Construction firms harness the power of virtual reality — and everybody wins

What if you were commissioning a new commercial project, say a high-rise condo tower or the new wing in a large hospital or a boutique urban hotel or a retrofitted elementary school, and inside the design planning, you could enlist the help of your avatar?

The common response from users of new virtual reality technology is, “Wow! That’s amazing!” While being placed virtually into an emerging, inspiring, beautiful or exciting environment can be enjoyable, there is much more value to this technology for construction professionals than just entertainment.

We can now build three-dimensional models once available only in our imaginations. Using virtual or augmented reality, plans and structural layouts leave the two-dimensional page and jump into an interactive world. Proposed internal and external environments can now be explored with spatial impacts at the very beginning of the planning and implementation phases. The most common value-added feature can have you walking through a project to experience the form and function of the building.

You can stroll through the rooms or offices or cafeteria or a nurses’ station to ascertain key elements of the layout, see views from rooftop penthouses and observe material usage and traffic patterns. Most importantly, improvements to the function and user experience are made in the virtual world without the time and expense of revisions during construction.

One such public sector university project uses virtual reality to take the community of students, facility planners and faculty on an inside e-tour to gain user input on the proximity of features. For example, the university used this technology to confirm fire-warning strobe systems are visible enough to enact rapid evacuation. In another project, medical staff walked through the placement of nurses’ stations to ensure each patient room would be visible, and access for caregivers would not be hindered.

This is becoming the new normal for makers, builders and designers via new tools to foster immersive, experiential collaboration, right here in Portland. Clearly, these new technologies add value and define the business solution through co-creation and stakeholder engagement. And, they bring a real-time, competitive advantage in more ways than just the visualization described above. In fact, one customer is attracting key donors to their projects by virtually showing them the potential impact their gift could have.

In the simulation space, this is technology at its best and highest use; part of a society-wide shift toward digital systems. It is more than a new skill; it is a new way of thinking. Digital is one strategy for integrating lean principles into our ancient vocation, but age and experience will affect the speed of uptake. Industry leaders realize this is more of a C-suite change-management planning effort and not simply a task to be delegated to the IT department.

It’s not only the model to improve the built environment, it’s also becoming an innovative way to attract new economy workers to the construction industry: the tech-savvy and culturally diverse millennials who can bring expertise in virtual design and construction. This is construction 2.0.

We are creating and shaping the workforce of the future, employing new teams which are attuned to the widening intersection of consumerism and experiential technology. A prerequisite to a career in the building arts is now broadened to include technology alongside craft work and project management. Such savvy employees bring a fresh, innovation-oriented mindset, and look for ways to bring creativity to our unique brand of sustainable construction.

Co-design and collaboration provide a platform for all stakeholders to heighten their communication through virtual reality tools and scenarios. It allows our teams to translate our clients' vision to its fullest potential and create meaningful collaborative experiences to the benefit of our greater community.

May 10, 2017 | Steve Clem

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