typical of the rowhouses in Harlem at the time. Through our research, we were able to find the dimensions of the house before we were able to access the scan data. In my opinion, the most important research conducted uncovered information around why this house was so historic and worthy of preservation.

Meanwhile, in the field of architecture, the research done for a project is not about looking for what makes the project special but what will make the project special. The research done for an architecture project is what determines how well a build fits into its surrounding area, how to get the most out of the building, and how comfortable the end-user is using the building. Similarly, it is important to know the history of a building being preserved because the more you know about a property, the easier it is to craft a narrative around why it is important and what stories the property holds.

Going through the Digital Documentation Fellowship, I came to feel that if more architecture students learned about historic preservation, it will lead to a new generation of more well-rounded architects. If historic preservation is introduced early on in a student's architecture journey, they will have an appreciation for the work and would be more willing to work on historic preservation projects in the future.

Daren Johnson is a fifth-year architecture student at Tuskegee University from Atlanta. Growing up in Atlanta, he was fascinated by how just a few new buildings could change the way the city looked, and how they changed from state to state. This observation, plus a passion for drawing and creating, led to a focus on architecture. Johnson hopes to change the world, one building at a time.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.

By: Daren Johnson

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Read our Contributor Guidelines and email us at editorial@savingplaces.org.

More posts by guest authors (273)

Related Stories

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More