VR technology changing the architecture industry

Virtual reality technology, like other advancements before it, is causing some fundamental changes in the architecture industry.

To explore these changes, the Wisconsin Technology Council held a luncheon in Madison yesterday. The event featured a panel of speakers representing the groups involved with the creation of the Spark Building.

This project from American Family Insurance will be the future home of the entrepreneurial group StartingBlock Madison, as well as other businesses and retail spaces. Construction has started on the 800 block of East Washington Avenue; it’s estimated to be finished in spring 2018.

Located just a few blocks from the State Capitol, the Spark will only use about 50 percent of the energy of a standard office building, according to J.H. Findorff & Son, the construction management firm in charge of the development.

Arch Virtual, a Dane County-based digital architecture firm, created a virtual design draft for the building w used in the City of Madison Plan Commission meeting in December 2016. Commissioners and citizens used an Oculus Rift headset to see what the building will look like and get a sense of its scale from several angles, including from on the roof.

“We’re using some form of VR in almost every project now,” said Steve Holzhauer, head of project development at Eppstein Uhen Architects, the firm which designed the development.

“It gives even an amateur — even a child, frankly — the ability to see exactly what a place feels like, and they’ll walk through,” he added. “So it’s a great tool.”

He said most large architecture firms are already engaging in virtual reality technology in some form.

Chad Eschler, head of business development at Findorff, says VR provides opportunities for testing that wouldn’t be possible in years past, when the only way to demo a color scheme for a room would be to show small color samples and sketches.

“But if you can apply that to a whole room and actually put the owner in that room, that makes it easier for us, because they’re comfortable with the color selection; they’re comfortable with the countertop selection; they actually understand what they’re space is going to look like when it’s done, and that eliminates rework for us,” Eschler said.

And just in the last few decades, tools for three-dimensional computer-aided drafting, or CAD, were disrupting the pen-and-paper method of architectural design.

“If you think about it, not too long ago we were architecting at a drafting table, and then along comes 3D and CAD — well now along comes virtual reality, and I’m literally able to grab this monitor by both hands and jump into it,” said Shannon Lory, a partner in Arch Virtual who took part in the panel discussion.

Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, asked the panel about potential drawbacks or risks of using virtual reality.

“We haven’t found any yet,” Eschler said.

While the panelists touched on the many ways that VR is being put to task in the field of architectural design, they also shared their thoughts on other diverse applications of the technology.

“In the health care field, doctors and nurses are actually using VR in operating rooms and procedure rooms in order to better understand equipment placement and things,” Holzhauer said.

“The virtual reality world is still inventing itself,” Lory said. “And some of the verticals we start to see a lot of interest in are certainly the industrial space… Safety training is a really, really interesting category right now, there’s a lot of talk about it, there are conferences about it — we’re seeing so much more interest in it.”

Lory said the medical field’s application of VR gives doctors and nurses a voice in how their spaces will be laid out, in much the same way that it lets building owners and project stakeholders weigh in on design.

“It’s a delightful time to be in architecture and engineering,” Holzhauer added. “It’s a fun time because with the technical software we can create shapes and forms that are nontraditional, that are not square anymore — they could be very exotic and organic.”

See an earlier story on the Spark Building: http://wisbusiness.com/index.Iml?Article=383102

–By Alex Moe