University Students in Hawaii Use Cutting-Edge Technology to Digitally Restore Historic Buildings Damaged by Maui Wildfires

A new course at University of Hawaii at Manoa rethinks historic preservation, having enrollees design digital twins of notable structures so that people can experience them virtually

Old Lahaina Courthouse
The Old Lahaina Courthouse was destroyed in a wildfire on August 11, 2023. Sebastien Vuagnat/AFP via Getty Images

In early August 2023, wildfires devastated the Hawaiian island of Maui. The dayslong blaze, whose exact cause and origin are still unknown, displaced thousands of residents, scorched over 2,500 acres and led to the deaths of over 100 people—the deadliest United States wildfire in more than a century.

Lahaina, a historic town on Maui’s western shore, was hit especially hard. During that second week of August, four major wildfires appeared across the island, but nearly all reported deaths were Lahaina residents.

More than 2,200 of Lahaina’s buildings were damaged or destroyed, including its culturally and historically significant 150-year-old banyan tree and structures dating back to the early 19th century—when Lahaina was the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. In 1962, Lahaina was designated a National Historic Landmark for its historical significance and well-preserved architecture.

A groundbreaking architecture course takes shape

Some people thought restoring Lahaina’s historic architecture after the fire was a lost cause, says William Chapman, dean of the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Architecture.

“I thought visualizations would help people to see that here’s the first step toward the realization of what could be recaptured,” Chapman says.

Chapman and Hyoung-June Park, an associate professor of design and computation at the School of Architecture, discussed creating a course where students would use digital tools and technological visualizations to preserve Lahaina’s fire-damaged historic architecture. The goal was to create digital reconstructions to serve as virtual replacements of damaged buildings, while also keeping in mind that these virtual versions might be a helpful tool to physically reconstruct the buildings, too.

Park says that he wanted to pursue this opportunity not only because of his relevant skills and experience but also because he is one of the kamaʻaina (Hawaiian for “child of the land”).

“This is not something out there; this is my mettle, too,” Park says.

Park contacted Kyung Hoon Hyun, a design computing specialist at Hanyang University in Seoul, South Korea, to invite him to co-teach the course as a visiting professor. Having previously collaborated on mixed reality and artificial intelligence research, Park and Hyun combined their expertise to develop “ARCH 490: Rebuilding Lahaina in Mixed Reality.”

The course, which began on January 9 and concluded on April 23, emphasized the concepts of “preservation through memory” and “engagement through sharing,” Park says.

The 11 students enrolled in the course were divided into four groups, each selecting a different historic Lahaina building damaged by the wildfires to focus on for the semester: Baldwin Home, Master’s Reading Room, Old Lahaina Courthouse and Wo Hing Society Hall.

Between 1834 and 1835, after Lahaina transformed itself into the whaling center of the Pacific and Kamehameha II allowed Christian missionaries to settle the Hawaiian islands, one such missionary, the Reverend Ephraim Spaulding, built the Baldwin Home—the oldest house standing on Maui before the fire. After Spaulding fell ill and left Hawaii in 1836, the Reverend Dwight Baldwin and his family became the residents—hence the building’s name. In 1934, the Master’s Reading Room was constructed to connect ship officers, sailors and their families with the missionaries.

In 1859, the Old Lahaina Courthouse was built to serve two purposes: a customs house for whaling and commercial ships, and a center for governmental business, court affairs and incarceration. Today, the building is positioned between Lahaina’s harbor and the town’s banyan tree, planted in 1873 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first American Protestant mission to the island.

During the mid- to late 19th century, thousands of Chinese immigrants, hundreds of whom lived and worked in Lahaina, were brought to Hawaii to work on sugar cane plantations. Lahaina’s declining whaling industry was replaced with sugar cane. By the early 20th century, a group of these immigrants formed the Wo Hing Society and built the Wo Hing Society Hall around 1912 as a hub for Lahaina’s Chinese immigrants to preserve their cultural identity and celebrate festivities.

“All of the buildings that we are currently restoring in 3D were buildings that I lived near and used to see going to school all the time,” says Ofeinahelotu Filikitonga, a junior studying environmental design and cinematic arts who grew up in Lahaina. “I’ve actually been into each one of these buildings before the fire, so seeing my classmates and I resurrect these things with technology is really heartwarming.”

Students collected images and blueprints of the buildings from resources such as the Library of Congress, the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division and Google Earth.

Filikitonga, a member of the Old Lahaina Courthouse group, traveled to Lahaina earlier in the semester for a project in her cinematic arts program. She invited some of her ARCH 490 classmates to join, so they could have some insight into the community.

“I thought that this could serve as a really great learning opportunity for all of us,” Filikitonga says. “Although it is depressing to look at the destruction, it also can be very informative, very helpful to see the aftermath of a really tragic disaster.”

burned neighborhood in Lahaina
Burned homes and vehicles are seen in a neighborhood that was destroyed by wildfire in Lahaina last summer. Tamir Kalifa for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Students also had the opportunity to learn about and discuss potential stakeholders involved in rebuilding the architectural heritage from experts at the Hawaii State Historic Preservation Division, according to a University of Hawaii at Manoa statement.

Using 3Dpresso, an A.I.-powered tool turning videos into 3D models; Rhino 3D, a commercial computer-aided design software; and Lumion, a 3D rendering and animation software, the students transformed their findings into high-quality, three-dimensional renderings. They produced the digital renderings using 3Dpresso and Rhino 3D, then created phased animations of their digital reconstruction using Lumion.

“This class focuses a lot on digital and A.I. and 3D scanning. I haven’t really had any classes like that before. We’re usually just learning about older stuff,” says Karly Tangonan, a junior studying environmental design.

