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CASE STUDY - Digital innovation in historical conservation

May 14, 2024

Over the past 15 years, Historic Environment Scotland (HES) has been expanding its understanding of and implementing digital solutions to support the conservation and management of Scotland's heritage sites within its care.

Head of Research & Climate Change at HES, Dr Lyn Wilson has managed its digital documentation programme for the last 15 years. She is also a member of the CLF’s Transformation Action Plan Digital working group. In this article, she shares her team’s experiences of managing and digitally mapping a majority of HES’s 336 sites and buildings across Scotland, from iconic landmarks like Edinburgh Castle to archaeological treasures like Skara Brae in Orkney.

Adoption of 3D digital documentation

HES’s journey into 3D digital documentation began in the early 2000s, with a focus on using laser scanning technology to capture detailed 3D models of heritage sites. This led to leading delivery of the Scottish Ten Project, which saw the digital documentation of Scotland’s then five UNESCO World Heritage Sites as well as five international heritage sites, including the Sydney Opera House, to create accurate 3D data to help with conservation and management.

Lyn also highlights the tangible benefits of this project. She notes, "The 3D data of the Sydney Opera House was used to create a BIM model for ongoing asset management." Similarly, the project’s documentation in India and Japan supported successful World Heritage nominations for those sites.

Since then, Lyn explains how HES's approach has evolved over time, integrating terrestrial laser scanning, photogrammetry, and UAV datasets, alongside more traditional survey methods like total stations. She says, "It's amazing how far our data capture tech has come. It used to take us over an hour to do a single laser scan. Now, we can complete one in under a minute, with even better results."

Reverse engineering and 3D printing

Lyn elaborated on HES's innovative approach to reverse engineering, combining traditional skills with digital tools. She explains that by scanning existing architectural elements and creating precise 3D models, HES’s stonemasons can use these models as tangible reference points to replicate and replace deteriorating elements of historic buildings with cute accuracy. This integration of digital and manual craftsmanship enhances efficiency and ensures authenticity in restoration projects.

Continuous improvement in data capture

HES has made significant advancements in its use of data capture technology, which has facilitated quicker and more accurate documentation of heritage sites. One of the challenges they’ve met has been making large datasets available across the organisation. To try address this, they’ve been using Potree (an open-access software) and continuing to prioritise how to make even better use of the data that has been captured.

One success of HES’s approach to data capture is that they have always prioritised quality. This means that the teams are able to look back at datasets captured a decade ago and find they’re still useful to their current programmes.

Using digital to offer virtual tours during lockdown

As the country went into lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, HES wanted to find a way to continue to provide access to cultural sites. Lyn shares, "We wanted to give people a way to connect, to have some understanding of the site when they weren't physically able to visit. It was our way of keeping the connection alive and giving people something to explore from the comfort of their homes."

HES opened access to around 450 3D models on SketchFab and continue to add to that to this day. Through SketchFab anyone can access a virtual tour of sites such as Edinburgh Castle and Linlithgow Palace, or models of artefacts. The virtual tour of Edinburgh Castle, for example, currently has over 120,000 views.

Digital twins, conservation and climate change

Looking ahead, HES is exploring geospatial digital twin platforms to integrate multiple datasets into their asset management systems. This initiative aims to enhance accessibility and usability of 3D assets, facilitating better conservation, maintenance, and management practices across heritage sites.

The urgency of their work is underscored by the escalating impacts of climate change on HES sites, in particular increased rainfall, wind levels, and storm events, which means that conservation work and the speed in which the team can document is more important than ever.

Figure 2. A member of the Historic Environment Scotland Digital Documentation & Innovation Team laser scanning at Kelso Abbey in late 2023.

The Neolithic settlement Skara Brae in Orkney is one example where digital interventions are supporting mitigation and adaptation to the threat of climate change as it is suffering from coastal erosion. Through regular laser scanning and UAV photogrammetry, Lyn and her team are monitoring changes in the landscape, enabling precise quantification of erosion rates and informing mitigation strategies.

In response to climate change challenges, HES is also using digital data to enhance energy efficiency and mitigate environmental impacts on historic buildings. Integration of thermal imagery with 3D data allows HES to identify areas of heat loss and informs which retrofit interventions to put in place to improve energy performance.

Collaboration and knowledge sharing

HES actively participates in collaborative efforts, such as the Construction Leadership Forum to share practical case studies and foster digital innovation in heritage conservation. By doing so HES contributes to advancing the field and ensuring the sustainable preservation of cultural heritage.

She says, “My involvement in the Digital working group is all about sharing our real-world digital experience in the hope that it will inspire others and raise the bar for digital documentation across the built environment sector."

For more information on Historic Environment Scotland's digital documentation and innovation projects, visit:

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