When does the point cloud become a real tool for an architect?

The rapid technological advancement in the field of architecture is introducing an array of innovative ways to streamline creative processes, enhance project efficiency and planning. One of the powerful tools is 3D laser scanning technology. In this article, we will discuss how 3D scanning technology has expanded architects’ capabilities and provided them with new tools to interpret and design environments.


What is 3D laser scanning and how much does it cost?


3D laser scanning operates in a rather straightforward manner. The scanner emits a beam of light, which, upon hitting an obstacle, returns to the device’s sensor. The sensor calculates the time it took for the reflection to return, thereby determining the distance to a specific object. Modern 3D scanners can measure millions of points per second, creating a dense network of coordinate-bearing points. The scanner gathers information about the surroundings – buildings, streets, and everything visible to the device.

Different scanning tasks require different methodologies. It’s always better to invest more time in specifying the desired outcome rather than rushing to find the “most accurate scanner.” There is a wide variety of 3D measuring tools and systems, but the most commonly encountered ones are terrestrial scanners. To obtain a comprehensive view of a building or section of a block, significant time and physical effort are required to move the equipment into numerous measurement positions. By combining these positions, a final 3D point cloud is created, which is later used to produce various digital products.


„The largest share of 3D laser scanning service customers are from building design companies. However, we’ve seen a growing demand to integrate laser scanning technology into digitization processes and infrastructure projects too. Indeed, the goal of all our costumers is the same – to capture the existing situation of an object. Laser scanning is a more modern measurement technology, where the scanned area becomes a cloud of points – a digital twin of the building from which all necessary information about the structure can be obtained (sections, floor plans, façade projections, distances, preparation of 3D visualizations, area and volume calculations, etc.


According to a report published by Gminsights.com in December 2022, the global 3D scanning market is growing at a rate of approximately 5% per year. Last year, it accounted for over 3 billion USD, and it is projected that by 2032, these technologies will generate over 8 billion USD.

It can be confidently stated that the use of 3D technologies in various construction, planning, design, and condition assessment processes still represents a small portion of work costs. Each case requires a different technological approach and necessary resources. Therefore, architects sometimes find it challenging to evaluate financial and time costs on their own. Nevertheless, it is quite easy to calculate the required investment by clearly defining the desired goal. It is useful to be aware of the basic advantages and possible uses of products produced from a point cloud. In this article, we will introduce the most common 3D scanning results and their benefits.


Point cloud and its products


A point cloud is a large collection of three-dimensional coordinate points gathered using 3D laser scanning or related technologies like photogrammetry. Each point in this collection corresponds to a specific location in the real world. When drafting experts work with a point cloud data in CAD software, they go through a series of steps to get what they need. This could be things like orthophotographic images, 2D drawings or specialized 3D/BIM models.


Architects working on cultural heritage objects or designing new buildings might theoretically manage without all of these mentioned products. However, manual drawing or slow and imprecise measurements with outdated technology are no longer practical. This approach is based on obvious benefits, but it’s easier to understand them not by evaluating the potential results of 3D technologies but by specifying aspects of cost optimization, communicative effectiveness, accuracy, reliability, and cost-saving.


Unlocking architectural potential with point cloud data


Planning stage. One of the most well-known products derived from a 3D point cloud is orthophotography. It provides a clear view of the actual building situation, allowing for precise assessments and measurements of damaged or renovated areas, such as cracked brickwork or excess moisture damage.


The facade orthophotograph – one of the most detailed 3D scanning results


Virtual inspection. Virtual tours are an excellent way to visually assess an object’s situation, plan essential nodes, flatness, evaluate their surroundings, or other parameters.

Visualization and virtual reality. The creation of a building or area typically involves formats like a point cloud, 3D mesh, or vectorized 3D model. Each is chosen for different problem-solving tasks. In the case of a point cloud, it shows a general visual situation – as it is. The point cloud can be “sliced” and selected to focus on relevant areas or nodes that will be worked on in more detail. The 3D mesh model is created when a finished, realistic view is needed. It is not intended for measurements or drawings, but serves presentations, virtual or augmented reality projects, films, games, and similar purposes. The vectorized 3D model is used for design and calculations, if work is done following specific rules and specifications of digital data.


