Notre Dame , HBIM, and the heritage industry.

May 30, 2019




The competition to design a new spire for Notre Dame has raised a few questions.  Should it be restored to its original splendour ... or should it become a symbol for the 21st century?  By announcing the competition, President Macron has made a bold statement – he wants to look to the future.  And Paris is no stranger to modern buildings; a competition back in 1971 resulted in the Pompidou Centre – a building that still looks futuristic over 40 years later.


But the decision whether to rebuild exactly as it was or how much to embrace the future is an important one.  Over the centuries, medieval buildings have been destroyed by fire and rebuilt using the most up-to-date construction methods available at the time.  Restored but not always replicated.  The comparisons to the fires at York Minster, Windsor Castle, Hampton Court, and the fire at the Cutty Sark when it, too, was undergoing restoration, have all shown how effectively this can be done.  All famous heritage landmarks painstakingly rebuilt, standing as a testament to the skilled craftsmen involved.


What has changed significantly in recent years is the part technology now plays in both the construction and the heritage industry.  Whether it is restored in exact detail or takes on a contemporary look, Notre Dame has been given a fantastic head start.  Five years ago, when Professor Andrew Tallon - co-founder and director of Friends of Notre Dame - undertook a complete laser scan of the cathedral, he could not have foreseen the role this would play in the restoration work.  The model, together with photographs, videos, and 2D plans has now become a vital resource in planning the future of Notre Dame.


It may be taking its time, but the heritage industry is becoming more aware of Historic (or Heritage) BIM and what it can do.  In the aftermath of the fire, its profile will be higher than ever.  Scanning and creating a model, adding digital photographs, historic drawings, and other data allows archaeologists to reconstruct the way a building would have looked even hundreds of years ago.  As well as a tool for planning restoration projects, it offers visitors an insight into how historic buildings change over their lifetime. 


But HBIM is a specialist skill.  Many historic buildings are intricately decorated both inside and out, resulting in vast amounts of data to be interpreted and modelled.  To add to the challenge, the model can incorporate information from archaeologists and historians, plus photos, and even the original drawings.  Managing all of this efficiently, and ensuring the files are optimised and accessible, relies solely on the expertise of the BIM technicians. 


And it isn’t just modelling cathedrals and palaces that can prove problematic.  One of Digital Inc’s early HBIM projects was Whitewebbs Farm, a Grade II timber-framed barn that was on Historic England’s risk register.  The building formed part of a farmstead, granted to the Royal Physician in 1570.   Later, the barn itself was the meeting place of those behind the Gunpowder Plot.  


Planning permission was in place to restore the barn and convert it into two dwellings, using as much of the original timber as possible.  Our technicians were faced with the monumental task of modelling derelict a 17th century structure and then meticulously naming and numbering each element to accurately record which timbers were to be replaced and which repaired.  The resulting model, alongside drawings, site survey data, photographs and maps, now provides a detailed and accurate record of a historic building.


The construction industry overall has been slow to adopt BIM and take-up rate for HBIM is even slower.  For it to truly take off, the heritage industry must get on board, and understand exactly what it can do, and see the benefits to be gained.  Whitewebbs Farm provides a perfect example of this.  For Notre Dame, the benefits of the BIM model are enormous.  Watching how the restoration project progresses, and its impact on the heritage industry will be fascinating.


If you are thinking about BIM for your heritage project, please contact Digital Inc. to see how we can help you.