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Using an ordinary android smartphone, a 2D drawing springs into life as a 3D virtual model, with design and construction data a click of a button away

Designing in a virtual world

NZ Construction News editor Lynne Richardson visits Context Architects to find out how virtual and augmented reality are transforming the way buildings are designed, and what this means for the construction industry.

A handful of architects in New Zealand are leading the charge in embracing virtual reality (VR) technology. These early adopters have been using VR – experienced via headsets formerly the domain of gamers and the entertainment industry – for a few years now to change how structures are designed and communicated.

VR is a powerful tool for expressing how an unbuilt structure will look and, crucially, feel. From designers themselves, clients, end-users, contractors, consenting authorities and even concerned neighbours, everyone can get a realistic sense of a development long before anyone steps foot onsite.

Its proponents say VR increases buy-in, reduces misinterpretation and enables a shared understanding in a way that a 2D plan just can’t. One practice, Context Architects, is taking immersive technology a step further, and is rolling out augmented reality (AR) to transform how contractors, architects and clients collaborate to improve constructability and speed, and fix problems before they get anywhere near a site.

Demystifying the design process

“AR and VR have changed the way we design and collaborate. We use them deliberately to demystify and democratise the design process by increasing clarity,” explains Context Architects managing principal Stephen Voyle.

“In the past, architects required clients and contractors to take a leap of faith, to trust that these impenetrable scaled lines and dry 2D drawings would result in great buildings that delivered on the brief and provided strong returns. As an industry, often we designed over here, the client was over there, and we worked in a linear way, with the contractor only getting involved at the end when it came time to see if everything stacked up onsite. And it didn’t always,” he concedes.

In its team of nearly 80, along with architects and urban and interior designers, Context also employs game developers and parametric experts to create immersive, realistic worlds for clients to explore at a 1:1 scale, inhabiting their unbuilt spaces from the start.

Some of Context’s 80-strong team at their Auckland offices

“This clarity provides assurance that clients will get what they’ve asked for,” says Stephen. “It also brings them into the design process. This is what we mean when we talk about democratising design. When you no longer have to decipher plans, and when you are able to have a sensory experience of your space before it’s built, you can make more meaningful decisions and provide more detailed feedback faster.”

When I visited Context’s VR lab, Jonny Breen, head of Context’s digital division – architect by training, tech guru by calling – put me in a VR headset and ‘walked’ me through two virtual reality models: Fletcher Living’s One Central development in Christchurch, and a Housing New Zealand streetscape of exemplar homes. These standard Housing New Zealand designs are optimised for a range of tenant needs and different sites, and to enable efficient offsite construction.

Jonny demonstrates how the technology enables non-specialists to get involved in design decisions with a touch of a button. He showed me how to use the handset to point at part of the floor, and instantly change the floor finish – which looked highly realistic, by the way – from carpet to hard flooring, and to peel back the outermost layer of the building to show the services underneath for real-time clash detection and long-term facilities management.

Reality, augmented

Context’s tech aficionados, like managing principal Stephen Voyle and digital head Jonny Breen, are clearly passionate about how this technology is a disruptive influence on the industry. “It puts the client back in the driving seat, and provides the design and construction industry with the opportunity to lift what we do through better collaboration,” Stephen says. “AR and VR are changing architecture and construction in ways that we never imagined. It reminds us that architecture is a service industry, as well as an art form.”

Minister of Housing and Urban Development Phil Twyford meets with Context’s Stephen Voyle and Jonny Breen to see how the technology can transform the design and construction industries

To circumnavigate the need for the expensive hardware associated with VR, Context has developed an AR app that runs on smartphones and tablets. It provides the same clarity you get with VR, but on the fly, and with the added benefit of being in the real world – in a boardroom, on a building site or at home, without the potential isolation of a headset.

In Context’s VR lab, Jonny passes me a smartphone – an ordinary android – and two pieces of card, one with a logo on it, and one with a 2D drawing. He has me hold the phone over the plan. Suddenly, a 3D virtual model of a high street store appears in front of my eyes! I can rotate it, look at it from every angle, and even turn it into a plan view or back to a 2D drawing. A press of a button, and design and construction data appears alongside. I do the same with the other piece of card and a model of a housing development appears.

I ask Jonny how it works. “The phone’s camera and orientation and movement sensors detect the scaled lines and text or images on the paper, matching them to the 3D BIM model they belong to. They then overlay or augment the virtual building onto the flat plane to bring the architectural drawings to life,” he explains.

“This drives clarity not previously experienced by most stakeholders who aren’t used to intuitively understanding drawings and, ultimately, what final projects will look like. We inhabit a 3D world, so trying to understand a 3D building through scaled 2D drawings can be difficult. Now clients and contractors have the technology in their pockets to bring these 2D drawings to life.”

Bottom-line benefits

While it’s fun and exciting and my son (a Minecraft enthusiast) would love it, the practical possibilities are what’s really interesting. For construction contractors, it provides a feedback loop long before problems are encountered onsite where they cost exponentially more time and dollars. Contractors can go to Context’s VR lab and virtually walk through the proposed building, spotting any issues that can be amended in the model with automatic updates to the construction documentation. This feedback loop joins the dots between drawing board and site better and faster.

With AR, it goes even further, and the planned building can appear in front of the construction team’s eyes on an empty site. This realism speeds time to market and reduces reworking and remediation costs – the people designing and building a project are brought together to collaborate earlier when the only fixes are virtual.

It also provides an opportunity to work through exact construction sequencing and any difficult detailing. Jonny’s team now animate architectural details to illustrate the construction sequence. This eliminates misunderstanding by showing exactly what will be built and how it should be done to ensure integrity. Imagine a YouTube tutorial happening on top of an architectural drawing of a detail – people upskill quicker when shown the process rather than just a finished product. With skilled talent shortages in the industry, this is a game-changer.

Forward to the future

According to experts, the next generation of AR devices aren’t phones. Stephen Voyle sees the near future where Context’s clients will be onsite wearing glasses that overlay the virtual building model onto the real world, and they’ll be able to interact with it – adding and removing floors at whim.

And construction teams will have headsets built into their protective head gear showing them exactly what the building will look like when it’s constructed, complete with augmented instructions on materials, supply chain and construction details.

Using an ordinary android smartphone, a 2D drawing springs into life as a 3D virtual model, with design and construction data a click of a button away

“Why stop at 3D though?” says Jonny. At this point, the Contexters were starting to hurt my brain! “There are other dimensions within a BIM model such as 4D – time – and 5D – cost. Animating a 3D model can give you a visualisation of programme or phasing to see how it progresses over time. This is the next step for AR beyond basic visualisation. And this opens the possibility of entirely delivering a project digitally. A building could be a 3D model on your phone or tablet showing the construction sequence at every stage in an interactive and clear way, providing utmost clarity from concept to completion.”

“We are starting to be commissioned for completely digital projects – ones that will never be built in the real world,” adds Stephen Voyle. It’s a mind-bending shift for many architects and contractors. “Our ultimate goal is full augmented reality where we can design collaboratively in the model using our hands to add details pulled from the cloud – complete with all data on price, materials, quantities and construction detailing. This will change the quality, speed and cost of design and construction forever,” he concludes.

Watch a video of the virtual building process here

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