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Why Architecture Needs VR

Architects are often slow to adopt the latest technological trends into their every day practice. Here’s why they should start running towards virtual reality.

In the next 10 years, the building design and construction industries are going to undergo a monumental shift. The way in which buildings are designed, presented, and ultimately built will rely more and more on the computer aided transfer of information made possible by rapid growth in technology, and by the architect’s willingness and ability to venture into the next wave of innovation.

Architecture, welcome to the age of virtual reality.

We’ve seen this kind of shift before - more than 30 years ago when designers began the glacial shift from pencil and mylar to mouse and keyboard. People thought BIM was going to be the next great tool for the conveyance of design and construction information, but it never gripped the industry in the way people thought it would. Architects used programs like Revit and ArchiCAD to quickly manifest their designs in drawings, but with it came an unexpected lack of discipline when it came to construction drawings. People assumed the power of such a piece of software would enable them to spend less time wrestling with it. They were wrong.

BIM has made architects, designers, and drafters lazy. Its component and assembly based drawing capabilities removes the drawer from the individual attention to detail required to put together a set of complicated instructions, then to be interpreted by a guy on some dusty construction site named Biff.

So, while BIM certainly ushered in a new age of workflow and drawing practice, it has yet to become universally integrated, and one could argue it has presented the industry with a one-step-forward-two-steps-back situation. And while architects are learning how to wrangle the beast that is Building Information Modelling, it now carries with it the same weight of issues that has plagued construction documents since limestone blocks were being ushered down the Nile.

And that problem is a conveyance of information and specification that anyone without an advanced degree in architecture can understand. Seeing is understanding, and the sooner we can truly see the thing before it is a thing, the faster and more inexpensively we can start to realize it.

What is VR?

By now, everyone under the sun should at least be familiar with the concept of virtual reality. However, until recently it was little more than science fiction dream to be able to put on a headset and transport yourself into another world. Last year a number of affordable, consumer friendly VR systems were introduced into the world, giving those who indulge the unique opportunity to experience the most immersive digital experience available today. Not only that, VR offers a level of interaction that is tailor made for the videogames and other interactive media outlets.

Mega-tech companies like Facebook and Google are throwing a massive amount of resourecs at VR, almost ensuring its success in the mainstream. And, even if it doesn’t eventually find it’s way into every home in the first world, there will be enough of a swell to plant VR as a mainstay in commonplace and frequently used technology.

In Steps Architecture

An architect might tell you he/she is an artist, an urbanist, an ecologist, or any other touchy-feely kind of moniker that makes them appear to be something different that what they actually are - a salesperson. A design firm is only as good as they are at showing people why their work matters - a challenge that has sunk even the most promising careers. The unfortunate thing is, while architects are taught how to best represent their designs via models, images, and videos, they often lack the business savvy required to speak to the lowest common denominator while simultaneously impressing their peers.

There is a massive opportunity in VR to help bridge that gap and give architects a digital tool that allows them to speak to the broad audience their designs must wholistically appeal to. The architect can build their work in three dimensions, and through the use of static and real-time rendering take anyone who puts on a VR headset the one to one representation of what will someday be a realized building. Using the capabilities of VR, clients or consultants or contractors can take a guided tour through every door.

The term ‘walk away impressed’ takes on a whole new meaning.

The New BIM

The opportunities for VR to be used as strictly a visualization tool or drool-fodder for clients and other suit-wearing onlookers are obvious. However, underneath that surface-level application lurks a powerful beast that could end up realizing the pie-in-the-sky aspirations Building Information Modeling sought about a decade ago.

Imagine a job trailer. Next to the table strewn with half-ripped permit drawings, coffee stained memos and stacks of discarded donut boxes sits a powerful computer and a matt black Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. This is where the construction manager steps out of his overalls and into the mind of the architect. With a virtual button presses he removes siding, drywall, and insulation from the 3D model to expose framing members, electrical fixtures, plumbing runs, and mechanical ducts. Before a single stud is pounded into it’s concrete stem wall he can pan around the building and truly understand how its components will come together. He quickly identifies inconsistencies and conflicts weeks before they will happen in the field. He then writes up a request for information (RFI), sends it to the architect, and gives them plenty of time to coordinate a solution and get it back to the builder without a single hiccup in schedule or budget.

That’s the dream. And while, of course, there would be problems that could arise from this model, it’s easy to see the potential of adding this type of visual and informational toolset to the architect-builder relationship. I’m sure VR will never replace a trusty set of printed-out construction drawings, but it could act as a valuable supplement to understanding the design intent and building it accordingly. And ultimately, that’s exactly what the architect is hoping to preserve.

Where’s The Software?

This is going to be the most important component moving towards a future as explained above. Companies like Autodesk must get on-board with this type of interactive digital experience. The software for creating and experiencing VR already exists, but a comprehensive program in the vein of AutoDesk Revit where models can be constructed with actual building information in a easy to access interface will be the next step to making job site virtual reality an actual reality.

I’m sure somewhere a team of people way smarter than me are crafting that exact thing, and when it hits the market I’ll be first in line to figure out how it works. I think there is a demand among young designers and architects to venture into the unknown when it comes to visualization and building information. I’m hoping this old guys doesn’t get left behind when the future architects of the world are wielding the power of virtual reality like it is a finely sharpened HB pencil.

Only time will tell if VR will take-off in the mainstream. However, I’m almost certain it will contiue to be developed and used by progressive design firms who are always looking for the best ways to show off their work. Even if that surface level of immersion is as deep as the industry gets, it still has potential to shake up the industry in interesting and unimaginable ways. Grab some popcorn and slip on your VR goggles, because it’s going to be quite a ride.

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