Lauren Nassef

According to the American Institute of Architects’ 2018 firm survey, “The Business of Architecture,” virtual reality (VR) technology is currently utilized by about 67 percent of large firms. Roughly a quarter of midsized firms have followed suit, shaking out to approximately 16 percent of firms overall.

It will be important to track the use of VR in the future, the survey emphasizes, to see if it remains a differentiator for larger firms or becomes a more widely used mainstay of firm practice. But with the increased ubiquity of smartphones—and the increased affordability of technology like the Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR headsets that currently run about $200—VR is becoming a viable option for more practicing architects than ever before.

While the development of VR was originally fostered by the entertainment and gaming industries, architects quickly perceived the possibilities it held for bringing designs to life. When forward-thinking members of the AEC industry started experimenting with the use of VR around 2015, it seemed to herald the arrival of a whole new way of designing. For the first time, clients could gain a firsthand feel for a space that didn’t even exist yet—and request changes that could be made easily with a few clicks or keystrokes. It was an unparalleled way to recognize a design as complete, even before the first beam was raised or nail was hammered into place.

Three years later, the buzz around VR has continued to increase and firms are seeing the very real benefits that the technology can have when it comes to saving them—and their clients—time and effort. Islay Burgess, AIA, digital design manager at Gensler’s New York office, says that giving clients the opportunity to immerse themselves in a design allows them to feel more comfortable and confident when making decisions that will affect how the space will ultimately look and feel as well as what materials—even furniture and décor—will work best. “It definitely, definitely helps them make [big] decisions much faster,” Burgess says.

For Gensler and other large international firms, VR has become an indispensable part of their design process over the last several years, largely through Revit plug-ins like Enscape, which provide a live link from building information modeling (BIM) data to a virtual walkthrough.

In one scenario, Gensler was working on the Manhattan headquarters for a company that was moving into the city, and the design team was having trouble getting a signoff from the company’s CEO on the materials palette. After three weeks of spinning their wheels trying to come up with new samples and new ways to depict how the finished product would look, Burgess and the design team decided to use the project’s existing BIM data to try something new.

“We put some of the materials in, rendered [it] out in 360, and took it to the CEO—and within 15 seconds he was like, ‘Yup, okay, cool,’” Burgess says. “He knew where the views of the Hudson River were, he knew what the new high-gloss ceiling looked like, he knew how that interacted with the metallic underside of a staircase and the wood floor, and he could just get it all with the right lights, with the right materials, and the right geometry all together.

Separate from decisions about materials, the designers at Gensler have found that one of the most invaluable VR features allows a space to be rendered as a simple white model. They’ve been taking advantage of this aspect to help define the early programming stages of a building or space design.

“We’re going in and saying, ‘Don’t even worry about the ceiling or the floor or materials yet—just 150 people on a floor, this is what it feels like,’ and making even leasing decisions via VR and what that feels like—how much sun comes in and hits the desks, what partition heights need to be to let sun into the third or fourth desk in the row. We’re using it for mostly everything now,” Burgess says.

Paradigm Shifts

It’s easy to see how VR can be useful when working closely with a single client, but when it comes to large-scale public works projects— such as international firm HOK’s ongoing $200 million expansion and modernization of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport domestic passenger terminal—VR is allowing the firm to effectively communicate their vision to a wider swath of stakeholders. The sweeping redesign includes two large canopies that enclose curbside pickup and drop-off areas, and a redesigned central atrium space.

“We have almost immediate answers to these questions about the choices we make architecturally,” says Matt Breidenthal, senior principal at HOK and the lead structural engineer on the project. “We deal with the public trust when we create architecture for an airport. They have high aspirations and high hopes. Using VR really helped attune design with time and money, and the airport’s big ambitions for their facility and our city simultaneously.” For this particular project, VR played a significant role in helping the design and construction team confidently make decisions and reach conclusions.

“It’s good for when you think everyone is talking the same language, but you aren’t really sure,” Breidenthal says.

Aligning design with time and money is a recurring theme when architects discuss the benefits of delivering projects with the aid of VR. In terms of helping architects communicate what is possible within the constraints imposed by time and budget, the value of providing a sense of spatial relationships and very nearly tangible materials specifications is unparalleled.

Kat Schneider is an architectural and user interface designer at Arrowstreet Innovation & Research (AIR), a smaller research group within Boston’s roughly 100-person Arrowstreet firm. She explains that AIR began about two years ago when the firm decided to focus more closely on the paradigm shifts that were beginning to take place within the profession. VR granted the architects at Arrowstreet the unique opportunity to exclude a person’s surroundings and allow them to focus on critical decision-making.

Arrowstreet has also been at the forefront of incorporating augmented reality (AR) into designs, which has been particularly helpful—according to Schneider and her colleagues Amy Korté, AIA, a principal at Arrowstreet, and Kachina Studer, a VR designer—with efforts around sustainability and resilience. Arrowstreet has used AR to help model the potential effects of climate change, particularly in relation to their Parcel K residential project, which is adjacent to Boston Harbor and located on a flood plain. Communicating resilience solutions through a tabletop AR model, Korté says, is the most effective way to explain how environmental and climate issues might be mitigated through building design.

“We can give it to somebody for them to explore on their own time, which I think is the real value,” Schneider says.

Using VR to Engage with Communities

When the key stakeholders aren’t necessarily just commercial clients but community members or the larger public, VR can be essential in the process of gaining understanding and buy-in for a design, particularly when it comes to schools, according to Schneider, Korté, and Studer.

“It’s been great for community engagement because, honestly, visuals are going to be the best way to describe a problem or a solution and get everybody on board,” Schneider says. Over a series of 30 community meetings that were part of the design process for King Open School, a net-zero charter school in Cambridge, Mass., Arrowstreet leveraged VR to talk about sustainability features that would be embedded within the building and frame discussions about the advantages of the features with different age groups.

“What we were finding, and continue to find, is that VR serves as the great equalizer for talking about design and performance features within the space,” Schneider says.