Santaland, photography and social heritage

I grew up in North East Scotland, in the 1970s. This was a time before most people (or my family, anyway) took holidays abroad, and the small town of Aviemore was the vacation destination for many in my generation. I clearly remember that we heard about the death of Elvis whilst staying in a self-catering flat in Aviemore, as my Dad (a lifelong fan of the King) cooked us steaks, and we spent many happy times in the town.

Aviemore developed rapidly as a holiday centre from the 1960s, before suffering a serious downturn of fortunes in the 1980s. The town is now recovering, and the holiday ‘centre’ has seen some major investment in recent years, but many of the concrete landmarks and features I and others remember from the 70s are now gone. As an aside, I remember visiting the town in the early 2000s, and discovering that the swimming pool, ice rink, cinema and so on were (completely) gone. A paper soon to be presented at ACE 2017 deals with some of the issues this raises in terms of how a village can deal with losing a ‘centre’, but the biggest loss for me was that of Santaland (As an aside, this posting from George Monbiot in 1998 painted a rather depressing picture).

In Aviemore, ‘Santaland’ was a smallish attraction located at the holiday ‘centre’, which contained a grotto, a childrens train ride, a log cabin with games (including an ‘air hockey’ machine, which I used to play with my Dad), and the actual Santa and Mrs Santa. I have to admit that I did wonder (even at young age) why Santa was living in the Scottish Highlands in a purpose built visitor attraction, but you go along with these assertions…

What has become fascinating in recent years has been the extent to which remnants of attractions like ‘Santaland’ have started to appear in studies of abandoned architecture. In fact, in the process of looking for pictures of Aviemore, I discovered that there are in fact a whole collection of abandoned ‘Santalands‘ worldwide (including these nice images from Arizona, which strikes me as being even more unlikely as a home for the Claus family), each of which presumably hold equally strong emotional resonance for now grown-up children in those areas.

Most of the sites have tended to include photography taken recently, in an attempt to preserve what is still standing. From a visualisation perspective, I wonder if an increasingly inexpensive range of laser scanning and photogrammetry equipment and software will enable us to record these examples of social heritage in a comprehensive manner. Might it also be possible to connect these with individual social testimony?

After all, a run down and dirty statue of an elf is unlikely to be recognised as holding heritage value in itself. What the statue can conjure in terms of memory, emotion and social meaning, though, is something else entirely.

Richard Laing


I have just returned from the RICS COBRA conference in Toronto, which was jointly hosted by the RICS and George Brown College.

From a visualisation perspective, I was struck by the emphasis placed on BIM and collaborative ICT, particularly in the excellent keynote talks presented by Rick Huijbregts (Cisco), Patrick Saavedra (who gave a truly inspiring talk on the pervasive use of BIM within York University) and Ted Maulucci (who spoke about academic collaboration, innovation and next-generation IT in buildings).

I was also hugely impressed by the research, students and student work at George Brown, which was most impressively demonstrated through their scanning, BIM and augmented reality at the Casa Loma BIM Lab.


As ever, COBRA provided a great opportunity to share our own research (I presented work from our laser scanning work, undertaken as part of the Moray Council-led Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere project) and to also hear about the work of others. The conference was also reassuringly diverse, and confirmed that research within surveying and as supported and communicated by the RICS is in good health.

Next year’s COBRA will be hosted by UCL in London.

Professor Richard Laing

SPARA2020 – Sundsvall project meeting

We travelled recently to Sundsvall (mid Sweden) for a meeting of the SPARA2020 project. SPARA aims to address a number of issues facing rural and remote airports, including technical and design considerations.


As part of the trip, our colleagues Dr Graeme Baxter and Lyndsey Bloice ran a photo exhibition tracing the history of Sundsvall Airport, which aimed to encourage discussions of people’s memories of the airport, and their feelings about how it coul ddevelop in the future. The exhibition generated considerable interest and will be followed by future and similar exhibitions in other partner towns. It has been interesting to see how the use of historical photographs has been a really potent way to elicit discussion, and follows similar studies by the team elsewhere, and concerning subjects including both airports and historical high streets.

Of particular interest from a visualisation perspective was a demonstration of the innovative developments at Sundsvall regarding the use of HD video and computer-mediated interfaces to improve air traffic control. We were lucky to receive a demonstration of the system from Mikael Henriksson of LFV, who explained about the use of HD screens to provide a 360 degree view (across 180 degrees!) of the airport, including the ability to overlay augmented information.


It was interesting to hear about the need to plan for and manage change among the highly skilled ATC team, as the shift from analogue to digital came with both opportunities and challenges. This resonated with experiences in architecture, where the march towards BIM adoption has required a close consideration of how working practice and outcomes can be challenged where there is a rapid move towards the use of ICT.

Our first day of the meeting proper also included a presentation from Professor David Gray, Dr Elizabeth Tait and I, on the subject of how airports can be designed to better reflect local culture, and avoid becoming ‘non-places‘.

