Architecture students research cultural landscapes in the name of preservation.
There’s a rock in Wyoming that’s 125 feet tall and more than three football fields long—and Julia Ausloos has seen every inch of it.
Through the lens of a LiDAR (Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) scanner, Ausloos and Mike Nulty, documentation coordinator for the Center of Preservation Research (CoPR), digitally documented the gigantic Independence Rock, capturing millions of points to create a 3-D digital “point cloud” model image of the historic landmark. As part of CoPR’s documentation program, they spent a week during summer 2012 gathering and recording image data from the rock, into which visitors have carved names and messages. From Gold Rush-era pioneers to modern-day tourists, people have visited this massive rock, making it a sort of historic icon.
“We were trying to document the rock in order to determine the time when the highest number of people traveled there,” said Ausloos, who works as a research assistant at CoPR and is studying to earn an MArch and MSHP degrees. A center of the College of Architecture and Planning, CoPR is dedicated to the study, preservation and sustainable use of built environment and cultural landscapes.
“We take pride in documenting something valuable, so it won’t be lost forever,” Ausloos said.
Exploring the past and applying it to the present
In addition to the Old West icon of Independence Rock, CoPR researchers have documented historically rich sites, such as 12th-century Anasazi Pueblo ruins in the Canyons of the Ancients National Monument and model railroads in the basement of Denver’s Union Station.
“We get to go to really cool sites,” said Ausloos, who’s become accustomed to spending her school breaks traveling to remote areas of the state and hauling 50 pounds of equipment around rugged terrain.
Back in the CoPR offices, Ausloos and Nulty process and analyze the data they’ve collected in the field. This involves tracing the digital 3-D point clouds with computer-aided design (CAD) software, printing out the new cloud images to be used as underlays and, finally, hand-rendering the images by tracing over the cloud, one pen-drawn dot at a time.
It’s a time-intensive and sometimes tedious process, but the results are highly accurate drawings, which are often submitted to the Library of Congress for the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) collection.
Building community through architecture
While some CoPR researchers focus on documentation, others, like Joe Coleman, work on surveying. An MArch candidate and CoPR research assistant, Coleman spent several hot summer weeks last year surveying structures in Phillips County, on the eastern edge of Colorado.
He and his colleagues surveyed more than 1,000 buildings in three and a half weeks, photographing every structure—both homes and businesses—built before 1970 and jotting down details like wall material, roof type and architecture style.
“The goal is to celebrate these basic houses in rural areas of the state and think about them as important in architecture, because simple houses have valuable stories to tell,” Coleman said. “It builds a relationship with the community and an awareness of architecture within the community.”
The researchers’ interactions with community members were some of the most memorable experiences of the project, Coleman said. Many of the residents were proud of their homes and wanted to share stories and details of the historic buildings.
“‘I’ve lived here my whole life,’” Coleman quoted one resident as saying. “‘You think this grain elevator is interesting?’”
“We explore how to tell the story of a place, using history, drawings, visuals and words, to understand what makes it significant and important,” said CoPR Director Kat Vlahos, MArch.
Learning out in the world
When Ausloos began her research assistantship at CoPR two and a half years ago, her architecture software skills were limited to CAD. Now, she’s not only mastered half a dozen other technical programs, but she’s writing instructional software manuals for future CAP students.
“I got a lot of technical experience [at CoPR] and also learned the processes for getting grants and contracts,” said Ausloos, who finishes her degree in May of this year. “It’s really exciting to get involved with technology that’s going to grow.”
Ausloos said that, once the LiDAR software she has worked with is fine-tuned and becomes more affordable, it will be a go-to tool for architecture firms—which means they’ll need people who know how to use it.
In CoPR and through CAP, students like Ausloos and Coleman are gaining not only the knowledge but the hands-on skills for futures in the exciting field of architecture and planning.
“The way we’re able to teach and learn is by being out in the world trying to solve real problems with real people,” Vlahos said. “We engage students in everything we do.”