Wo Hing Society Hall (Phase Animation)

How A.I. and 3D modeling are changing historic preservation

Filikitonga says that Park and Hyun “definitely nerd out when they start talking about A.I., but it’s understandably so. The rate at which it’s developing is literally insane.”

Students used the same technologies that were deployed to redesign Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris and Shuri Castle in Naha, Japan, after fires damaged both historic landmarks, Hyun says.

“The processing power that you have at your fingertips now to be able to take overlapping photos and digitally recreate things has changed the survey industry. It’s mind-blowing. One of the coolest aspects of that is that you can create this digital twin of any structure, facility or object,” says Matthew Bainbridge, a principal at Civil & Environmental Consultants Inc., an engineering and environmental consulting firm with offices nationwide, who was not involved in the course.

For his work, Bainbridge often relies on laser scans and photogrammetry rather than blueprints and images.

“I think it’s an awesome skill set the students are learning,” says Bainbridge. “That’s not an easy task to take blueprints and photos and to reconstruct something in Rhino.”

As the risk of damage from natural disasters looms large, historic sites worldwide need digital preservation and restoration.

Bainbridge recently returned from Volterra, where he is involved in a project to preserve the historic Italian town. “Volterra is an old walled city up on a hill, and that part of the hillside that it was built on has been sliding,” he says. “They’re very close to losing a church right now. It’s come right up to the walls. So they really wanted to get some people to collaborate on capturing the city, as they realized that part of the city would be lost eventually, and they wanted to make sure that they captured it and could rebuild it.”

Bainbridge says that Machu Picchu is another site his team wants to help preserve and restore, as storms and earthquakes have jeopardized some of the ruins in Peru.

“I’m just excited to see how these tools are going to be used in the future, because there are a lot of tragedies where you have buildings being destroyed and the complexity of having to rebuild these physically,” says Jennifer Rodriguez Flores, a senior studying environmental design at the university. “Having them digitally is a good opportunity. It’s good for understanding and appreciating historic architecture in new ways.”

While initiatives to maintain Lahaina’s historic architecture, like the Lahaina Restoration Foundation, have existed since the mid-20th century, and other projects to rebuild Lahaina are underway, this course is the only project using this technology for digital restoration, according to Park and Hyun.

“There are mixed feelings about what these things [A.I. and 3D modeling] bring to architecture and the art world, as well as our historic preservation,” says Flores. “But based on our experiences with the class, it’s important, and it’s interesting to see how these tools can be used to forever capture what these buildings were.”

And these animated 3D renderings were just one component of the assignment.

“We didn’t want the objective of the course to simply be constructing an old building; we wanted to reconstruct a 3D model of the old building and find a way to expand this usage,” says Hyun. “We wanted students to come up with interactive ways of how to invite people from outside remotely and share the community experiences of old Lahaina.”

The final deliverable included a stakeholder map, where students outlined the various touchpoints, processes and interactions between a virtual visitor and a potential interactive experience with the 3D model.

After conversations with students and experts on Lahaina’s historical preservation, Park and Hyun realized there is “more to just experiencing the old buildings.” Each building “had very specific, unique, communal experiences,” and “we realized if we can somehow mimic that virtually, it’s going to be a virtual place where people from all over can visit and experience those communal events,” Hyun says.

“My professors are making us imagine what these tools could be used for as a platform, like a video game, where you have the opportunity to interact with the building digitally,” Rodriguez Flores says.

While individuals worldwide can use virtual and augmented reality to explore historical sites from home with resources like HistoryView, these technologies also enhance the in-person experience for visitors at many iconic locations.

“If you go to the Acropolis in Greece, the temples are destroyed, but then they have 3D reconstruction technology and AR implemented,” Hyun says. “So they pass out iPads, and you use them to see a full, restored version, but then, with your real eyes, you see the damaged building.”

Students could also reimagine the building’s services to align with their vision for potential future use.

When Lahaina’s sugar cane industry dwindled, the town pivoted to tourism, becoming one of Hawaii’s most popular destinations. Today, many of Lahaina’s historic buildings, some of which were renovated in the past 50 years, operate as museums or tourist attractions.

Filikitonga wanted to work on the Old Lahaina Courthouse because of its potential as a valuable community space. Before the fire, the building’s first floor housed a small art gallery, gift shop and the Lahaina Visitor Center, and the second floor featured the Lahaina Heritage Museum, which primarily highlighted the town’s whaling history. Filikitonga’s group re-envisioned the courthouse as a government services resource for Lahaina’s residents to meet and vote in.

welcome sign for Old Lahaina Courthouse
Before the fire, Old Lahaina Courthouse's first floor housed a small art gallery, gift shop and the Lahaina Visitor Center, and the second floor featured the Lahaina Heritage Museum, which primarily highlighted the town’s whaling history. Rick Obst via Wikipedia

“Lahaina is a very tourist-friendly destination. It was probably the most popular town for people to visit on Maui. And, in some sense, I feel that the buildings in the town were so focused on engaging visitors and attracting them to the area that it didn’t really serve the community in any way,” Filikitonga says. “So my hope is that by the end of the semester, we don’t just leave with a really cool 3D model, but we leave with something that better reflects a town as well as better serves it.”

While ARCH 490 is an experimental course being taught for the first time, Park and Hyun hope it is offered again in the future.

They want to continue working with Lahaina; this is just the beginning, Park says.

“Sadly, one way or another, these things will happen,” Hyun says. “But then if we do this thing right, and if we set examples of how to preserve and collect the data from now on, this can become a standard so we can easily reconstruct the damaged buildings more easily, physically and virtually. I just really hope this thing will be helpful for society.”

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