Complete with jokes about Elvis, we will surely have to incorporate singing and dancing at future events to top this one. 🙂

Richard Laing


Emerging technology in popular cinema – a challenge of continuity (a personal reflection)

Admission: I am a fan of science fiction and cult films of the 1980s.

For some considerable time, there was little crossover between these interests and my own academic research, as films which dealt with the challenges of ‘value assessment in stone cleaning’ or ‘whole life costing in masonry conservation’ were few and far between. However, in more recent years, I have been struck by the extent to which technologies which once seemed impossibly futuristic in fiction, have now been overtaken by reality. More specifically, our recent work using HD laser scanning seems to have resonance with once fictional aspirations set in the distant future, as does our work concerning sustainable transport. However, a challenge often taken up by science fiction authors – to predict the future – can often be scuppered through advances which were not foreseen.

Bear with me, as I give two examples.

The ‘Alien’ series (1979 – 2012, so far) has regularly featured laser scanning technology, yet this raises issues for the continuity-obsessed viewer. The first film in the series (set in approximately 2122) allows the crew little access to advanced surveying equipment, but does seem to feature some limited use of alien laser technology to secure a crashed spaceship. ‘Aliens’ (set around 55 years later) does show some very limited use of laser scanning as a human security device, although again there is no mention of laser scanning per se. However, ‘Prometheus’ (set around 30 years before ‘Alien’) features what appears to be a reasonably advanced laser scanning device, capable of recording 3D point clouds via a floating autonomous device. As a researcher in 2016, this is quite exciting, and despite the obvious continuity issues (i.e. what happened to the scanners between 2090 and 2122?) recognises emerging technology. One might have hoped, however, that the filmmakers could have seen beyond what is likely to be available in the next few years.


Regarding sustainable transport, I was struck by the lack of references in ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ to fossil fuels. Whilst the first ‘Mad Max’ was about a failing society, and the later films deal with personal redemption, ‘Mad Max 2’ is arguably the most violent film ever made concerning a fuel crisis. Hence Max’s repeated statement that he is there ‘for the gasoline’. That is, most of our current vehicles and equipment are fuelled using petrol.

Over the past few years, though, a perhaps unforeseen change has started to emerge in the form of renewables. This has recently included the development in Aberdeen of on-site hydrogen pCREDIT-Norman Adams-Aberdeen City Councilroduction (separation of water into hydrogen and oxygen) allowing fuelling of vehicles using a renewable source material, with zero carbon emissions from the vehicle exhaust. Although it is at present still not the case that the process is carbon neutral (due to a need for power to support the separation of H2 and O), one can imagine a time where a very large proportion of vehicles can rely much less, or not at all, on fossil fuel sources. Mad Max 2 would have been far less violent had H2 vehicles been available.

I do remember Steven Spielberg taking time whilst making the peerless Minority Report to sit with future thinkers and technologists, to talk over where the cutting edge was likely to be in a few years. In turn, we found ourselves working with surface tables and pervasive big data within just a few years.

Issues of continuity will continue to plague the futuristic portrayal of technology, and I would argue the most accurate prediction from ‘Alien’ was that the future will be a bit grimy, and that lots of stuff simply won’t work very well.

Maybe next year will see a ‘value assessment’ or ‘life cycle costing’ blockbuster, bt until then…

Richard Laing

Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere – Elgin Academy

We have been working with Moray Council on the ‘Castle to Cathedral to Cashmere’ project, which aims to draw attention to the hugely significant built and social heritage of Elgin and it’s region. Our work will include input to the online presence of the project (particularly through social media), and has so far involved extensive laser scanning of 21 heritage sites in the town. This has extended our previous work (for example, from the RCUK ‘Bring you own heritage’ project, recently published here, and a whole series of projects exploring the use of laser scan data in architectural design, as reported here).

IMG_6809.jpgTogether with my colleague Dr Marianthi Leon, it was a great honour to present our work last week to a group of almost 100 S
tage 3 and 5 design students from Elgin Academy and Elgin High School. I am an alumnus of Elgin Academy (from the ‘old’ building, recently replaced with a hugely impressive new school), so it was nice to be able to return with plenty of technology and hopefully impressive videos, demonstrations from the scanning work, and examples of the ‘built heritage’ of Elgin to which we were referring.

My feeling is that what seems like a high-end niche at the moment (3D modelling, scanning, photogrammetry) will become mainstream in the next few years. My hope is that these technologies and techniques become impressive ‘tools in the box’, and the chances are that school pupils of today will realise applications and breakthroughs which can seem rather distant at the moment.

Prof Richard Laing

HiTrans Oban Transport Terminal

We have recently been undertaking work in collaboration with Highlands and Islands Transport Partnership, concerning the ways in which visualisation (and 3D scanning in particular) can be used to help collaboration and design.

The transport terminus in Oban recently saw a significant upgrade with the construction of a new ferry terminal, and the group with who we are working would like to develop this further, to get a more seamless connection between rail, ferry and other forms of mass transit.

Oban whole area 02

Oban is located in the south west of Scotland, and can be regarded as one of the gateways to the Highlands/Islands (depending on your direction of travel!). There are some brief views of Oban in the late 1950s in this excellent archive film (on BFI player).

