By Michael Cannell, Houzz
Architecture, in spite of its great power to enhance our lives, has its share of communication issues. Designers may present homeowners with drawings that they can’t grasp, or renderings that provide an incomplete sense of how to navigate a finished room. Terms like “fenestration,” “articulation” and “massing” rarely help matters. As a result, homeowners may write checks with only a murky sense of what their new rooms will look like. Architects, for their part, are no less wary of contractors’ miscues, and vice versa.
What if homeowners, architects and builders could walk through a new house before it’s built? What if they could see how the bedroom windows frame the view in the morning light, and appraise the sightlines from the kitchen island to the living room? How many unwelcome surprises could everyone avoid?
Those are the questions behind the design field’s flirtation with virtual reality. “VR removes one big barrier: It allows people to understand what’s being built,” says Shane Scranton, co-founder and CEO of IrisVR, which has released a beta version of virtual reality software designed specifically for architects. It has a likely launch date this summer.
For years, architects have used SketchUp, Rhino and other software to create three-dimensional renderings viewed on a two-dimensional monitor. These renderings usually look upon a space from a fixed position, and the scale can be hard to interpret. Now, IrisVR software translates working design images into an immersive 3-D world experienced visually through goggle-like headsets such as Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Google Cardboard.
An Immersive, Dreamlike Experience
I donned headsets at the IrisVR office last month and walked through a computer-generated mock-up of a symphony hall. It was a dreamlike excursion, both lifelike and unreal. I swiveled my head left and right to travel across the stage. I navigated my way up the aisle, and about-faced to view the stage from the back of the auditorium. I had the kind of convincing sense of the room — what VR companies call “scale” and “presence” — that I would never get from a conventional rendering.
If I were building a home, I would want to experience its rooms in just this manner before committing myself to layout, materials or paint color. “VR creates a level of comfort,” says Ailyn Mendoza, director of architecture at IrisVR. “If you’re the client, you’re the boss. But you probably don’t have the skills to know what the architect or contractor is doing wrong.”
VR headsets display “stereoscopic images,” which are pairs of images captured approximately eye-width apart. When viewed together, these image pairs replicate how our brain perceives depth, creating a crisp, single image with a 3-D effect.
Architects, contractors and subcontractors can review one another’s work and efficiently identify problems before construction — even if the various players are working in different cities. And they can mark those problems by embedding notes in the virtual surroundings, as they would on paper: Please check the width of this counter. Can we move this sconce 2 feet to the right? The brick wall in this room should be painted China Blue, not Cabbage White.
“It’s the ultimate communication tool,” says Richard Embers, a principal of Pulse Design Group. “We can now put our clients in the space, and show all the furniture and lights. We can show it at different times of the day or night, so they see the shadows and lights. It’s so close to the final reality that change orders can be reduced.”
The new technology may be more expensive than the labor-intensive practices most design firms now rely on, but not by much. Designers adopting VR must invest at least $4,000 for the computer hardware and software, and another $600 or so for goggles. (A less immersive version of VR is available using cardboard goggles and a smartphone.) Inevitably, hours of work are required to build the virtual rooms.
These costs will, of course, pass along to clients. However, VR saves clients the expense of conventional renderings and models, which can be considerable. A photorealistic rendering of a residence costs at least $1,000, and a model can easily cost twice as much.
Help for Builders and Buyers
Architects aren’t the only ones in the building industry testing VR. In April, a Seattle developer opened a showroom where prospective buyers can take a virtual tour of Luma, a 24-story condo building in the First Hill neighborhood.
The building isn’t due to be completed until June, but prospective tenants can already walk through one- and two-bedroom apartments, shown here, with views of Mt. Rainier and Puget Sound. They can check out the oak finishes and granite countertops, and visit a roof terrace and fireplace lounge.
“It allows people to get a better feel for the building and whether it’s a good fit for them,” says Stephen Fina, a partner in Red Propeller, a real estate marketing firm. Home goods stores may be on the verge of adopting VR too.
Will it Work for Everyone?
Let’s not assume that VR is ready to become a standard tool for design and remodeling. For one thing, it can make you temporarily queasy. The condition, known as “simulator sickness,” results when your brain registers motion, but your body is stationary. It is rare and lasts only a short time, but it’s common enough to put off some users.
Simulator sickness notwithstanding, this may be the year of VR, as a wave of new hardware leads to sharper, cheaper optics. The day may be coming when most architects design in VR, manipulating walls and window dimensions with goggles and gloves.
In the meantime, there continues to be value in the traditional methods. VR may allow us to walk among the rooms, but for many architects today, there’s still no replacement for the old-fashioned two-dimensional drawings.
“I still want to see the house in elevation,” says Daniel Garber, a partner in Fergus Garber Young Architects, which began using VR last year. “I still want to see the house in plan.”