Documenting Change: Lesson Seven – University of Kentucky College of Design
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Documenting Change: Lesson Seven

Documenting Change to Protect Our Heritage

by Emily Bergeron

Human-caused disasters, from war to uncontrolled development, natural disasters, neglect, and inappropriate conservation, all contribute to our vanishing heritage. Sometimes faster than we can record what exists. Maintaining a record of a site means that, no matter the future, people will be able to know what was once there. Therefore, an essential aspect of preservation, whether a building is to be restored, adaptively reused, or even demolished, is documenting the details of the historic property.

In documenting a site, Meghan White of the National Trust for Historic Preservation suggests we ask, “What could be lost? What are the materials that make up this structure? Where are the visible signs of craftsmanship? What elements are important to remember?”[1] According to the Getty Conservation Institute, documentation includes two main activities: “(1)the capture of information regarding monuments, buildings, and sites, including their physical characteristics, history, and problems; and (2) the process of organizing, interpreting, and managing that information.”[2] Collecting this information helps us assess the value and significance of the site in question; guide conservation, monitoring, and management efforts; create an essential record; and communicate the importance of a place.

Good documentation allows a better understanding of a site’s value—historical, scientific, aesthetic, social, and economic.

The information gained through documentation establishes a baseline, provides an idea about current conditions, informs appropriate conservation options, interventions, and treatments, and aids in assessing the results of efforts. It is the basis for monitoring, management, and routine maintenance and creates a record for posterity. It may also be the basis of nominations to the National Register of Historic Places or equivalent state or local registries in the United States. Documenting change is also essential. Heritage sites undergo continuous change; all interventions are critical moments in the life of a site. A record of these interventions is vital to preservation as actions become a part of a place’s history, and future generations benefit from knowing how preservation efforts (or adaptive reuse) were carried out. Documentation also creates information that can be communicated—to help educate the public on the value a site holds and how preservation has been executed.

Physical documentation might include measuring each elevation and noting character-defining features such as windows, ornament, doors, materials, form, etc. It may also include an analysis of the integrity of the building and materials, applying the National Register’s seven aspects of integrity (location, setting, design, materials, workmanship, feeling, and association). Documentation could include photographs and sketches. Technology plays a vital role in historic preservation. There are various methods of documenting historic sites, from hand measurements to more high-tech methods, like global positioning system (GPS) technology,  ground-penetrating radar, light detection and ranging (LiDAR), and photogrammetry. These new technologies have reduced the time required to document heritage but can be costly and require specialized equipment and training.

Researchers may document and analyze the various materials and construction techniques and their conditions in historic properties. Considerations include materials (e.g., masonry; wood; metals), features (e.g., roofs; windows; doors; entrances/porches; spaces/features/finishes), and site and setting. Historical research may also be undertaken to document the history of the building, including people, functions, and changes. Historical contexts and narratives are also developed using primary source documents (e.g., deeds, trusts, wills, probate documents, genealogies, fire insurance maps, archival material, land and property records, census data, city directories, images, memorabilia, interviews, tax assessments, obituaries, newspapers, funeral directories, personal interviews, insurance records, etc.). A report discussing the history and historical context of the building is often produced, including photo documentation.

For more on digital documentation, see:

Historic American Buildings Survey

Internationally, standards for recording and documentation are only sometimes available. As a result, documentation can vary in form, quality, and quantity. In the United States, one established set of guidelines was created through the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS). This rigorous method of documentation was established in 1933 to document the country’s heritage and help to preserve a record of vanishing architectural resources. This system was intended to represent “a complete resume of the builder’s art,” – meaning it documents all types and styles, from the monumental and architect-designed to the utilitarian and vernacular.

