Virtual living in the architectural world

1st February 2018
Lanna Cooper

When you buy a car, you test drive it first, right? When you buy an expensive piece of jewellery or clothing, you’ll try it on before handing over the cash. When you buy a house, you take a good walk around it, inspect every corner and tap every wall - probably several times - before taking out the mortgage. However, if you decide to invest thousands or even millions in building your own property, the first time you get to see the finished article is when it’s, well, finished.

By which time it’s too late to make any major design changes or decide that you just don’t like it. Isn’t that a bit crazy? Ackroyd Lowrie thought so and that’s why they’re turning the whole process on its head...

So Jane Connolly, Editor of Breakthrough Magazine sat down with Oliver to find out why his company has decided to design its own VR software and process specifically for this purpose.

How did Ackroyd Lowrie come about and why did you adopt this rather futuristic approach to design?
My Co-director Jon Ackroyd and I set up the practice three years ago, after we had both spent a very enjoyable ten years at a pioneering architects who were focused on reducing the environmental impact of buildings as much as possible. Jon and I found that very interesting and so when we came to set up on our own, we took on much of that ethos.

One of the things we did a lot of there was post-occupancy evaluation - which not many others offer and yet it’s the most valuable thing to do. Most people just hand over the building and that’s it. But they invested a lot of time and money in going back and recording data, doing surveys with the people who use the buildings.

The results were fascinating and so when we were setting up this practice, we thought about how we could take that learning and apply it earlier in the process. Once the building is finished, it’s quite difficult to go back and make changes, so we wanted to see how we could continually improve the design process.

So this was already in your minds as a key consideration when you started your new business?
We look to innovation in everything we do. One thing we did was to set up our own construction company, because if we controlled the means of construction that would be an innovative approach - the architect becomes the builder. We also looked at how we could change the supply chain to gain more efficiency in the process. But the one that’s made the most difference to the way we work is the use of virtual reality as a testing tool.

Why choose VR?
We only got the VR headset for our first anniversary party. We’d hired a warehouse around the corner but then we thought, “What are we going to show the guests? We haven’t built anything yet!” But we had a load of 3D models from the commissions that we were working on, so we bought a secondhand Oculus Rift and an Xbox controller and gave people the chance to literally walk through a building we were working on.

It was a photographic studio that we’ve now finished and the client came to the event. This was his building that he’d been dreaming about for around three years and that we’d been working on for a year, so he was fascinated to see how it would look. When he came out of the VR, he was practically in tears, saying “That’s it!”

When we saw the effect it had on him, we realised that although we were still a year away from completion, he got to experience that building. Also, we weren’t controlling the views, he could go anywhere he wanted. Often architects are guilty of showing you the best views, but with VR, the client can test the entire building.

This is a big change for our industry. No other product would be released on the alpha version, except buildings - the client gets the prototype, after they’ve spent several million pounds on it.

And VR helps solve that problem?
Yes. What we’ve started to do now with these VR is to develop our design process around it, using it to constantly test before anything is actually concrete. It’s called pre-occupancy evaluation. As opposed to post-occupancy, we’re doing the same kind of analysis but at the start of the process. We sit down with the client and listen, go away and make the 3D models, then come back to them and they can literally explore the whole building.

Then they walk out of it, go down the road and enter the next of the three versions we create. We can tell by their reaction what they like and don’t like, and see exactly what they’re pointing at. Then we model a fourth version based on that information.

We’re going to trademark the process and although the software we use now is Iris, we want to develop our own in the long run. We’re working with Constructive Labs to develop the software so that there can be multiple users. This means I will be able to come into the VR with the client and walk around with them, and can even move walls and windows around.

Is using VR not much more expensive and time consuming than just showing the client 2D plans?
We find it’s more cost effective to do this than not do it, because you get more buy-in from the client and fewer design changes later on. One of the real problems is that architects understand plans very well and communicate in 2D drawings.

But for clients, the first time they’re even looking at plans might be when they’re investing lots of money in it. With the VR, there’s much less back and forth and because of that, we don’t currently charge extra for it, because it saves us time.

So, VR is the future for architectural planning. What other innovations are you interested in?
Offsite fabrication is going to be the next big thing. That will really start to change the industry. We’ve worked with an offsite company called Cloud Construction on nine units that were built offsite in Hull and then delivered to a site in Woking, and we were really impressed with the process. It was put together in about a week.

The site we worked on was quite constrained, it was difficult to get around the sides of it. Nobody had ever planned it to be offsite volumetric until the planning consent was already gained, so it was our job to work with Cloud Construction on how to break the building up and to make sure the drainage was in the right place and so on, then the whole thing was craned onto place in a week.

Pre-fabricated buildings don’t have the best public image...
You would never know if you went there. The building doesn’t look modular, it just looks like a block of flats. You can get higher quality standards when you’re working inside a warm factory rather than outside in the pouring rain. It was amazing, they’d even pre-fitted the kitchen and the windows were in already. The only work they did on site was to add some tiles.

Recently we held an event with Cloud Construction to promote innovation in the housing sector. The government is really backing modular as a solution to the housing crisis and it’s a great industry to promote, as it creates jobs and is 100% affordable housing. Modular housing is a big innovation in construction and VR is a big innovation in the planning process.

Ackroyd Lowrie has worked with Breakthrough funding, a company that helps UK SMEs achieve R&D tax credits - a government scheme created to enhance and reward innovation amongst UK businesses. Could you be eligible? Click here to learn more.

For more information, click here.

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