Malaysia-born London-based architect Catharine Arul Dass, who is attached to the UK Parliament, is keen on leading heritage digital innovation internationally. — CATHARINE ARUL DASS

UK-based Malaysia-born architect nominated for prestigious awards

When she first went to Britain in 2005, architect Catharine Arul Dass was very much taken in by the historical buildings there, with their rich and long history.

That motivated her to take a keen interest in heritage preservation.

“Since coming to the UK, its historic buildings have always drawn my attention, since they date back to a thousand years, if not longer, in certain areas. They simply fascinate me and I compare myself to a floating feature who is here for a temporary period.

“As an architect, I have the privilege to make the right decisions that will help preserve our cultural heritage for future generations long after I am gone,” said Arul Dass, who is attached to the UK Parliament, via email.

“It is an honour to be shortlisted among the incredible women in our industry, especially within this quickly evolving digital innovation category (WICE) and real estate, infrastructure and construction (AWA),” shared Arul Dass, who is from Ipoh, Perak.

Both nominations are in recognition of her work in pioneering and setting the benchmark for the digital conservation requirement for heritage projects, which involves cataloguing heritage assets in a specific format.Arul Dass has been nominated for two awards for her work in benchmarking digital conservation requirement for heritage projects. Photo: K. Woodward/UK ParliamentArul Dass has been nominated for two awards for her work in benchmarking digital conservation requirement for heritage projects. Photo: K. Woodward/UK Parliament

The catalogued heritage asset system is used for digital asset management within digital construction also known as Building Information Modeling (BIM).

She went on to explain in simpler terms how it works.

“When you go to a supermarket, pick up a bar of chocolate and take it to the counter to pay for instance, if the label does not have a barcode, the till machine will not be able to scan it despite you knowing what the product is.

“So if a (heritage) asset does not have a particular classification, in this instance the Uniclass2015 codes, the digital asset management system will not be able to identify the item to be managed within the digital construction system.

“What I did was to create a catalogue of all heritage assets within our Unesco World Heritage Site, starting from the architectural fabric of the buildings, like roof, gutter, ceiling and floor finish, to small assets like doorknobs, furniture and fittings.

“Cataloguing and classifying these heritage items will enable these assets to be managed within a digital asset management system to provide the duty of care to conserve our cultural heritage for future generations,” explained Arul Dass, who is in her late 40s.

“Gratefully, my innovation has been well-received by the heritage community, project teams and my organisation. We believe it can influence the project requirements for future conservation projects,” she added.An example of a heritage asset (right) and a non-heritage asset (left). Photo: C. Dass/UK ParliamentAn example of a heritage asset (right) and a non-heritage asset (left). Photo: C. Dass/UK Parliament

Preventing irreversible damage

Her decision to work on her innovation stemmed from a lack of solution to a problem she was dealing with.

“There was no particular approach to managing and identifying a heritage asset versus a non-heritage asset. No one had yet found a suitable solution that works with our current asset management system.

“The only way for me to resolve this issue was to introduce an approach and to test it to see if it works.

“This is an outcome of over two years of hard work, perseverance, engagement and discussions with various other like-minded organisations and people who deal with heritage assets,” shared Arul Dass.

This cataloguing method, she added, will influence the project requirements for future conservation projects.

“If a future conservation project is using the digital construction approach known as BIM, these requirements will assist in organising project information in a structured format.

“When carrying out work on an existing building or conservation project, it is key to understanding the existing building history, construction method, construction material, any damage or issues, to name a few. I call these ‘conservation data requirements’.

“A comprehensive background study and survey is required before future work can be carried out.

“Having all these structured data in one location will provide a single source of truth.

“With this information, the right approach and decisions can be made to carry out the appropriate work for the building.

“Without sufficient understanding or information about the existing building, the wrong action taken could cause irreversible damage to our cultural heritage,” she explained.

Innovative efforts

Arul Dass graduated with a Bachelor of Science (Hons) in Architecture from Universiti Malaya Kuala Lumpur in 2001.She then received her Masters in Architecture in 2013 from the Mackintosh School of Architecture, Glasgow University, in Scotland.

In 2017, she completed her Professional Practice in Architecture (RIBA, ARB Part III) at London Metropolitan University.

Currently based in southeast London, where she has been living since 2012, Arul Dass was attached to the Ministry of Justice from Feb 2013 to March 2019, after which she has been working with the UK Parliament until now.

She continued that her cataloguing system also applies to the Malaysian context.

“Malaysia is starting to use the BIM approach in building construction. As far as I am aware, it is used for new-build (a house or building built recently). BIM was originally meant for new-build, but it can be used for existing and conservation projects.

“Not many conservation projects are embarking on this BIM journey due to a lack of understanding on how to use BIM for existing projects, budget constraints or the approach they take is different,” said Arul Dass, whose husband is a sommelier currently working in the corporate hospitality industry.

She also detailed some of her future work projects.

”I am now working on getting heritage requirements for managing architectural building fabric onto our facilities management system.

“With some additional intervention, this will enable a replica of our physical heritage asset to a digital asset, creating a digital twin.

“As we are now in the Industrial Revolution age of 4.0, I am taking this moment to pave the way for this to become a reality.

“My career goal is to lead heritage digital innovation internationally for the public good,” she said in conclusion.