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How Virtual Reality puts clients at the heart of the design process

Oliver Lowrie is developing ways of using Virtual Reality to take clients on a design journey, test designs out, and ultimately make better buildings.

17 January 2019

Oliver Lowrie is developing ways of using Virtual Reality (VR) to take clients on a design journey, test designs out, and ultimately make better buildings.

Architects make mistakes. It doesn’t matter if you are Rem Koolhaas or Antoni Gaudi, at some time in your career you will have designed something that when it is built, prompts the occupants of the building to shake their heads, roll their eyes and wail ‘architects!’

Sometimes, the more innocuous the oversight, the more irritating it is to the people that use it. Once, over ten years ago, I designed windows that had handles that you could not reach unless you were well over six feet tall.

The best solution to avoiding the recurrence of problems like these that our industry has come up with is Post-Occupancy Evaluation: testing our buildings and their effectiveness after we have built them. The RIBA stages now flow back on themselves in a virtuous cycle of continuous improvement, demonstrating how problems from one project will be rectified on the next. I am not sure how this benefits the original client whose window handles can’t be reached, but at least it is acknowledged that there is a problem.

Oliver Lowrie of Acroyd Lowrie.

My business partner, Jon Ackroyd, and I both have a background in Post-Occupancy Evaluation. Jon spent two years analysing the performance of a building that we designed whilst at a previous company. This research was funded by the Technology Strategy Board, and the findings of the study were illuminating. The building in question was within the top five percent of all buildings studied in terms of occupant satisfaction, yet there were simple issues with it that could have been solved if we had been able to engage the users of the building earlier in the process.

This sounds simple, but when the client is a multi-headed organisation where the users are all busy with their day jobs, it is not straightforward. Plans are shown fleetingly, and feedback is gathered and implemented, but this is not the same as testing a product to see if it works.

The process is made less effective by the way in which we communicate with the users. We largely try to do this using 2D plans, sections and elevations. As architects we spend years becoming comfortable communicating in this language, but to some of our clients we might as well be speaking a foreign language.

Technology can change all this. We hosted an event a few years ago that focused on emergent technology that was going to revolutionise the industry. We had 3D printers, CNC cutters, and a stand where we hacked together an Oculus Rift VR headset, some gaming software, and an X-box controller to allow our guests to walk round one of our proposed designs in Virtual Reality.

The last was by far and away the most engaging and effective of all, and the reaction of the client whose building was on display indicated to us that we were onto something really game changing. He had been dreaming about his new photographic studio for about five years, and this was the moment where it all became real for him. ‘Seeing that almost made me cry with happiness,' he said as he took the headset off and returned to the real world.

Since then we have been developing a methodology that allows us to test multiple design iterations and gain feedback from users to create meaningful design changes. We find that doing this very early in a project gets huge buy-in from the client, and by the end of our second meeting, we usually have the skeleton of a final design which the client is happy with.

The immersive experience they receive allows them, at a basic level, to see how the light comes in, how the views out will work, how the space might be occupied, and how the spaces relate to each other. From a purely commercial point of view, we find it more profitable to use VR on projects than to not do so, as we no longer end up making emergency changes when the project is on site.

We have formulated this into a five stage process that we term ‘Pre-Occupancy Evaluation’, believing that the first step towards recognising the need for this pre-construction testing is to give it a name.

We have come a long way from our original hacked X-box setup, and are currently working with a software developer called Constructive Labs to enhance the functionality of the experience. The first objective is to allow our clients to make changes to the design whilst they are ‘immersed’ in the space.

Crucially it is multi-user, so architects can stand alongside the client and see what they see. It strengthens our partnership as we go on a shared design journey, making adjustments at every stage with the sole intention of guaranteeing the building’s effectiveness in the real world and improving the end product before it is built.

This works equally for other members of the project team and helps different specialists better understand each other’s roles and challenges, in turn leading to better teamwork and collaboration. We have already done coordination workshops with sub-contractors using VR technology. This will eventually reduce any on-site clashes that cause huge expense, delay, and wastage on site.

In the future, we see this technology transforming the industry further. The current process of using 2D information to communicate with clients is already being phased out, and the next step will be phasing out 2D communication with builders. BIM is just the beginning. We see a future where builders use Augmented Reality to set out buildings and see where duct runs will go.

The further iteration which is already happening is that maintenance teams will be equipped with Augmented Reality headsets. A building’s sensors will then be able to feed back on the performance of, say, the heating system and flag any issues that need to be rectified. The maintenance teams will then be led to the source of the problem and given instructions on how to fix it with information displayed on their AR headsets.

If we test what we’re building before we build it, we can not only eliminate error, but also ensure higher quality construction, improved performance long-term, and a better outcome and experience for the end user. Through technology, our clients can be positioned at the heart of the process, where they belong.

Oliver Lowrie, Director and Founder, Ackroyd Lowrie

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