Sydney Opera House, Australia

Capturing every angle of the Scottish Ten’s most modern structure involved abseil scans of the most challenging areas as well as scanning from the shells’ spines using a custom-built rig.


Sydney Opera House is one of the world's most iconic buildings. Its design of interlocking vaulted shells, resembling a white sail, pushed architecture to new limits. Engineers had to redesign the construction method for the shells 12 times over six years to find a way to create the structure.

Danish architect Jørn Utzon won the competition to design Sydney Opera House – even though his design didn’t make the original shortlist. A judge is said to have rescued Utzon’s design from the pile of rejections, however, marking it out as visionary.

Opened in 1973, the building is now a national treasure, attracting more than 8 million visitors a year.

UNESCO inscribed Sydney Opera House as a World Heritage Site in 2007. This example of late modern architecture is a feat of structural engineering and a world-class venue for the performing arts. Inside are two main halls and seven performance venues.

Selection for the Scottish Ten

Sydney Opera House was chosen as one of the Scottish Ten in the run-up to its 40th anniversary, celebrated in 2013. Digitally documenting the building will support its ongoing management, conservation, interpretation and educational programmes.

Choosing to digitally document a more modern building also served to highlight the Scottish Ten’s remit to benefit historic buildings of all ages, shapes and sizes.

Project challenges

Scanning of the Sydney Opera House took place over 20 days in April 2013.

Complete coverage of the vaulted shells was impossible from ground level. So the Scottish Ten team worked with the on-site building management team to design and build a rig to enable scanning from the spines that run along the top of the shells. A flying fox system was used to transfer the rig from one shell to another.

But even the rig couldn’t cover every angle, and the Sydney Opera House rope-access team carried out abseil scans of the most challenging areas.

Every auditorium was busy day and night for the duration of the project. So the team worked round the clock to capture the entire exterior of Sydney Opera House – and much of its interior – without disturbing visitors.

Recording the context in which Sydney Opera House sits was also important. Maptek used long range laser scanners, typically used to capture data in mines, to accurately record the Sydney Harbour area.

The special rig designed to scan the Sydney Opera House's 'shells'.

3D data uses

Scanning data provides as-built survey information about Sydney Opera House, which will be used as a building management tool. Interactive 3D models and educational resources can also be produced.

One of the primary uses of the Scottish Ten data is the creation of a building information model by Sydney Opera House. This will support the conservation of this world-renowned building for future generations to enjoy.

A photorealistic computer model generated from scanning of the Sydney Opera House.

More information

Read more about the project in the article Tripods, cantilevers and ropes: 3D scanning Sydney Opera House in the Journal of the Chartered Institute of Civil Engineering Surveyors.

Explore the Opera House Project.

Project partners

© Centre for Digital Documentation and Visualisation LLP, 2016

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