Our work has initially involved the collection of 17 high-definition scans of the area in and around the transport hub, and these will now be used to stimulate debate and design discussion in further stakeholder workshops. The scans were undertaken using a Leica P30 scanner.

We will post an update in due course. In the meantime, here is a video from the work so far (video created by Dr Marianthi Leon).



It was a pleasure last week for us to co-chair and present papers at BIM2015. The conference was also chaired by Lamine Mahdjoubi (UWE) and Carlos Brebbia (Wessex), and proved to be successful in terms of the papers and connections made.

During what became very affectionately known as the BIM Marathon (as coined by our colleague Malachy), we enjoyed a discussion which ranged across the whole spectrum of ‘BIM’ topics, and extended well beyond what I have come to expect (i.e. the implementation of BIM between detailed design and construction).

The conference attracted approximately 70 delegates from countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, Saudi Arabia and Norway, which also helped the discussion to deal with issues of internationalisation. Indeed, it became clear that we are all beginning to borrow aspects of best practice, as the implementation of BIM within practice becomes more widespread.

Although I would hesitate to necessarily draw out specific papers or presenters for attention, due to the generally very high quality of the published work, research dealing with facilities management (Giulia Carbonari), classification (John Gelder), co-design (Marianthi Leon and Alice Toniolo), 3D modelling and scanning (Noha SaleebCinzia TommasiAngulo Fornos), education (Malachy Matthews), supply chains (Eleni Papadonikolaki) and information visualisation within FM (Peter Demian).

I really hope that we can now manage to continue to develop the discussions, generate ideas, and share what turned out to be bet practice across a range of disciplines.

InfoVis at CARE North

During the recent CARE North+ final conference in Bremen, I was struck by the extent to which Information Visualisation had become an important method of communication for the work.

CARE North+, funded by Interreg North Sea Region IVB, has been exploring ways in which low carbon mobility can be implemented across the North Sea Region. This has included the consideration of how cities could react to sudden ‘triggers’, which would force change, and the ways in which car sharing and share-economy can be regarded as a tool for social and urban change.

The project team has produced a series of working papers and policy recommendations (available for download), which I would encourage you to read. With regards to information visualisation, the conference featured both the use of highly visual urban models, and the entire proceedings were captured visually.

Firstly, and as part of the work concerning ‘triggers’ for change, the team from West Yorkshire Combined Authority have developed an ‘urban dynamic model’, which is able to show the effects of transport choices and transport policy on the regional economy. A nice overview of the model is available here. I was struck by the ways in which the model was visually simple, yet contained significant intelligence from the background statistical data.

IMG_5694Secondly, the conference undertook to present the outcomes of the 2 day event using pictorial sketches developed by Eli Breuing at Visuelles Denken. Although the CARE North+ team will in time produce notes and photographs from the event, to capture the main strands of discussion in such an immediately accessible manner demonstrates why information visualisation is regarded as a powerful tool, through which complex ideas can be communicated.

Some thoughts on the RICS BIM conference

Last week I attended the annual RICS BIM conference, in London. I remember just a few years ago (maybe 5 or 6?), that the event had to be postponed due to lack of registrations. The following year, the venue was changed at the last moment as the industry had woken up to this being a reality. Ever since, the conference, in my opinion, has become stronger, and is now attended by a large audience from the QS, BS, architectural and contracting professions (in addition to academics such as myself.


The three main things I came away with this year were the huge amount of written guidance material now available, the depth of the practical demonstrations, and the ways in which the exhibition has really come into it’s own.

Regarding the publications of the BIM Task Group and the various BS and PAS documents (now covering information management at the capital/delivery and operational phases and collaborative production of information), it is clear that demands from the industry to ensure that there is an ability to have cross-industry information standards is getting closer. In the same week, warnings of an ‘internet dark age’ allude to the the dangers of not continuing to use BIM models post-construction. Use it or lose it. As I have said before, BIM is not for Christmas, it’s for life.

At many previous BIM events, I have been struck by the manner in which the QS in the audience has been reassured that they can use models to extract quantities (often through the use of either REVIT or free viewers such as Solibri). The excellent live demonstrations by Trevor Woods and Cathy Molloy really brought home how the QS can really use the software side of BIM to powerful effect, particularly with regards to understanding and visualising aspects of cost planning. It was also clear that the use of BIM in a cross-discipline manner might allow us to actually realise the core strengths of each participant (finally!). It was also clear that BIM doesn’t in any way pose a threat to any of the disciplines, as our real strengths lie in professional knowledge and judgement. What it could do, perhaps, is remove the more repetitive and mundane aspects of our professional lives.

My final observation was that quite a few of the presentations as well as the exhibition dealt with emerging visualisation techniques, including laser scanning and photogrammetry. Although presenters used the term ‘Scan to BIM’ as if it were an established process, the need for easier workflows will hopefully lead to software development in the coming year or two. Certainly, recent improvements in the ability of Autodesk software to deal with point cloud data, or to support, gives hope.

An excellent conference.