Atlantic Cities

Stunning Laser Scans That Could Help Us Reuse Aging Buildings Better

Stunning Laser Scans That Could Help Us Reuse Aging Buildings Better
Scott Page

The earliest photographs of buildings took minutes to capture, and they show grainy scenes in long exposure of light as it reflected off walls and windows. In retrospect, those images have a mysterious quality that's strikingly similar to how architecture can be portrayed today with a 3D scanner.

"This is a direct offshoot of what photographs started as," says Scott Page, who captured the above 3D scan of the Baha'i Center on Valencia Street in San Francisco. "It’s a slow process."

Page has carried his 11-pound laser scanner into old churches around San Francisco, where a few hours of careful positioning (each scan rotation atop a tripod takes about five minutes) can produce an image like this:


Bernard Maybeck's First Church of Christ Scientists, in Berkeley, Calif.

It's easier to conceive of creating such schemes for an un-built structure on a computer screen. But as we try to re-purpose an aging building stock in our cities – not just treasured cathedrals, but also old offices and unremarkable apartments – we're going to need new ways of documenting and thinking about the buildings we already have. Historically, this has been a tedious process, but technology (albeit currently costly) means that we might be able to appraise an old building in hours.

The mechanics of all of this are a little hard to grasp. Page's scanner doesn't penetrate walls. It captures everything it sees in a spherical image, including light sources, light switches and pipes, with each scan rotation taking 84 digital photographs. In the above church, Page used about 30 different scan positions (the building can also be scanned from the outside). The scanner then unifies all of the images into a point cloud of coordinates on three axes. And the resulting colorized pictures can show the sag of a roof or a building foundation that has settled with time.

"Like our brains, we can go around and look at everything in a room, close our eyes, and imagine what a room looks like from different positions, even though we were only standing in one of them," Page says. "The computer in the scanner does that as well."


First Church of Christ Scientists

"People don’t understand it, they don’t get it. They think that I painted these, or they're rendered," Page says. "All of these came right out of one day in this space, and look at what you get."


The 1928 addition to Maybeck's church.


The same church with scanning positions shown.

These images are both visually beautiful and functional, containing data that can be pulled into existing architecture software. But Page is also interested in these pictures for what they may communicate to non-architects.

"There’s a wow factor to what scanning can do that I don’t want to dismiss as kind of pretty pictures," he says, "because people start to look at what they have in front of them in a new way."

All images courtesy of Scott Page.

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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