HABS is a method of field investigation. Through hand measuring, or in the case of exceptionally large or inaccessible structures, three-dimensional laser scanning, measurements are recorded using pencil on graph paper. This data is supplemented by digital photography. Drawings are then produced using Computer Aided Drafting. In addition to the fieldwork, primary source research is conducted to create a written report outlining the architectural and historical context in which the structure was developed and evolved. Details and spatial relationships not easily conveyed by drawings or narratives are recorded using large-format, black-and-white photographs and supplemented with color photography. These various documentation methods create apermanent record that can be used to study and understand historic structures. However, the HABS documentation level is only sometimes appropriate or necessary for all historic buildings, sites, and landscapes.

For more about HABS, see:

  • “Recording Historic Structures and Sites with Habs Measured Drawings: Heritage Documentation Programs–HABS, HAER, Hals, CRGIS–of the National Park Service.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/hdp/standards/HABS/HABSrecording.htm.
  • “Photography Guidelines (HABS/HAER/Hals) – National Park Service.”National Park Service, Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/hdp/standards/PhotoGuidelines.pdf.
  • Historic American Buildings Survey Guidelines for Historical Reports. National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/hdp/standards/HABS/HABSHistoryGuidelines.pdf.
  • “Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey – about This Collection.” Library of Congress, 1 Jan. 1970, https://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/ .
  • “Webinar: In Pursuit of the Complete Resume of the Builders Art .”National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/hdp/webinar.htm.

HP Studio 2017

Creating a Lasting Record

Archiving the data collected is important to making the documentation process impactful. Because technologies are constantly changing, it is also crucial to the documentation process that we ensure the long-term archival sustainability of what is created. There are always new ways to digitally store more information in varied forms —  images, videos, and audio formats allow people to record more data and retrieve and examine it more efficiently. Further, the internet has allowed greater access to information and has provided researchers with a better way to distribute and share information. As technologies evolve, we must continue to be able to access the data so that we ensure that the record created by these new technologies is preserved in the long term.

Documenting the Gray Design Building

Various classes, faculty, and others have extensively studied and recorded the Gray Design Building. In advance of and during the adaptive reuse of the Building, additional extensive documentation efforts have been undertaken to create a record of what existed before construction and the construction process itself.

Documentation began with an evaluation of the physical state of the structure and all its architectural elements. A conservation team took note of each building material, its condition, its utility, and the way it interacts with other building materials to form the overall structure. The team rated every material by condition. Where material deterioration was evident, a sensitive conservation remedy was suggested. Structural systems were also identified and assessed, failures were identified, and reinforcement strategies were prescribed for stabilization. This documentation was compiled into a single document recording the state of the building at the time of assessment. Read the full report.

In addition to the conditions assessment, Light Detection and Ranging Scanning (LiDAR) has been used to scan the building to collect comprehensive data to create high-resolution 3D digital models. LIDAR can scan and model buildings for historical reference or information in specific renovation projects. This technology can be used to create interior and exterior scans of the Building. The data will then be processed into the project’s contiguous point cloud model. This data may later be used to create a virtual tour of the property by pairing utilizing the point cloud data and the RGB data associated with each point. LIDAR will be used regularly to document interior and exterior changes resulting from the adaptive reuse process.

The 3-D digital models of the building and landscape have been supplemented by digital documentary photography. Photographs of all sides of the exterior, exterior details, and overviews of the interior and interior details were taken before construction as permitted. Photography will continue during and after the adaptive reuse using hand-held cameras. (If you have any photos you might include from the documentation, that would be amazing)

The information will be available to faculty, students, and the community at large for teaching and research purposes in the future.

Additional Reading:


[1] White , Meghan. “6 Tips to Document Historic Details before They Disappear: National Trust for Historic Preservation.” 6 Tips to Document Historic Details Before They Disappear | National Trust for Historic Preservation, 6 Dec. 2016, https://savingplaces.org/stories/6-tips-to-document-historic-details-before-they-disappear.

[2] LeBlanc, François, and Rand Eppich. “Documenting Our Past for the Future.” The Getty: Explore, The Getty Conservation Institute, https://www.getty.edu/conservation/publications_resources/newsletters/20_3/feature.html.