Terra Modus Point Cloud 3D Mesh model and vectorized model

Point cloud, 3D mesh, or vectorized 3D model. Each is chosen for different problem-solving tasks.


Volume surveys. In architecture it plays a pivotal role in ensuring cost efficiency for materials used. By accurately measuring the volume of spaces and architectural elements, architects can optimize material quantities, minimizing waste and reducing overall project costs. This precision in measurement allows for more accurate procurement, resulting in substantial savings in material expenses. Additionally, it contributes to sustainable construction practices by reducing unnecessary resource consumption.


Terra Modus Volume surveys

3D models for area and volume calculations


Management of cultural heritage documentation: the management of cultural heritage objects is usually associated with photogrammetric measurements. These measurements – precise 2D drawings made from a 3D point cloud – are essential for the management of cultural heritage. Architects are familiar with the situation where the object being managed only has old, poor-quality, non-digitized, inaccurate drawings or where building plans roughly do not exist. Changes made over time are also not always documented properly. Depending on the planned work, 2D drawings are prepared according to specific needs – from a less detailed structural drawing to an actual image showing all irregularities, deformations, losses, and material.


Terra Modus 2D as-built documentation from scan data

3D reality capture is converted into accurate 2D CAD drawings


For structural design tasks: 3D scanning is used to capture the existing condition and geometric parameters of existing structures, typically when planning reconstruction work. For example, the exact positions of existing load-bearing structures are assessed, intersections of floor panels are calculated for projected building loads, and so on.


Terra Modus laser scanning

The building facade details, which are sufficient to calculate the areas of walls, windows, and other structural parts, when designing additional elements or building sections to an existing object


For digital monitoring: digital surface or terrain models are often used for monitoring larger architectural objects, monitoring specific areas, evaluating changes, planning territories, and individual plots. Digital height models are also crucial for evaluating changes in quarries or other changing surface alterations. A 3D scanner is an irreplaceable tool for such tasks, and the data obtained is precise. When measurements are taken using conventional geodetic methods, significant errors occur, time is wasted, and the collected data will not be as comprehensive as when measured with a 3D scanner or captured photogrammetrically.


Terra Modus Mobile mapping

Capturing the architectural essence of Vilnius’ historic city. The collected data can be employed for monitoring cultural heritage sites, documenting heritage changes, potential modifications, and facilitating the timely prevention of damage.


For deformation assessment: deformation maps are another product relevant to architects, derived from 3D scanning. They are especially relevant for assessing the condition of buildings, capturing precise dimensions, assessing wear and tear in industrial premises, or capturing problematic points or surfaces of unseen cultural heritage objects for analysis and work planning.

BIM projects. BIM (Building Information Modeling) is a modern design methodology based on digital 3D data collected by various methods, including 3D laser scanning. When applied, BIM significantly reduces the occurrence of costly errors, full digital documentation enables efficient communication, and the remaining 3D document of the building always allows checking the desired node from all possible angles.


Terra Modus Scan to BIM

Scan to BIM is a process of converting physical building elements, into the digital 3D model using 3D laser scanning technology

3D scanning technology assists architects in creating an accurate and comprehensive project, fostering creativity, and promoting effective collaboration with other professional groups. This technology undoubtedly becomes an indispensable tool in the modern architect’s arsenal, ensuring high project quality while saving time and money. The point cloud is universal foundational information from which a wide range of digital products can be created. However, architects are not buying the products themselves, but rather information, relevant data, or a document of the existing condition. In this way, design work becomes faster, more accurate, and significantly less costly, or errors are altogether avoided.

Architects should understand the benefits provided by 3D scanning technology, but it is not necessary to address the complex aspects of technology application themselves – simply articulate a precise task, and 3D scanning and data processing specialists, who are increasing in number.


Martynas Valauskis
Head of Survey Center

Considering delving into the world of laser scanning data, but not sure where to begin?

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