Digital Design

Virtual Reality is the future for architecture and design.

This year more than 111 million people watched Super Bowl LI in February. For one of the better received commercials, Hyundai invited US Army soldiers stationed in Zagan, Poland, to watch the game live as the game was played. But more notably some soldiers were able to watch the game with their families who were attending the game in Houston, Texas—in real time through Virtual Reality (VR) as if they were at the game together.

VR has the potential to take people where they cannot go in real life, to visit people in distant places, or to visit places of the past or even the future. This year for the first time, there was even a VR short film nominated for an Academy Award. VR is preparing physicians for complex surgeries to save more lives. It allows a person to literally walk in someone else’s shoes and better empathize and appreciate the other’s situation and perspective.

VR has opened up a new set of possibilities (opportunities) for architecture and design. Designers, engineers, contractors and clients can all do virtual walkthroughs of their projects to help solve design and construction challenges before costs of time and materials accrue in the field. And VR is really just the tip of the iceberg. Augmented Reality and Mixed Reality development are close behind in their cost-effective use with additional technologies adding to these new capabilities to better design a more responsive and resilient world around us.

Architects have been designing their projects for several years as 3D digital models through Building Information Models (BIM). Now today, within the professional BIM software using a plugin or separate drag-and-drop application, an architect and the whole team can experience the design on the fly providing for a whole new level of co-creation and collaboration.

Architect design teams can use the immersive video VR offers to document existing sites and conditions on day one of a building project and follow it throughout the construction process. Project teams at Shive-Hattery Architecture-Engineering have been using both a 360-degree camera and 3-D laser scanning to document existing projects for the past year. These tools collect information the project team may not have realized was critical before the initial site visit.

The ability to revisit a project site in VR without leaving their desks helps to control cost and improve overall coordination.

Schemmer, a Midwest architecture engineering and planning firm with offices in Des Moines also provides their clients with 3D VR through the web, from design concept and throughout the process. This allows the client to see into their projects from almost any location through their personal smartphone using a very inexpensive Google Cardboard or Samsung Gear viewer. “We use VR to make design decisions and coordinate drawings across all disciplines,” said John Bloom, AIA, project architect with Schemmer. “Several of the BIM plugins provide cost-effective functionality as well.”

Shive-Hattery and OPN Architects work with the digital natives and are already fluid with these tools. Shive-Hattery is an active partner site for the Aspiring Professional Experience (APEX) program in Waukee where students are actively pushing VR tools for design and construction. This fall, OPN Architects will be working with high school students to further push these tools in Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) through the local chapter of the ACE mentor program.

All of us today can experience design from a full-scale human perspective with virtual reality throughout a project. VR is a new medium that enables an accurate perception of the project and a clear understanding and appreciation for the value of design throughout the entire process.

Pete Evans, AIA, is a Senior Lecturer, Iowa State University. Contact him at