Will your architecture firm buy a drone?

Doing measures of existing conditions in Minnesota usually meant one of two things: a hot summer day with no air conditioning, or sub-zero temperatures and snow. Plus if the site was outside the Twin Cities (Minnesotans love their cabins): a couple hours of driving and a marathon session trying to get everything in before dark. Crawling around buildings with a tape measure, a pad of paper, and a bunch of pens is not my idea of a great day. I really hate measuring existing conditions. Which of course means I will now share with you:

My three favorite measuring stories*

While at SALA Architects, I once measured a nice modernist house that Eric Odor and I were going to redesign. I had the house to myself and it was a pleasant late summer day (August 24th, 2009; I know the date because photos have a date and time stamp). I brought my laptop and blasted my music throughout the house. Eight hours of measuring while listening to Metal is the way to do it. I guess now with a smart phone, I’d just listen to music off of my phone. I’ll have to remember that. Music makes working better. Fortunately one can listen to music and take photos on a phone at the same time. The right technology definitely makes documenting existing conditions more enjoyable.

A few years earlier I did a much different solo measure. This time it was the dead of winter. The temperature was closer to 0° F than 32° F. I had to climb through piles of snow and onto a roof that would eventually become a beautiful deck. I documented about 90% of the interior and then went outside to do the exteriors before I lost the light (which goes quickly in Minnesota at that time of the year). I took all my measurements and photos. I then rushed to the door between the garage and house to get back inside and warm up. But the door didn’t budge. It was locked. Fortunately I had my keys so I could run to my car for safety (yeah the temperatures were low enough to easily cause harm). The rest of the day went like this: frantic phone calls to the home owners, shame back at the office, a fortunate return to the house where I completed the measurements as the clients got ready to go out to dinner. Not cool. Not fun.

A few weeks before the fun empty house, I did one other measure in the Twin Cities with SALA Architects’ student intern. The frustration from missing and poorly collected data that was the intern’s responsibility to measure was the reason why the second measure that month was solo (yes I should have looked over her work, but after hours and hours of measuring I was a bit tired… and trusting). I can’t really blame the intern from missing what she did. Our clients weren’t technically hoarders. But… I’ll put it this way: you’ll never see professional photographs of this project or visit it on a home tour. Which is a shame because the clients were awesome and the project turned out really well (though sadly the last time I saw the project was when it was about 90% completely; I don’t know why I never went back). Anyways, I digress. The point is that we couldn’t reach all the corners of the home to measure everything we wanted. We had to climb over furniture and piles of stuff, move things, and clear paths for the laser of the electronic measuring tape. It was not ideal or exact. Fortunately we had enough pictures and I was able to piece together everything nicely in the ArchiCAD model. Mostly. I feel like there was one or two walls that seemed unreasonably thin. But hey, weird old houses have some ridiculous conditions.

A Better Way

Fortunately the interns and young architects of the future won’t have to deal with all that. Already laser scanning to create point clouds of existing conditions is becoming a normal thing to do for large, complex projects with large budgets. I can’t even imagine having to do existing conditions on some of the mammoth revitalization projects out there. And of course as those technologies get cheaper, they will migrate to smaller scale work. Which is great. Getting those point clouds into your BIM is a whole cluster of issues, but that’s for someone else to write about. On smaller scale projects digital cameras, electronic tape measures, and iPad apps are making life easier. (blatant plug: if you’re reading this before September 2nd, 2013, you can win a free copy of Orthograph Architect by going here. If it’s after that date, you should still go read that post as I discuss the switch from film to digital cameras when doing site measures). I’ve yet to try it but I always wanted to just record a video of a house I was measuring instead of taking still photos. That way I could pause the video to look at all the minor conditions I missed when only taking 4 or 6 or 8 photos of a room. That’d be sweet. And I could narrate the video as well, adding another layer of documentation.

The Drones are Coming

What if we combined all the existing tech—laser scanning, digital photography, mobile apps that build BIM as builts—and put it on a drone. It’d be a small drone, like a hummingbird. It’d be able to hover. It’d have cameras. It’d be able to get into all those little spots we couldn’t. Crawl spaces, cabinets, chimneys, attics, etc. It’d be able to fly up and measure, photograph, and document roofs and crickets. It could give you heights of trees. It’d have GPS so it could survey and pinpoint all the site conditions. How long would that take a drone to do? An hour? Two?

One of two things will happen. And by one of two things, I mean one thing, but I’ll say the other as well. Architects will jump on this idea and offer this service. Forward thinking architecture firms will buy a drone. Maybe one or two architects in a local will buy the drones and rent them out to other architects. Or perhaps just do the documentation for them. Or instead of architects buying drones, some other type of company—contractors, surveyors, engineers—will buy them and offer all sorts of as built, verification, and documentation services. It’ll be a great offering, and a big step into the 21st century for the AEC industry.

*the house I measured where the home owner made us a three course home cooked Indian lunch was pretty awesome too, if I ignore that it was a 15+ hour day with 6 hours of driving. Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on FacebookTwitter, and RSS feed.


  1. brianringley August 20, 2013
    • Jared Banks August 20, 2013
      • brianringley August 20, 2013
  2. Jared Banks August 20, 2013
  3. Finith E Jernigan FAIA August 20, 2013
  4. Vistasp Mehta August 21, 2013
    • Jared Banks August 21, 2013
  5. Erik August 22, 2013

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