If you’ve ever hired an architect for a design project, you’ll know how important clear communication is to a quality project outcome and a healthy burn down of the budget. You might also have experienced firsthand how difficult it is to imagine what a space will look and feel like from two-dimensional (2D) floor plans or material mood boards.
Enter stage right: virtual reality technology.
Back to the future
When Personal Architecture first embarked on the virtual world four years ago, we began with a very rudimentary technology that included cardboard glasses and a mobile phone insert. Nevertheless, this simple setup noticeably impacted how we communicated ideas to our clients, and improved their experience of the design process.
We pushed a little further and invested in some HTC VR glasses, AND THEN Began TO expand our scope.
Turns out, we weren’t the only ones enjoying experimenting with the technology. Our clients also started to have some fun. One of them got so invested in the experience, that he fell to the ground while trying to sit on his virtual couch!
It was this (well, not him falling, but experiencing our clients’ enjoyment, and the streamlining of our design process) that inspired us to explore the technology and its capabilities in design with it even more. We began to include other consultants in design development, and integrated their design activities into our model to ensure fluency. Later, we shared designs with contractors to provoke discussions on buildability. We have incrementally invested more and more to develop the breadth of our skills in VR, as we began to benefit from using it. We even developed a mobile VR set up so we can we can take the experience to our clients wherever they may be.
Fast forward to the present and we’ve moved far beyond cardboard goggles to HTC Vive virtual reality technology, having discovered that VR is a powerful tool not only in presenting designs to clients but in developing a design alongside them, and the wider consultant team, throughout the building design process. We now test different design options, lighting, and installation integration.
Taking a critical look at how VR has disrupted the way we work, I’d say it’s influenced the design process for us at PA in three critical ways. These make it indispensable - not just as a presentation tool, but as a tool we DESIGN WITH.
VR facilitates user-centered design, placing the user and their needs in the driver’s seat of the design process
Why is this important? Because architecture is not about buildings, but about the people who use them.
In essence, VR allows us to user-test the buildings we design, and verify the design choices we make as professionals. We can then, with little implication on costs, especially when this happens early in the process, make what we’ve designed for clients BETTER with their feedback. This is so much more effective and efficient than spending time and resources designing and building something that does not meet our clients’ needs. VR allows us to get closer to our clients’ ideal, and as a by-product, increases the joy involved for all participating, and vastly increases the quality of the design outcome.
VR helps us make efficient, informed and integrated design choices early in the process
Why is this important? Because if it’s implemented in the early stages, can save time and money.
By inviting other design consultants (installations engineers, structural engineers, etc) to collaborate in the virtual model from the early stages of project development, it’s evolved from a presentation tool to a collaborative platform. This virtual collaboration platform provokes lively discussion that ultimately leads to innovations and solutions which enhance the quality and accuracy of our built projects. If you have the right team of consultants and contractors on a design project, they all want to make something of high quality, and enjoy themselves while they do this. VR facilitates participation and allows us and our wider consultant team, to make better decisions early on in the development of your project.
VR demystifies the building process for all involved
Why is this important? Because clear communication is integral to the success of your project.
VR levels the playing field for everyone involved in a design project - from design professionals, to client, to consultant, and to contractor. 2D drawings have historically been an architect’s main means of communicating ideas to these players, but the general public and even contractors, have less formal training in “reading” them. With VR, we can create experiences that invite the right kinds of questions, and inspire the right kind of critical thinking at key moments in a project’s development. This facilitates understanding, which consolidates problem-solving, and generates enthusiasm for a high quality outcome.
VR is changing how we do things, and it’s doing this rather rapidly - faster than the systems around it can adapt. Disruption, like change, is not always comfortable. Although it’s clear that VR creates many opportunities, it also complicates some things. It’s also clear that VR will impact traditional deliverables at each design stage, shifting much of the work to the preliminary phases. This already has implications for the pricing of our work.
By building a VR model in the early stages (as an iterative tool as opposed to static end-state presentation tool), we’re front-loading the early design stages with details that can distract from more fundamental discussions we should be having. For example, we might get caught discussing materials because we had to apply materials to the VR model, instead of discussing the qualities of the space. So, it’s important to manage client expectations and drive discussions in the right direction.
Want to experience a walk through yourself? Take a tour here.
If you have any questions about how we work with VR, or want to share your experience implementing VR in your design process, please leave your comments below, or drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
-Maarten Polkamp, Partner