CityLIS Research Student Profile: Oz Ablett

We are delighted to welcome Oz Ablett back to CityLIS as a research student.

In this post, Oz Ablett introduces his PhD, which considers how the built environment can be described as a document. He also discusses his work on Building Information Modelling (BIM), undertaken during his Masters’ degree. Oz is influenced by Michael Buckland’s notion of a document as three dimensional objects, which has lead him to think about how buildings can be ‘read’.

Oz has a research blog: Building Documents

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My name’s Oz Ablett and I’m excited (and a little apprehensive) to say that I’ve recently registered to study with CityLIS as a research student, following successful completion of my Masters degree – also from CityLIS.

My Masters studies were completed while I was working full-time for a large construction design firm, and much of my research looked at how information is instantiated in the built environment. This research considered the impact of a new way of designing buildings such as schools, libraries and hospitals as well as other structures (such as roads, bridges and railway lines) called Building Information Modelling, or ‘BIM’. BIM is a process which formalises how different design disciplines work together and share their information, creating a virtual model representing the building during its use and ultimately renovation and/ or demolition. Believe it or not, this is considered cutting edge by the construction industry.

From an information science perspective, my Masters research highlighted work by Suzanne Briet[i], Michael Buckland and others who considered what constitutes a document. Buckland in particular highlighted that once one “accepts the notion of documents as objects from which one may learn, then there is no basis for limiting the scope to text recorded on two-dimensional, flat surfaces”[ii]. These theories, combined with the design industry beginning to use BIM methodologies, have led me to consider whether buildings (and the built environment) can be considered documents.

BIM methodologies formalise a process for creating and managing information associated with construction projects from initial concept sketches through construction and into use, re-use and ultimately demolition. BIM has increased the volume of information being generated during the building design process. This uptake has been augmented by the UK government’s Construction Strategy which mandated that all publically-funded building projects must operate in “a fully collaborative” BIM environment[iii].

I anticipate that the research will also consider the concept of ‘virtual’ structures created by architects, engineers and others as outputs from the design process including structures which have been, for whatever reason, destroyed. For example, the Bank of England building was extensively remodelled between 1925 and 1939, resulting in significant changes from the architect’s original plan. In November 2015, architectural practice RAMSA announced they were working on a project to re-create the original building in a virtual model[iv] to allow architectural historians and others to view the building as it would have looked for the 137 years before this work was undertaken – and even allow for the possibility of re-building the original structure.

The information stored in and associated with the built environment goes beyond BIM. A building’s history, the methods of construction and its use also tell their own story. My research will consider all the information present in buildings and how that information has been and is now being used, both by the wider construction industry and those who live, work, play and study within the built environment.

Thus my research will also consider how buildings can be ‘read’ by considering construction techniques and architectural styles as well as the materials used during construction. In addition, I also plan to how buildings relate to their immediate and local environments considering context and ‘vernacular architecture’. For example, whether the two flats from the Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London purchased by the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2017 should represent the whole of Alison and Peter Smithson’s development or be considered an artefact in its own right – or indeed thought of as an example of the ‘brutalist’ architectural movement between the 1950s and 1980s[v].

I hope that my research contributes both to the growing field of document theory as well as the construction design industry’s approach to designing, building and maintaining the built environment. I will be writing regular blog posts and highlighting interesting pieces of research through social media (Twitter: @oswaldtwistle). I also hope you all enjoy this journey as much as I hope to.

[i] Briet, S., 1951. Part I: A Technique of Intellectual Work. In: R. E. Day, L. Martinet & H. G. B. Anghelescu, eds. What is Documentation?: English Translation of the Classic French Text. Paris, France: Scarecrow Press, pp. 9-19.

[ii] Buckland, M., 1997. What Is A “Document”? Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 48(9), pp. 804-809.

[iii] Cabinet Office, 2011. Government Construction Strategy, London: HMSO.

[iv] Rogers, D., 2015. The Lost Masterpiece of Sir John Soane Brought Back to Life in BIM Available at: (http://www.bimplus.co.uk/technology/lost-master8piece-sir-jo3hn-soane-br2ught-back)

[v] Bingham, N., 2017. Moving flats: Robin Hood Gardens comes to the V&A (http://www.vam.ac.uk/blog/network/moving-flats-robin-hood-gardens-comes-to-the-va)

About Joseph Dunne

Joseph is a practitioner scholar in theatre and library information science who teaches at several universities. His research interests include immersive performance, performative writing, digital culture, documenting and archiving, and audience participation. He is currently investigating the aesthetics of the post-truth era. You can learn more about Joseph's work at www.josephjohndunne.com.
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