Like many, Curt Westergard grew up climbing trees.
But unlike many, the Falls Church resident and businessman did not abandon the thrill of it all, the fun of climbing up in the sky.
In college in Ithaca, New York, he worked as a tree surgeon while attending graduate school at Cornell University where he studied landscape architecture and computer graphics.
Westergard spent about 12 hours a day up in trees 80 feet tall.
“I completely loved the view and the feeling of being up high,” he said in an interview at his office on West Jefferson. “It’s safe on a rope.”
While in school, he also spent three years working up and down the East Coast on tree silhouettes, taking pictures, measuring sunlight, its filters and the shadows cast by trees.
Westergard delights at looking at how things change. He combined his love for air and space and the outdoors to create Digital Design & Imaging Service, Inc. which (no surprise) specializes in aerial photography, landscape imaging, image and crowd analysis, panoramics, and even, pollution monitoring.
A specialty is “before and after” shots of new projects.
Many developers “tend to glorify what a new project will look like whereas our mission is to more realistically show the long term visual impact of a project and the effects on the nearby community,” Westergard said.
Early on, former Falls Church City Manager Daniel E. McKeever “recognized our ability to visualize very large projects and their impacts on the city.
“Morally, cities should look with unbiased eyes at the visual impact of all new projects” since Westergard believes municipalities are “obliged to represent all the taxpayers in the surrounding area of a new development.
“What is the cost of not studying alternatives?
“These projects will last 100 years.” It’s important to “take a little bit of time now to make a non partial visual impact study because it affects everyone.”
Westergard set up shop in Falls Church in 2000 because: “One, the bike path, two, the best schools for my children that my wife and I could possibly find are here and three, the tax-free period Falls Church offered for start-up businesses.
“Start a business and you’re a job maker” who “contributes mightily to the city” with new employees, taxes, and new cultures.
“I feel obligated to contribute to Falls Church because I got a start-up business tax” incentive to get his business up and going, Westergard said.
Working nearby at a desk with images brightening three computer screens was Digital Design’s project manager and lead photographer, Ryan Shuler, who’s been with Westergard nine years and met him at a graduate student art exhibition. Shuler has a B.S. in photo journalism and a master’s degree in photography.
He demonstrated how balloons with cameras from on high can detect leaking heat from a building and water seepage.
The cameras can also show a project before it is built and afterwards, a way to understand the lines of sight and visual impacts. Digital Design takes pride in visualizing the future.
After developers see what a new project can look like and the image it will present, they “might need to consider pedestrian access and perhaps, add more windows,” Shuler said.
The company uses aerostats, balloons sanctioned by the FAA which are permitted to fly in urban air spaces because, among other reasons, they rise and descend in a straight line, are tied to the ground, and have no flight paths or propellers, Shuler explained.
The balloons can carry multiple cameras which can rotate, directed by the ground crew.
In the crowded shop, inventions and contraptions of all sorts filled the “laboratory,” tested and reworked by the Digital Design team to expedite efficiency.
Small metal rectangles of varying sizes, like Legos, dangled from a ceiling rack.
Lying on the floor was a “zodiac boat,” equipped with apparatus for mooring a balloon over water.
Big, heavy-duty plastic orange deflated balloons hung on the walls. When they are filled with helium (“like a birthday balloon,” Shuler said) they blow up to be as big as a VW bus.
Out in the parking lot, vehicles with the company logo stand ready to zip to the next project including a trailer carrying an inflated balloon prepared for an emergency call.
Digital Design flew President Obama’s first inauguration for CNN, and it helped with visual technology at the Observation Tower for the new World Trade Center in New York, among other projects.
Working with NASA and students at St. Thomas More Cathedral School recently, Digital Design assisted in testing a “cube sat,” or “nano-satellite,” which is about the size of half a shoe box, Westergard said.
In December the tiny spacecraft launched, bound for the International Space Station, a temporary home before it embarks on a year-long orbit of the Earth.
At the end of a cold day on West Jefferson, in the office walked the former captain of the robotics team at George Mason High School, Adam Martin now a NOVA student who’s worked for Digital Design for several years.
Martin arrived to work on a robotic assignment, namely, designing a harness to hold a balloon.
One wonders what the sky holds for him and if he’ll pursue his passion in life.