Art Tech: Works of Art as Architectural BIM Components

Architects are now poised to incorporate ‘digital twins’ of artworks into their 3D building models to optimise their conservation, visibility, security and visitor experience during the design of the building

Picture of Manoj Phatak, CEO ArtRatio

Manoj Phatak, CEO ArtRatio


Just as the architectural profession has transitioned over the past 30 years from 2D to 3D models, the whole AEC (Architecture-Engineering-Construction) sector is now undergoing another wave of digital transformation thanks to ‘Building Information Modelling’, otherwise known as ‘BIM’.

BIM is defined by the international standard ISO 19650-1:2018 and covers the design, construction, and operational phases of the building life cycle, integrating data in the cloud to enable real-time collaboration between architecture, design and engineering teams.

BIM includes not just static (spatial) information about buildings, but also the relationships, the metadata and the behaviours relevant to each component of the ‘built asset’.

Nowhere is this more important than in the field of heritage, culture and the arts.

The Peculiarities of Art Collections

The art sector includes museums & libraries, private & corporate collections, as well as dealers, auction houses, art fairs and art storage facilities, which often double-up as private museums.

Apart from the building envelope, there is the added complication of the collections themselves.

Works of art are often complex composites of several materials, with histories dating back millennia, and sometimes in a serious state of decay.

The natural elements (temperature, humidity, light and air quality) and the human-made elements (vibrations, pollution, etc) all contribute to their demise, leaving us all wondering why some of these objects are not returned to where they were originally excavated.

Is it possible to add in the ‘meta information’ about an art collection into the BIM model, so that architects may account for its requirements while designing the building envelope that will house it?

The answer may well be ‘Yes’.

This meta-information might include:-

  • environmental and safety constraints imposed by heavy nearby road (or air) traffic, to mitigate risks from pollution, vibration and noise;
  • the risk of damage to fragile pieces from seismic tremors in architectural sites located near fault lines;
  • light distribution and intensity patterns throughout the year, which impact the ambient temperature, relative humidity and air quality in the vicinity of art collections;
  • security modelling and risk assessments related to theft or accidental damage due to issues in the building layout, which may necessitate solutions to limit insurance premiums.


Funnily enough, this work is already under way thanks to the UNICLASS system of classifications, which include ‘BIM objects’ for all manner of artworks and “art-systems”, including oil paintings, tapestries and wall-mounted sculptures as well as exhibition equipment.

UNICLASS is maintained by the NBS, a subsidiary of Byggfakta Group, a Swedish software multinational in the construction sector, and is composed of tables of ‘assets’ that might find themselves installed in a building.

Examples of the UNICLASS tables relevant to the art world include:-

  • Art exhibitions, as found in museums, galleries, sculpture parks and historic monuments
  • Art gallery furnishings, fittings and equipment
  • Art rooms in educational establishments
  • Theatres, auditoriums, and studios
  • Artworks, such as paintings, drawings, carvings, reliefs, murals, tapestries, wall-mounted sculptures, etc
  • More ‘exotic’ examples include a real life throne, a silver ashtray and a woolsack, captured as part of a renovation project at the UK Houses of Parliament

On downloading these tables, we noticed that there was no description of the ‘fields’ (i.e. columns) in each table, which begs the question as to how this information can be formed into a data model, complete with relationships, hierarchies and ‘business rules’.

Academic Research: BIM for Museums

This academic research study, carried out by the departments of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Florence (Italy) addresses the special relationship between a building and its artworks.

Focussed on the “Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze”, which has undergone many changes over its lifetime, the study looks at how BIM can be used to organise, maintain and ensure safety in buildings housing art and culture.

In the study, each element of the collection is captured as a BIM object, including its geometric representation, materials, weight and links to museum inventory and conservation databases. 

In this case, the CAD tool Autodesk Revit® was used to import the works of art, and links were formed to external databases, inventory registers, conservation reports and international standards, such as the ICOM CIDOC Conceptual Reference Model and the Dublin Core Metadata Innovation (DCMI) initiative.

This integration of art-centric and building-centric thought processes allowed the academic team to ‘insert’ the collection into the building model, allowing them to:-

  • design new displays, temporary exhibitions and lighting
  • verify the compatibility of the location of a piece and its microclimatic conditions
  • calculate the loads on the floors and walls in contact with these cultural assets
  • manage the cleaning and maintenance of the art works

It remains to be seen whether the architectural community will incorporate this R+D and standardisation work into private practice.


Architects now have available to them the tools, processes and research to allow better management of the requirements of an art collection during the design of a building, such as a museum, library or other cultural institution.

This can facilitate decision-making with regard to the conservation of the items, risk mitigation for safety and security concerns, and potentially improve the display of culture, art and antiquities for visitors.


What is Building Information Modelling (BIM)? – The NBS, URL

BIM For Museums, An Integrated Approach from the Building to the Collections, URL

INCEPTION Standard for Heritage BIM Models, URL

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