Virtualization: The New Reality of Design

By Nicholas E. Vlattas, AIA, and Deborah Marquardt

A recent cabinet clean-out caused us to stumble upon some old design award entries. What a walk down memory lane to think of how we used to produce our graphics.

Rendering of a Georgia Tech dining hall in Sketch Up and Maxwell by Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company.

Two days later, we watched a short on-line video from MAKE Architecture in the U.K. about a strategy it used to pitch an important job. When the potential client said, “All this is fine, but we don’t understand what it feels like,” the MAKE team had a response. Andrew Godwin, business and information systems coordinator, had developed an iPad App that allowed everyone in the room to be able to immerse themselves in the 3D model, using the iPad like a window to look up, down, or around in a series of panoramas. It created an instant experience for the people in the room. MAKE won the work.

Technology today allows clients to see fully fleshed digital models of their projects. They can fly through them, experience the spaces, and see how their project fits into local context. Perhaps most importantly, it allows clients to connect at an emotional level. There’s never been a better communication tool, and many clients don’t want to settle for anything else.

You will hear some complaints in architectural circles that these technologies cause us to make a lot more design decisions sooner, or that 3D visualizations are so realistic they remove an element of surprise, and clients may assume a design is finished while elements are still being explored.
As professionals, we must keep perspective. Immersive technologies and other visualizations are design tools. Their use does not negate the need for design reviews and quality controls, and it doesn’t replace other more conventional ways of design exploration, such as hand-renderings and sketches.

Overwhelmingly, though these advances have been positive for the industry and good for business. I doubt anybody would like to go back to the old, old days.

Recently, a fast-track project in our office caused a design team to use our BIM platform, Revit®, as a design tool, rather than just a production tool. We soon learned that we could render much faster in the Revit 360 Cloud. Using this process, we quickly moved the client through different scenarios, arriving at a decision that caused the client to abandon an additive alternate. This saved hours of detail development and, since the base was drawn in Revit, it was a quick matter of adding notations to finish the construction documents—a bonus, given the tight delivery of bid documents.
Such visualizations are also great risk-management tools. Clients can’t say, “This isn’t what you told me it was going to look like.” And consultants and contractors in the field are finding these models helpful in understanding the end result, cutting down on RFIs.

Little Diversified Architectural Consulting in Charlotte empowered a group that organized as Skyscraper 3D. While the group is Little, it also has the ability to chase projects of its own if they have the potential to open the door for architectural design, explains studio leader Coby Watts. “Not being an architect, I didn’t always understand the nuances of architecture. There are a lot of people like that,” says Watts. He looks for ways to tell the project story best. Skyscraper not only produces 3D renderings but often animates them or creates a documentary-style video.  “A video invests emotionally in the client,” he says.

Revit makes things very easy, he continues. “We used to build movie sets and only build a certain part of the model to produce a rendering. The Revit byproduct is the 3D model, so all the information is there.”

The built dining hall is hard to differentiate from the rendering above. In an urban setting, it uses an ever-changing LED wall to create street interest. Photo © Robert Benson Photography.

Sometimes the graphics team gets plugged into a pursuit of new work. Sometimes their involvement comes later—for example, when a client isn’t quite understanding a design. Skyscraper helps clients, such as developers who want to pre-lease buildings, by producing informational pieces that capture the feeling of the project and its proximity to light rail or restaurants. Skyscraper 3D even keeps a model of the city of Charlotte, which helps clients imagine projects in context. One recurring question is, “What are my views?” says Watts. He adds, interactivity is huge for clients. They love immersive environments they can explore at their own pace.

Virginia Tech worked with an alumni firm, Spine 3D out of Florida, when it wanted an animation of its Solar Decathlon project, LumenHAUS. “We wanted an idea of what it would look like before building it, and then we wanted a way to make it accessible to the public,” says ACSA Distinguished Professor Robert Dunay, FAIA. Early on, appealing to sponsors and donors, “It gave us an element of credibility,” he says. Later, the video evolved to become an integral story-telling tool, because project features could be presented in a condensed way.

LumenHAUS, an award-winning solar house designed by students and faculty, originated with conventional drawings, plans, and elevations. But then a 3D digital model was made, which was used both as a presentation tool and analytical tool, for example, to study lighting, structure, and spatial composition. Spine 3D created the animation, which gave students an idea of what the project exterior would look like both day and night. “It was most interesting and informative to see how close the animation came to the final reality,” Dunay recalls.

As 3D evolves to 4D and maybe beyond, it won’t be long before we’ll be able to smell the chocolate chip cookies baking.

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