The first time Stephen Fai laid eyes on Parliament Hill, he was heading to architectural school in Ottawa. Having grown up on the Prairies, he had never seen anything quite like the tall, stately Peace Tower and the surrounding complex.
Blown away by the sight, his first reaction was to turn to his girlfriend (now his wife) and ask her how to say, "That is a beautiful building" in French.
More than 30 years later, Dr. Fai is director of Carleton University's Immersive Media Studio. It is a digital playground where architectural dreams can be conjured up out of the ether of virtual reality – and where the Canada's Parliament Buildings have found an extraordinary second life.
With the Centre Block due to shut down this fall for a decade-long makeover, and the House of Commons and the Senate moving to temporary digs in the West Block and the nearby convention centre, respectively, preparations are well under way for the mother of all renovation projects. But even before the contractors get to work, Dr. Fai and his team have been busy with a suite of high-tech tools capturing every detail of the building so it can be recreated as a digital model that will serve as a reference for the project.
"It really is creating an 'as found' record as a starting point for the whole rehabilitation team," Dr. Fai said.
In practice, the effort means that every detail of Canada's most iconic building – both inside and out – is scanned and documented in a three-dimensional database known as a building information model. Since the advent of computer-aided design, such an approach has become standard practice for new buildings. Starting nine years ago, with his involvement in a refurbishment project for the West Block, Dr. Fai pioneered the method as a way to aid in the restoration and modernization of heritage buildings.
The approach includes using lasers and cameras that can scan and capture every architectural feature and detail, including those that are rarely seen up close. Using these data, Dr. Fai has developed what is essentially a digital representation of the building and all its parts. That representation, in turn, is a visual index in which every element is tagged so that engineers know what the element is made of, what it connects to, where it came from and – in the case of moveable objects such as paintings – where it is stored. Asked if the model is accurate enough that, in theory, someone could use it to reconstruct an entire life-size copy of the Parliament Buildings elsewhere, Dr. Fai said, without hesitation: "Yes."
The point is not simply to record what is there, however. As the First World War-era complex begins its second century, it will have to continue to accommodate the needs of a functioning modern Parliament while maintaining the aura of tradition. Requirements for accessibility, sustainability, communications and a host of other operational considerations that were not even dreamed of when the Parliament Buildings were designed virtually guarantee that some things will change. By working with Dr. Fai's building information model, engineers can use a common reference point to test their ideas and make sure different proposed upgrades to the building's features and systems do not cause problems or run at cross purposes.
"It really helps you to do something that we call 'clash detection,' " said Jennifer Garrett, who is director-general of the Centre Block project with Public Service and Procurement Canada. In other words, if plumbing and lighting might run into each other – or into a historic sculpture – it is better to figure that out in the model before it becomes a real-life dilemma.
Ms. Garrett said Dr. Fai's innovative approach to documenting the Parliament Buildings is one of the most ambitious efforts of its kind anywhere.
Certainly, the results can make for a stunning virtual-reality experience. In his workshop at Carleton University, Dr. Fai has created a digital tour of the Senate, showing the parliamentary chambers as they are now and then stripping away furniture, carpets, risers and panelling to reveal the underlying infrastructure, like an architectural X-ray.
"In the past, with 2-D drawings, this just wasn't possible," he said.
The main challenge to Dr. Fai's computers is the sheer complexity of the Parliament Buildings as a dataset. The Centre Block has about 1,800 windows, all of which must be separately documented. The hardest of all is the steeply sloping roof with all of its dormers and intersecting planes. Part of the rehabilitation project will involve repairing many of these features that have deformed over time, as the underlying steel framework resting on wooden runners has aged and sagged.
"There's really no regular geometry there," Dr. Fai said.
Packing all of that into a computer model may not be easy, but it comes with an important benefit. By including every detail of the Parliament Buildings as they are now in his digital model, Dr. Fai can help turn back the clock and recreate what was there when the buildings were brand new.
This has proved especially useful for restoring exterior features that have weathered away after a century's worth of Ottawa ice, rain and sleet. To resurrect these features, Dr. Fai can bring the weathered piece into his lab for a detailed scan. The data from the scan are then used to recreate it in its current, weathered form as a piece of high-density foam. Using archival photos for reference, a sculptor can add clay to the foam to build back up what the weather has taken away. That version is scanned and used as a guide for a robot drill that can rough out the stone replacement for the piece, leaving the fine details for the sculptor to complete.
Phil White, who for the past 12 years has occupied the singular role of "Dominion sculptor" within the federal government, a job that requires him to repair sculptures in the parliamentary complex and create new ones, said the marriage of new technologies with traditional craftsmanship has been a boon to the restoration effort. It has also reignited interest in architectural sculpture (relief carvings on buildings), something that modern design had, until recently, relegated to the history books because of cost and changing styles.
"This is something that's been missing from buildings for decades, and all of a sudden this new technology comes along and architects and students are getting interested in sculpture and decoration again," Mr. White said.
Dr. Fai said he is relishing the project of a lifetime, and the chance to connect his digital perspective to a far older tradition. Whether poking into corners few have ever seen, staring into the eyes of gargoyles and grotesques 20 metres above the ground, or climbing behind the face of the Peace Tower clock, the work has given him a chance to see, up close, every handmade detail of the building that once enchanted him from afar.
"It's been a moving experience," Dr. Fai said. "I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing."