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Designers Find Virtual Reality is for Real

By Michael Agin


Before the sledgehammers knocked down walls inside a Berea College campus housing structure, a handful of students “walked” through the finished, renovated building. Before any concrete poured for a Thornton’s Inc. service center in Louisville, a company project manager “saw” the building and expressed confidence it was exactly what they wanted. Months before a modern glass Mercedes Benz showroom and blacktopped lot appeared in Fort Mitchell, the dealership owner presented community members with a 3D video of the site plans and won their support.

These are examples of Kentucky construction projects using the latest virtual reality technology, whose publicity to date tends to focus on its use in recreational video gaming. When construction customers don a VR headset, however, suddenly their eyes and brain experience a 360-degree view of their still-on-the-drawing-boards building. Before any dirt is disturbed, foundation is poured or walls are erected, they can discuss design changes with their architects, saving money and time as well as averting construction conflicts and change orders.

Architectural design and construction firms are Kentucky’s first large business sectors to adopt VR into their operations, according to the industry’s lead members. The state’s 136 architectural services establishments (as of 2014) and over 2,500 currently licensed architects say the technology creates opportunities to improve customer service and compete better in Kentucky’s nearly $2 billion a year construction market as well as more than $62 billion in revenue nationally for architectural and related services.

Although VR is a 30-plus-year-old concept, business adoption of VR accelerated this year when lower-priced headsets ($500-$700) came on the market along with much cheaper new 3D viewers that use smartphones. Additionally, innovative new software plug-ins now enable push-button creation of VR and 3D visuals from existing architectural design modeling tools.

The competitive perspective has become adopt and manage these new tools now, or be trampled in the marketplace by those embracing the technology.

Luckett & Farley Architects, Engineers and Construction Managers Inc., a 163-year-old Kentucky firm, will
use VR in 99 percent of this year’s 350 projects in 24 states, said Gregory G. Buccola, vice president.

‘VR is growing exponentially fast’

“It’s a game-changer for the profession and how we interact with our clients,” said Buccola, who also is a structural engineer. “The days of coming up with an architectural design and printing it out on a piece of paper and trying to show customers what a building could look like, those days are behind us. In 2016 and beyond, the new normal that we are seeing and we are helping to set, is allowing the customer/client to experience the space before it’s ever built.”

At stake for Luckett & Farley is staying competitive. It expects 2016 revenues will grow 35 percent over last year, Buccola said. The Louisville firm employs 102 people who work on projects in over 24 states. It is the largest and oldest architectural firm in the region.

TEG Architects, headquartered in Jeffersonville, Ind., also has fully committed to VR.

President R. Wayne Estopinal said VR “allows our clients to collaborate with the design team and make excellent decisions, improving the value of their projects at every phase.” He featured VR in the firm’s recent spring newsletter.

TEG contracted 287 projects in 2015 with a construction value of about $1.6 billion. Kentucky accounted for 119 TEG projects totaling $363 million, while Indiana had 34 projects valued at $153 million. The firm employs 50.

TEG intends “to use VR on as many projects as possible going forward – whether as a marketing tool, or a collaborative tool used during the design development phase of a project,” said Brandi Jones, business development associate.

Shad Sletto, director of project development for EGC Construction Corp. in Newport, also reports rapid adoption.

“Within the network I am in, use of VR is growing exponentially fast,” Sletto said. “All the firms we work with, everybody is ramping up very fast.”

EGC employs over 175, including architectural design and structural engineers, and skilled trades. Its niche is industrial equipment installation, manufacturing-type assembly work and buildings that house those processes. It bills $40-$50 million a year, and works on projects in Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, West Virginia, and more.

What exactly is VR?

VR is a major technological leap from the two-dimensional drawings of construction projects, and the tabletop scale models created to show customers their projects. Kentucky’s architectural design firms are rapidly adopting two types of the technology: 360-degree VR videos presented through a headset viewer (the most difficult to create), and 3D videos displayed on tablets, computers or phones.

With 360-degree VR, donning a headset display over your eyes suddenly immerses you in the rooms of your project building, seeing the space around you almost like you had just stepped into a newly constructed office headquarters, distribution warehouse or university student housing, for example. Look up and down, left and right by moving your head, and then “walk” through the room by using the levers on a game controller, gliding through the space, past tables and chairs, couches, desks, etc., and “walking” through doors or up stairways.

Light comes through the windows and makes shadows across the floor. Then you can feel how wide the room is, how high the walls are, and how a desk and other furniture, or maybe large manufacturing machines fit in that space. Although the view has a “cartoon” texture, it nonetheless gives clients a deeper insight about their unconstructed building, and they can give the architectural design engineers feedback, making changes at much less cost because construction hasn’t started.

Among the headsets tools are the Oculus Rift ($599) from California-based Oculus VR, and HTC Vive ($799) from Taiwan-based HTC and Valve Corp. of Bellevue, Wash.  They require hookups to a computer with software. There are specialized cameras to create 3D videos and photographs. Other required accessories are game controllers, and maybe a solid chair for clients to sit in to prevent them from falling when they are totally engrossed in the very realistic views they are watching in the headset.

The 3D video is less immersive, and is similar to viewing a movie. The clients can see how rooms are set up with furniture or equipment, the colors on walls, types of flooring, how buildings are placed on a site, etc. Other terms for these videos are “fly-through” presentations or virtual tours, which can easily be viewed on tablets or smart phones.

Another method to view 3D videos, similar to using 3D glasses at the theater, employs inserting a smart phone into a binocular-like headset, which then is used for the display.  Such headset are Google Cardboard ($15-$20), or GearVR ($99), which pairs only with the Samsung Galaxy.

Finally, another type of 3D view is where the viewer is looking at an image on a computer screen and uses the computer mouse’s cursor to go left and right, up and down. For these pseudo-3D views, the picture moves around a spot where, theoretically, you are standing.

Around but little seen for years

While these new devices are helping trigger the rush to use them in architectural design, VR isn’t an overnight story. For 30 years, these firms have used automated computer-aided design tools, referred to as AutoCAD, which create accurate and detailed two-dimensional drawings.

Since 2007, larger firms have been investing in more robust architectural design software to implement Building Information Modeling (BIM), in which various specialty disciplines design their elements of overall plans, such as engineers for structural, electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning, interior design, etc. (Revit® is often used). BIM software aids collaboration between all the construction disciplines. New processes are defined for them to work together while using the software. The results are saved as data for a more robust and detailed model of a project. A line drawn in this software is more than just a length and width dimension; it defines what a wall is made of, the materials, the electric, the plumbing, etc.

“We are working in three dimensions instead of two dimensions,” said Josue Tejeda, a senior designer for Luckett & Farley.

At TEG Architects, “We use it for in-house design collaboration as well as client design sessions,” said Charles Crochet, senior project illustrator. “Being able to integrate VR into our workflow allows us to optimize collaboration in a truly unique and immersive experience.”

This type of design creates a lot of “big data,” which must be stored in computers that are equipped with the fastest processors. So these firms invested in large-capacity hard drives, super-processor computers, and two large computer screens that sit on the engineers’ desks – while prices for such hardware have fallen substantially in the past five years. They also invested the time to train employees, hire new workers and define new workflows for all the disciplines.

Recently, plug-ins were introduced (Fuzor for Revit) that enabled push-button creation of the detailed visual modeling of buildings to show clients.

“That was a game changer for us,” said Nick Satterfield, senior designer at Luckett & Farley. “Translating our vision to the client had been very cumbersome and expensive for us to take our ideas and actually render them to where a client could see what we see in our heads. Now we don’t have to gear up a whole team of people to develop the model to put into the Oculus Rift. It went from a two-week exercise to take a building and to bring it to where it could be viewed, to just a few minutes by using the plug-in,”

From the same software, printouts of the two-dimensional drawings, which are still needed for contracts and construction, show the robust details.

Sletto of EGC Construction said, “That’s the real efficient thing that’s come out of this. The same drawings you’re using to tell me, the contractor, what to build, are the same drawings you show the owner.”

VR improves customer feedback

The customer is the main beneficiary of this new technology, and the key reason why these firms have spent several thousand dollars to implement it.

Customers are using the tools to give feedback to designers and make changes earlier in the design process.

When the Berea College students were exploring the VR views of the student housing design, they told Luckett & Farley designers some spaces were “interesting,” discussed what they liked and didn’t like, and then asked, “Where’s the TV?”

Tejeda, the senior designer for Luckett & Farley, recalled that after a VR viewing session for the Woodford Reserve Distillery Restoration and New Visitor Center project in Versailles, the size of one room was reduced when it “felt” too big after seeing the furniture in it. Other decisions made the lobby more open and impressive. He said, “it gave them the power of decisions,” and eliminated some elements of surprise that might have happened after construction.

