By Rebecca Lednev, Project Architect

You walk down a corridor on your way to an operating room. On your left is a scrub sink. You pause and take a quick peek through the view window above the sink before you enter. Inside the room your gaze quickly falls onto the operating table that is seemingly protected by three large, ceiling-mounted booms. The ceiling above the table is covered with thousands of tiny holes – air diffusers – with linear lights along the perimeter that flood the area with a cool, white light. You admire the da Vinci robotic system as you walk over to the documentation station for a different perspective of the room.

You then pull off your virtual reality headset and are back in the conference room.

Scenes like this are becoming increasingly common in the architecture industry as more and more firms realize the benefits of incorporating virtual reality (VR) into their workflows – not only in how they present their projects but also into the design process itself.

Background

VR is a way for clients to immerse themselves in a conceptual design. It creates a pseudo-world, halfway between imagination and reality, that they can interact with and that adjusts similarly to the way the real world would.  With the advancement of Building Information Modeling (BIM) technology, VR has become more accessible to companies looking to offer this experience to their clients. Typically, if a firm is using a BIM platform (e.g., Autodesk Revit) to generate their proposed building models then they have already achieved the first step in VR: a 3D model. Next, they need a software add-on to Revit that expands its capabilities into real-time rendering and VR (many options are available, but FreemanWhite is currently using and experimenting with Enscape). Finally, a headset, controllers, movement sensors, and a powerful computer are needed to transport a person into the virtual world.

VR and the Design Process

Architects use many tools to present their ideas and help sell their projects – floorplans, renderings, and physical models to name a few – and they all are useful and have their place within the realm of architectural visualization. However, none of these can really match the spatial awareness that VR provides. This is what makes VR a powerful part of the design process and why FreemanWhite has started incorporating it into meetings with our clients and users.

In a recent OR and endoscopy expansion for South County Hospital, the project team used VR during design reviews with the physicians and nurses. Plans and elevations of the rooms were presented, and initial, obvious feedback was altered in the Revit model in real time during the discussion. The users then had the opportunity to don the VR headset and gain a more immersive experience of the room. The additional clarity that VR afforded them then generated new questions and spurred additional adjustments to the room, such as the location of the monitors on the wall in relation to the documentation station. This feedback was recorded and incorporated back into the design.

Understanding the intent of a design can be a challenge for some clients and users, and nobody wants to have regrets after a building has been built. VR essentially acts as a bridge between “the proposed” and “the real” by digitizing reality and affords an understanding of a space that may not be possible with more traditional forms of architectural visualization. It not only improves collaboration but can also be used for building mock-ups, determining design details, and finalizing equipment locations. Most of all, though, VR helps our users forget where they are, imbed themselves into the project, and get excited about their future space.