Since the COVID-19 social distancing measures began, our experience of architecture has been largely reduced to life within our homes. However, the inability to see and visit architecture in person has not dampened our desire to engage with these spaces. Thankfully, institutions such as the Frank Lloyd Wright Building Conservancy have organized virtual tours of the architect's famed historic sites for would-be visitors. Even Burning Man—the annual festival in Nevada's Black Rock Desert known for its mind-bending architecture and community—will offer online revelry for its Burner community.

While architects and designers are already accustomed to using sophisticated renderings to convey their design intentions, the real estate industry is now forced to provide clients with virtual approximations via visualization tools as substitutions for the in-person experience.

One company suited for this transition is Denver-based real estate photography business Virtuance. The company offers an artificial intelligence platform that combines professional photographs and more than 25 enhancement algorithms using high dynamic range (HDR) composites to deliver a close approximation of their subject matter to an in-person experience. According to the company, these images receive twice the number of clicks compared with professional images alone, leading to more rapid sales.


Sunnyvale, Calif.–based virtual tour platform Matterport has also developed a comprehensive 3D data service that digitizes and indexes the built environment for remote experience and archiving functions. Using the proprietary 134 MP Matterport Pro2 camera or another 360 or lidar-capable device, photographers capture holistic imagery of interior locations. The company then combines this imagery into a complete and dimensionally accurate 3D model using its Cortex AI neural network. Users may post content as-is, or they can create additional 3D walkthroughs and video footage with custom location-based tags. Online viewers can review a virtualized model of the property (called a “dollhouse”), zoom into a desired space, pan around and change the field of view, and navigate fluidly from one location to another. Viewers can also isolate different floor levels, focus on plan views, and take accurate dimensions on-screen similar to using a simplified CAD program. In addition to tje residential and commercial real estate arenas, Matterport software is also increasingly utilized by the AEC industry to assess building sites remotely with precision.

According to Keller Williams agent Dana Scanlon in a recent Washington Post article, potential homebuyers are also expressing demand for narrated on-site tours, preferably in a live, interactive format. During the COVID-19 pandemic, buyers’ agents with access to properties will do videoconferencing walkthroughs with their clients, opening closets and addressing particular details that may not be adequately described elsewhere. “The live tour is an important supplement to floor plans, 3D tours, and photos,” she said.

Although architects often explain design updates to their clients via a “walkthrough” of some kind, the increased use of this interactive online format in real estate points to similar opportunities in future architectural commissions. For example, remote clients may expect narrated virtual demonstrations or immersive VR tours where the architect’s avatar is rendered in-picture, offering a scale representation and pointing out particular features interactively.

Each of these techniques—enhanced photography, 3D indexing, and interactive tours—represents a step toward creating architecture’s digital twin, or a virtual surrogate of the built environment. While the sophistication and realism of such tools are exciting, they also imply future challenges for architects. One hurdle is meeting the anticipated need to provide the same kinds of immersive, navigable, photorealistic experiences for as-yet-unbuilt projects.

Another concern surrounds the ambiguity inherent in the design process itself. Architects are comfortable weighing various decisions throughout the conceptual development of a project without the need to articulate each element in detail, particularly at the outset of a commission. Client demand for realism, however, could threaten to compress the conceptual and schematic design phases to achieve this capability earlier in the design process.

Nevertheless, the quarantine-motivated demand for immersive online experiences is a positive trend in that it indicates a passion for high-quality design and a desire for more user interaction. By making smart project delivery revisions and harnessing some new tools, architects can make the design process that more enriching and enjoyable for their clients.