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White Paper: Implementing digital image photography in the building industry

An investigation into the most promising applications of digital image photography by architecture and construction firms

Digital image photography defined

A whole new way of taking pictures, digital photography captures images electronically, making them instantly available for computer processing and output. Consequently, the image is far more versatile than a traditional photograph, which requires extensive processing. Once downloaded to a computer, the image, like any other electronic document, may be printed, enhanced, filed in a database, or transmitted to remote locations. Computers thus play an integral role in digital photography.

Digital cameras have evolved to an important stage - they are actually easy to use. If accepted and integrated with design and construction processes, this technology has the potential to change the way architecture and construction firms communicate. Currently, there are a significant number of firms in the building industry that are considering the use of digital cameras to replace or augment current photographic services. Few however, have begun to take fully take advantage of this technology. The goals of this research are to:

Demonstrate the feasibility of architecture and construction firms successfully using this technology

Begin to assess the potential impacts of digital image technology on the design and construction process

Methodology

Surveys, interviews and trial applications were used to investigate the feasibility of architecture and construction firms using digital photography and related technology. The strategy of this research was to show that existing expenditures on photographic services by architecture and construction firms are comparable to the costs of a digital image system, and thus encourage the use and experimentation of this technology in the industry.

Surveys were distributed to Seattle area design and construction firms that explored the existing use of photography on various types of projects and contracts. Surveys also requested existing expenditures made for photographic services in order to assess the feasibility of investing in digital image technology. Several open-ended questions explored the current understanding of and interests in digital image technology.

Several survey respondents were contacted and interviewed in person to examine how digital image technology may be integrated into their work processes and services. Trial applications of digital photography were also performed to gain first-hand experience using digital imaging tools. Finally, three case studies were initiated in which digital technology has been used on building projects. Currently in progress, these case studies will focus on determining the potential benefits and improvements in project communication that result from using digital image technology.

Industry survey

A survey of 25 architecture and 25 construction contractors assessed current areas of photographic use and expenditures on photographic services on a per-project basis. Respondents were also asked to suggest what types of projects and contract types result in increased needs for photographic documentation. Lastly, the survey assessed current experiences with and further interests in incorporating digital photography into the design and construction process.

Survey data and analysis: Fifteen architecture and 15 construction firms responded to the survey. Per project and Annual project expenditures were categorised into six different areas of current photographic use: Site Analysis, Monitoring Project Progress, Record Keeping, As-Built Record Keeping, Marketing and Other . The respondents rated each category in terms of the frequency of use of traditional photography using a scale of 0-3, three being the most frequent. Estimates of expenditures on photography in each category were also provided. Current experiences with and future interests in digital photography were compiled in a short answer format. The data collected was averaged and summarised for three areas of focus: Areas of Use, Current Expenditures on Photography, and Interest and Experience in Digital Image Photography.

Areas of use

The architecture and construction firms responding indicated that there are extensive needs for photography in their organisations. While both types of firms use a large volume of marketing photos, architecture firms have greatest use for photographic documentation during initial site analysis . Construction firms rely more heavily on photographic documentation of Project Progress .

Respondents were also asked to compare their use of photography on different types of projects, e.g. New Construction, Renovation Projects, Tenant Improvement/Fit-out, Infrastructure and Other. Most agreed that all projects require photography and varied amounts depending on size and duration. However, renovation work and new construction required many more photos for site analysis and project documentation. These photos were normally medium quality colour photos taken by in-house employees.

Finally, comparisons of photographic use were made between projects with different contractual arrangements, e.g. Lump sum, Negotiated, Design-build, Cost-Plus and Other. While most firms indicated that there was no difference, several contractors pointed out that the higher the risk of litigation or disputes, the more photos are taken to document site conditions and project progress.

Current expenditures

For each of the same areas of use, expenditures were averaged for both types of firms responding. Architecture firms spend an average of $18,000 per year on photographic services, approximately $2,314 of which supports site analysis. Contracting firms spend an average $35,725 per year, on photographic services, approximately $13,000 of which supports monitoring project progress. Expenditures were also evaluated on a per project basis to determine if it would be feasible to purchase and use a digital camera for site analysis or project documentation on a single project.

