Immersive Design: Transforming Architecture with Virtual Reality

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Virtual reality and other kinds of 3D visualization have been with us for decades. Building Information Modeling (BIM) has been with us for decades, too. And while architects and designers have been working to create immersive experiences from BIM models since at least the Autodesk Cyberspace project in 1988, recent advances in processors, display technology, and cloud connectivity are expanding the possibilities enabled by immersive technologies. Today, architects, engineers, and designers are using VR and other immersive experiences to convey design intent, streamline the design and construction process, and even optimize designs.

Seeing Is Believing

MRV, the leading residential construction company in Latin America, builds and sells more than 20,000 new apartments every year. They have historically marketed their apartments by building full-scale, fully decorated sample units that potential customers can walk around in. Igor Macedo, CTO of IM Designs, helped MRV make the transition to a virtual reality experience that has resulted in significant savings. He sat down for an interview about his work at AU Las Vegas 2019.

“The construction company has to build that sample,” Macedo says. “Each one costs between $60,000 and $500,000 depending on the apartment. By replacing that with a virtual reality one, you can reduce the waste of materials. It also helps with logistics, because you have to tear those sample units down. With VR, those costs are turned into relocating your digital experience.”

Igor Macedo explains how virtual reality can significantly reduce building costs, resulting in positive social impact.

For each sample apartment that is converted to a VR experience, the company can save between $50,000 and $100,000, Macedo says. “That’s raw savings. MRV has saved $20 million in two years just by converting physical apartments into virtual ones.” They can pass that savings on to customers, he explains, enabling them to make the units less expensive, thus putting them within closer reach for Brazil’s large middle and lower classes.

Check out the workflow Igor Macedo used to create the VR experience for MRV, featured in his AU 2019 class.

Building a Land Bridge to Better

The ability to convey design intent in an intuitive way, even to people with no background in design or construction, is an important benefit of design visualization and immersive technology. And that was the original goal when Ryan Noyes, a technology strategist with engineering and design firm VHB, turned to immersive tech to accelerate approval of a new land bridge project at James Madison University in Virginia. In the end, though, the VR experience delivered additional unexpected benefits.

The firm had already secured the contract to build a new residential structure on campus and construction was underway. When excavation for a parking structure left the university with 160,000 cubic yards of excess dirt and rock to dispose of, they asked VHB to help find a use for it. VHB’s solution was to propose a land bridge that would provide easy pedestrian access from the residential structure to the campus center, removing conflict with traffic on the street in between. “But we had to fast-track approval,” Noyes said when he spoke in the Theater at AU Las Vegas 2019. “We had to get the architectural review board to sign off quickly—with nontechnical staff.”

Virtual reality and interoperability are important for cross-team coordination and gaining accelerated stakeholder approval, as Ryan Noyes explains from the AU Theater stage.

Integrating data from different platforms was key to the solution. “We had GIS data about the campus, we had the housing plan developed in Revit, and we had the site plan developed in Civil 3D,” Noyes shared. “Structural components of the tunnel that were more visual we had created in SketchUp. And our landscape architects were working in AutoCAD.”

The team developed an integrated model in InfraWorks, then brought that model into Unity to create “an immersive experience for stakeholders where they could navigate themselves around the site,” Noyes said. “They could see what this experience would be like as a pedestrian crossing the land bridge or a car in the tunnel.”

The immersive experience enabled the team to get the accelerated approval that they needed, and they continued to use the model to coordinate work with the various project teams. “This has really changed how we communicate on our project,” Noyes said. “And the model was very similar to the final result. It really did reflect the built environment.”

Follow the workflow VHB used to build their unified model in InfraWorks and then bring it into Unity with this AU 2019 class led by Christopher Dubois.

Insight for Better Buildings

Communicating design intent and improving collaboration is good. Actually improving design? That’s even better, and it’s what David Weir-McCall, a senior designer and digital design specialist for architectural firm CallisonRTKL, did with a recent research project that they called Insight.

“Historically, we as architects haven’t been great at getting feedback from users to inform design,” he said during his 2019 presentation in the AU Theater. “We looked for an agile development feedback loop where we we’re able to test out simulations, try new ideas, and measure successes and failures.”

“This is the way that technology and software companies develop product,” Weir-McCall points out. “We can take that into architecture and use VR to create this test-and-learn loop.” The process involved bringing BIM models into the Unreal engine, then tracking people as they went through the virtual space, measuring user position and sight data—what they actually looked at with the goggles on. “This helps us to identify where people are going and—just as important—where are they not going. What are they looking at? What’s their view angle? Why are we designing these incredible skylights and roofs if no one is looking at them?”

“What if architects could create design solutions before they even became a problem, and evolve spaces before they’re built?” David Weir-McCall explores this and related questions in his AU Theater talk.

They used these data points to create what he calls “target meshes”—the objects on their sites that attracted the most attention. Based on their observations, they then iterated the designs. “If you take the positive elements and move them to an area where people aren’t walking or looking, does it retain the value?” Weir-McCall asks. “Does that space then get more value because of it? Is there something we can do to see if we can encourage people to go to those spaces?”

Ultimately, “we’re looking for ways to monitor spaces and use predictive analysis to anticipate design requirements,” he says. “What if architects could create design solutions before they even became a problem, and evolve spaces before they’re built?”

Get more tips and processes for creating effective VR experiences for architecture with David Weir-McCall's class and article.

The Experience of Design

BIM put data into our designs, but we haven’t always done much with that data. As immersive technologies have matured, they provide a powerful way to put that data to work. Whether it’s more aware stakeholders, more informed customers, more efficient workflows, or more ambitious designs, virtual reality and other 3D experiences give us new pathways to better understand the potentials of our built world and, ultimately, build better.