August 31, 2021

Virtual Reality and the ADA within Historic Preservation

Reflections on Digital Documentation

Editor’s Note: This is the first 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 College and Universities; the fellows spent six weeks working with the company Existing Conditions, the National Park Service–including their Heritage Documentation Programs—and 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.

Growing up in the history-rich state of Virginia, I developed a love for historic places at a young age. It was that love that led me to major in history and anthropology in my early 20s, but it was another love, the love of my husband, who is a bilateral above-the-knee amputee and in a wheelchair, that led me to develop another passion: one for accessibility.

Over the course of many years, I have attempted to share my passion for historic places with my husband, only to find that many times accessibility was a major barrier for himthough it has been more than 30 years since the American with Disabilities Act (ADA) passed, requiring public buildings to be accessible for those with disabilities.

While it is not ideal, historic preservation is often confronted with properties that do not meet current ADA requirements and are difficult to adapt without sacrificing the significance or integrity of the property. In these cases, virtual reality using point cloud data could be a unique solution.

Virtual Reality and Point Cloud Data

3D laser scanning is accurate with millimeter precision and can be used to create realistic and engaging virtual experiences using point cloud data. Point clouds are millions of points arranged in three-dimensional space that can then be imported into a BIM (building information modeling) software system, such as Revit, to create 3D models of properties with extreme accuracy.

To create virtual environments from point clouds that are immersive and engaging, a custom algorithm is used to combine the 3D laser-scanned data with SUAS, or small unarmed aircraft system (better known as drone point cloud data), to fill in the gaps for terrain modeling. This same data has been used to create content for video games and virtual reality simulation rides for years. Not long ago, my teenage son and I experienced a rollercoaster completely virtually, and I can assure you I was just as dizzy after the virtual experience as I ever have been with a real one.

Image of a man in a wheelchair taking a photograph of a woman in a wedding dress on a brick area. In the background, cropped, is some landscaping and a larger brick building with an L shaped layout.

photo by: Chavon Simmons

The author's husband taking photographs at a historic site.

Documenting a Historic House

One such property that has challenges related to ADA compliance is the home we worked on with Existing Conditions. It was built as a residence in 1869, long before anyone considered the accessibility of disabled persons to be a fundamental societal responsibility. Now that this historic home is being documented and preserved, we must consider how we can meet the accessibility standards put forth by the ADA.

Located on East 127th Street in New York City, this rowhouse has an extremely high risethe distance from the groundat 8 feet to overcome just to be able to access the front door. And then once inside, the rooms and hallways are smallnot to mention the beautiful and ornate winding staircase, which would make it nearly impossible to navigate for a person in a wheelchair.

The point cloud data collected from the 3D laser scan done on the historic house by Existing Conditions—the company we were observing—can be used to create a realistic virtual walk-through experience of the home, which can then be used to allow persons with mobility issues to access the property that they would otherwise be denied given the current challenges of complying with ADA requirements at this property.

In a perfect world, every property would be accessible to every person regardless of disability, however, sometimes we must find best case scenario solutions when we are unable to alter a historic property.

I believe a virtual experience could be just as impactful not only for those with disabilities, but for those who cannot travel to specific locations due to other barriers—such as socioeconomics and even the safety of a particular location as a live experience. Having virtual reality tours available is also another way to reduce the natural wear and tear on a property that normally occurs when high volumes of people visit a location.

If we harness the already available technology of 3D laser scanning to create point cloud data that can be used to create virtual reality experiences for historic places we will increase the number of people we are able to educate and who are able to enjoy properties such as these without ever having to step foot on them.

Chavon Simmons graduated from Eastern Michigan University with a Bachelor of Science in History and Anthropology in 2005. Simmons worked in residential home construction as a project manager prior to enrolling in Hampton University’s Master of Architecture Program.

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By: Chavon Simmons

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