Thorntons Inc. of Louisville, used the VR headset to view their new store support center during the design phase.

“It helps me gain confidence we’re building the right product,” Rodney Lloyd, Thorntons chief development officer, told TEG Architects. “I know exactly what it should look like. You just cannot replace that.”

Using VR and 3D greatly helps users visualize their project.

“For the design industry, it makes a lot of sense to be able to demonstrate the space to somebody. What we find in the industry is that it is hard for people who are not familiar with drawings to read a plan and understand what that plan represents,” said Sletto of EGC Construction. “They can see it. It looks like TV.”

Customers also are using the new technology for gaining community support or fundraising.

In Fort Mitchell, EGC worked with Vocon architecture to create a concept design for the automobile dealership on the site of a dilapidated hotel. Prior to construction, Sletto said, the owner used a virtual model to tweak the design with the architectural firm, but after he was comfortable with how it looked, he presented the model to the community. The “fly-through” model showing the buildings on the site alleviated concerns.

“He really established his vision to show his community and got almost unanimous support,” after showing the virtual video, said Sletto.

Louisville Visual Art (LVA), a community-based nonprofit organization that serves youth and teaches them about art, and showcases artistic works, needed to renovate a donated warehouse. Although the project still is in the bidding phase, Luckett & Farley created a VR movie of their proposed design that LVA could use in fund raising. For a showing of the video to LVA’s community board members, tablets were passed out to each person.

Using this new technology with customers is a great tool, but the spokespersons for these firms all pointed out that there were risks to manage.

Customers need guidance as to what the virtual-reality images are and are not, Buccola said.

“The rendering and virtual technology makes it seemingly easy to do rather difficult things that require much more complex decision-making processes and coordination across all the different parties,” Buccola said.

Sletto noted that “misinterpretations” between a design and customers’ expectations when they see the actual building always have been issues in the industry.

“When you or I look at the same picture, we may see two different things,” Sletto said, “so we have to make sure that the picture truly reflects what is generally accepted as the design.”

The bottom line, the spokespersons say, is that the virtual images show a clearer explanation of the design, stimulate interaction and collaboration, and result in better decisions before money is spent on construction.

Investing in new technology

Nika Nikitina is the new architectural visualization artist for Luckett & Farley. Hiring new artists and engineers has happened in many firms as they invest in this new technology.

Nikitina graduated in 2012 with a masters of art in visual effects from the Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design (SCAD) which also has campuses in Atlanta, Hong Kong and Lacoste, France.

Instead of architecture, Nikitina concentrated her studies on courses that were “more focused on visual effects in films and animated movies,” which  gave her the skills for building environments to make them as real as possible. “That’s how I got most of the basic skills, and then I gained experience working at an architectural firm and making presentations.”

Luckett & Farley has invested “seven figures” since 2007 in hiring and training employees, purchasing hardware and software, and creating a VR studio, Buccola said.

“Our biggest stress is getting the very best talent,” he said, adding that investing in new technology is important to retain talented engineers and to recruit employees both in and outside of Kentucky.

With active projects in 24 states, the firm currently had 15 jobs opening as of mid-September so it must be able to compete for employees in any market.

TEG created Studioe, an in-house 3D department with three persons, and nine additional staffers who work with illustrators to create designs to be used in the VR presentations, Jones said. Since 2015, she said, TEG has invested approximately $50,000 in VR, which includes equipment, computer hardware, software, upgrades, staff time, education and the construction of a dedicated VR studio space. Going forward, annual expenses for VR are expected to be minimal and will depend on the costs associated with hardware/software upgrades and staff training/time.

Sletto said EGC hired one person to handle virtual images, and has contracted with firms that provide these services.

The bottom line

Not all projects will need this new technology, and many firms will continue to use the AutoCAD and two-dimensional construction documents. Yet, staying competitive in the marketplace remains a top concern for architectural design and construction firms when faced with rapidly changing technology.

“The use of VR goggles and 360-degree, computer-generated images allows our design teams to refine designs to levels never experienced,” said TEG President Estopinal.

For Luckett & Farley, “the reality is our clients are now demanding, and frankly they deserve, to have their spaces rendered in and shown to them in three dimensions in as photorealistic a manner as possible prior to the building actually being built,” said Buccola. “That’s part of the new normal for how our business is going as these new technologies are being adopted and utilized. We couldn’t do our business without it.”

Mike Agin is a correspondent for The Lane Report. He can be reached at [email protected].