VR Delivers New Level of Design

Including virtual reality in the design process speeds decision making and enhances collaboration. But use caution when involving the client.

When architects are collaborating or demonstrating to a client, the person wearing the VR goggles experiences a near-realistic “tour” of the space.

By Lynn Brotman and Katherine Berger, Svigals + Partners

Less than a year ago our design firm acquired a virtual-reality (VR) technology system, which took residence in one of our studio’s precious few conference rooms. While this means it’s now more difficult to use the room for meetings, the space has arguably become more valuable. VR has quickly become a vital part of our design process.

Learn more about using virtual reality in the design process and how to effectively involve clients in our interview with Lynn Brotman and Katherine Berger.

Our system employs a superfast CPU for real-time 3D rendering, a pair of handheld controllers, and a state of the art headset with VR goggles. It can be difficult to describe VR’s immersive experience, especially if you’ve never experienced it. The user wears the goggles and holds the controllers while walking around and visually experiencing a fully rendered virtual space larger than our small conference room, using the controllers for certain commands including “jumping” distances greater than a few feet.

The tech junkies among us dove into the system and quickly learned everything it was capable of, then gave the rest a crash course. Since then, we’ve focused on how it could be used as a design tool. As it turns out, it’s the tool we never knew we always needed. The application generates virtual built space from 3D Revit models—we’ve been creating these models for years, but now we can walk through them, see them from “inside” instead of on a flat-screen monitor. This has produced immediate, tangible benefits.

VR and in-house design

Part of our firm’s stated mission is creating “productive playgrounds,” our term for open environments that inspire creative collaboration. Introducing VR to our process has reinforced collaboration and streamlined communication among our designers, making the conference room a productive playground. For example, we were recently considering how to design an interior atrium space for a higher-education project, and a linear wood element was the cause of some discussion. Should it be full height, or partial height?

Instead of arguing for hours, we uploaded the Revit model into the VR system and looked directly at the element in question, walked around it, and got to see what each configuration would look like. Once we’d “seen” it, we knew immediately which solution would work best. Similarly, we can apply a range of finish, material, and furniture selections to a model, walk into the project virtually, and decide which selections are best.

We were also thrilled to learn the VR can show us what the project will look like at different times of day, by programming site position, orientation, and photometrics, e.g., diffuse vs. direct light, helping us to specify lighting systems and finishes. One lighting manufacturer’s reps asked to view some of our VR models. They have taken what they learned back to their digital and marketing teams to improve their library of BIM components and object families.

Svigals + Partners gave up a valuable conference room to a virtual-reality system which became the “tool we never knew we always needed.”

VR for client engagement

There are two main reasons to use VR with clients: to obtain feedback and/or to get them to opt into a design idea. Both are tricky, and our team is learning to take care in our approach. For instance, we may want feedback from the client, but the danger in showing them a design fully rendered in 3D virtual space is that they may interpret the demonstration as an indication that our work is completed, or that all decisions have already been made.

As for opt-in, VR gives us a tool for sharing complicated design proposals in an easily understood way. We can also demonstrate value engineering, showing them why we think they will want to invest in a big-budget design idea—and then showing them what the project will look like without that element. The potential downside is in the expectations that the client may have after a virtual tour. Once they have seen something they like, they will be unhappy if it’s not delivered.

There are some other critical considerations for using VR in practice. Should we start building VR into all of our proposals as a standard deliverable? Also, actually using the goggles and controllers involves a significant learning curve—not to mention nausea, for some—making it less than 100% viable. As amazing as the technology is, our designers and especially our clients have to be able to safely and comfortably move through the virtual space before it can fulfill its promise. But our hopes are high, and we see plenty of opportunity on the horizon for its application.

Lynn Brotman, NCIDQ, IIDA, is associate principal and head of the interiors group at Svigals+Partners, an integrated architecture, art, and interior design provider located in New Haven, CT. Katherine Berger, NCIDQ, is an interior designer at Svigals+Partners.

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