While architecture firms were found to be spending the most money per project ($916 average) on high quality photos for marketing purposes, they are also spending close to $750 per project for site analysis, monitoring progress and record keeping (services most easily replaced with digital images). Construction firms were found to be spending up to $5000 per project for site analysis, monitoring progress and record keeping. Both of these figures were then compared to actual costs of an example digital image management system.

Current industry interest and use of digital image photography

Experiences of the respondents who are currently using digital photography have been positive. They have found added benefits in the speed in which images are available for use, compatibility with electronic media, and in the actual management of images. Two common problems experienced were the quantity of storage space and the management of large numbers of images.

Several existing field applications of digital image technology were examined to gain insight into the benefits and motivating factors experienced by users. Experiences of architects, contractors and owners ranged from general experimentation to full-fledged digital image management systems.

Architecture firms have begun using digital image technology to assist in the design process. In one case, digital photos were taken of an architectural model and used to make a presentation to a client in a remote location. Many images were displayed with a computer, and the need to transport the model to the client's office was eliminated. In another case, images were combined with CAD drafting overlays to produce construction documents for a renovation project. Discussion with several architecture firms reaffirmed that the highest use of photography outside marketing was for site analysis at the onset of projects, in particular, renovation projects.

Construction firms were found to be using digital cameras to capture daily progress photos for historical record keeping purposes. It was found that the highest need for images is on renovation projects where the need to show "before" and "after" conditions is often necessary. Images were stored on disks and archived for future reference, eliminating the need for cumbersome photo albums. Several design, engineering and contracting firms have also begun to use advanced systems that are designed to catalogue and transmit images between remote locations.

Owners were found to be driving another application of digital photography - the inclusion of images of construction projects on Internet web pages to provide owners and project participants with up-to-date progress photos of a project. Galleries of recent photos can be created using the most basic HTML code. Real-time images can also be included as they are captured by conventional video cameras, digitised by a computer and downloaded automatically to web pages at pre-determined intervals. This application could easily be adapted for time-lapse analysis of on-site operations. It has been envisioned that in the near future, project sites equipped with advanced teleconferencing systems will allow project participants in remote locations to participate in a real-time project walk-through using digital image technology.

By far, the most extensive users of digital image technology are owners. Organisations like Boeing, Microsoft, the GSA, and the US Postal Service have begun to transfer their project documentation from traditional photography to digital image format. In many cases, the use of digital image photography on a particular project was found to be driven by the owner.

Overall, the use of digital cameras by architecture and construction firms was found to be very limited. Actual applications that were observed were limited to basic tasks. Almost every firm contacted, however, expressed a strong interest in this technology, and intentions to explore its use. In the future, the respondents envisioned using digital photography in the following ways:

To enhance and improve existing use of photography, especially for site analysis and project documentation

Transmission of real-time progress images by Internet bidding and documentation of existing damage to job sites before work begins

Development of manuals/presentations for methods and safety training

Video presentations

Making alternative working drawing methods using photos of details from previous projects

If transfer of digital images was as easy as pasting text into a CAD drawing or document, then actual photo images could be used in renovation/remodel sets to show changes

Documenting renovation projects and as-builts

Trial application

An example digital image system was set up and tested by the research team. This application was performed to gain first-hand experience with several popular and readily available products. The application included researching available tools and acquiring and setting up the necessary hardware and software for a basic imaging system. Images of sample projects were then captured, viewed and archived as they would be on trial design and construction projects. The products used for the application included:

Kodak Digital Science 40 camera: capturing images $800

PhotoEnhancer Software: transferring images to a computer (existing)

Computer with 133MHhz processor: view and use images (existing)

QuickSolve Image Database: manage images $600

Iomega Zip Drive (storage): share/archive images $200

Netscape Software: add images to web pages (N/A)

PowerPoint Presentation software: present images at meetings (existing)

Total: $1600

The above tools were used to capture and manage sample images. These images were then used for a number of practical purposes including:

Capturing images from a site investigation and cataloguing in a database

Superimposing images of an architectural model onto images of a prospective site

Viewing images on a high-resolution screen to analyse site conditions in detail

Including images on a sample project specific web page

Presenting a project proposal with images in a PowerPoint presentation

Results

The tools used in this application were very easy to use and readily available. Images were most clearly viewable on a computer monitor and printed on a laser printer. Images were also very easily added to project reports, PowerPoint presentations and web pages for dissemination to project players.

