Taking a virtual tour

Nick Myall
Wednesday 27 Jan 2016

Virtual reality is on the verge of transforming the world of construction and architecture

Virtual reality used to be the domain of video games or frontier-pushing researchers in well-equipped labs. But relatively inexpensive new tools like the Rift and Google Cardboard viewers have made the 3-D experiences more accessible.

US firm LHB has become one of the nation’s first design firms to incorporate virtual reality, or VR, across the sweep of its in-house teams of architects, planners, engineers and landscapers. In the inherently complex world of construction, the firm’s leaders say virtual reality can streamline the cumbersome process of creating plans, reduce costly on-site mistakes and changes, and save money in the process.

“The future is where software and tools are merging,” said LHB senior vice president and architect Mike Fischer, who predicts an explosion in virtual reality in the field of architecture in the coming years. “The owner can see what they’re getting and the contractor can see what they’re building.”

Virtual reality simulations are a step above animations and fly-throughs now used by some architects. With VR, drawings come to life before workers raise the first hammer.

Users experience the space at eye level - with the flexibility to change the view from that of a 6-ft man to an 8-year old child. You can test whether the morning sun will cast a glare on your computer screen or whether putting a window in front of that giant evergreen will wreck a million-dollar view of the lake.

Beyond aesthetics, contractors can walk down a flight of stairs, and make sure the headroom is within code. A virtual tour of a manufacturing plant can verify that eye-washing stations conform to OSHA standards.

“With VR, you can inhabit the space in full scale,” said Aaron Westre, a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Virtual Reality Design Lab, which uses a large-scale motion-capture system in a 5,000-sq ft courtyard. “You get a far more physical sense of what that space is going to be.”

Jim Heilig got a taste of the power of virtual reality as project manager for the Duluth Transit Authority’s $30m multimodal hub, which is set to open in early February.

“We looked at the flat blueprint and saw our grand stairway, and tried to visualise the ceiling and the lighting and the walls in this area,” he said. “With this tool, you get an idea of the spaciousness much more than you would ever get on the line drawing and even off a model.”

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Nick Myall

News Editor

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