The image database allowed large numbers of images to be stored, sorted and retrieved effectively by using key words and captions created by the users. The Zip drive allowed up to 80 full size and 300 compressed images to be stored on one 100Mb disk, which was essential once a large number of images were acquired.

One drawback of this system was that images were recorded in a format that allowed them to be edited or altered. This is considered to potentially make them inadmissible as evidence should they ever be needed to resolve a dispute. Several methods are available, however, to store images in a format in which they can not be changed. These include writing the images to a compact disc (physically burns image onto disk) and several proprietary systems that prohibit alteration of images once they are downloaded from a camera.

The training needed to learn how to use the tools in this application could easily be accomplished in a day. It was estimated that a project engineer on site would require approximately one hour per day to annotate and archive 25 images taken on a daily project walk-through. This time would be added to the time needed to complete daily project logs and progress reports.

In summary, the products used were easy to work with, and produced useful results. The cost of the necessary tools ($1600) was also found to be well within the range of typical expenditures on photographic services for a single project ($914 - $5000). The advantages of easily accessible site analysis photos to architects combined with the simplicity of combining images with design information make this technology of great interest to the architecture profession. Documenting large numbers of progress photos also proved to be quite feasible and attractive to construction contractors.

Recommendations

The goal of this study was to assess the feasibility of, and best applications for using digital photography in the building design and construction process. It is evident that the graphical nature of communication used in the design and construction process can be immediately enhanced by the capability to capture and exchange images of site conditions and work progress. By evaluating existing use and expenditures for photographic services, as well as the affordability of digital cameras, it was found that most medium to large firms could easily begin replacing traditional photographic services for site analysis and project documentation with digital photography. This initial change would allow the advanced features of this technology to be explored, largely driven by client needs and marketing initiatives.

An effort was made to determine what type of projects and contractual arrangements require an above average amount of photo documentation. Renovation projects, above all, have the highest need for photographic records for both architecture and construction firms. For the most part, however, the need for photos is driven by two factors: project location and potential litigation, regardless of project type or contract arrangement.

It is feasible, if not cost effective, for architecture and construction firms to begin using digital image technology. In many cases, the benefits are already being experienced by firms who have purchased digital cameras and begun using them on site. One important trend to note is that more owners are beginning to expect the kind of high quality and timely progress reporting that digital image photography can provide. It is envisioned that eventually this service will be required of architects and contractors, and should therefore be offered during marketing proposals.

Three factors will continue to encourage architecture and construction firms to use digital photography. First, there may be specific needs and requests of clients to provide digital photography services on a project. Second, digital image photography can replace traditional photographic services at some savings and in many cases, with improved management and versatility of images. Third, digital image technology can be used to improve the communication of site conditions and work-in-progress between design and construction firms.

A recommended strategy to encourage experimentation with this technology is to replace existing use of traditional photography for site analysis and project documentation with digital photography. In time, as the need arises, the use of the technology can be expanded to some of the more advanced functions discussed above. The following practical lessons learned through the trial application and case studies are provided as a practical guide for setting up and implementing a basic digital image photography system.

Future research

It is evident that the use of digital image photography will continue to grow in the building industry. As a result, more avenues to take advantage of this technology will surface. Questions being asked by architects and contractors are not whether or not to use this technology, but how to best put it to use to improve design and construction processes. In response to this question, further case studies will be performed to determine how the ability to share current images of the site and construction progress can be used to and improve project communication and the productivity of designers and project managers.

( 1999 CERO

Compiled by Arlene Martin


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This was first published in March 1999

 

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