Millar + Howard Workshop is pioneering the use of VR in architecture – and finding it is invaluable for helping clients understand a space
Near Stroud in the Cotswolds, a region associated more with quaint villages than cutting edge technology, Millar + Howard Workshop is designing carefully crafted, contemporary architecture while integrating virtual reality into the process.
The area might be known today for recreation and tourism, but it was a hub of early industrialisation, as M+HW partner Tomas Millar explains. From the 17th century the River Frome powered woollen mills in its valley, and one of these is now the practice's office. The historic technology is on display in the old mill’s basement where it is cared for by a local heritage club, while M+HW explore the potential of virtual reality applications for architecture on the top floor.
Below Millar talks about VR’s strength as a tool for client communication, shares insights into his workflow and describes how the use of VR has benefited his business and increased fees.
How did you develop an interest in VR?
I’m a bit of a techie. I’m also quite interested in computer games, so I have been following this development. When the first VR headsets came out, I thought this could be really big for architecture. It very quickly became clear that it could be extremely powerful.
The problem with architecture has always been how to show what a space feels like. A lot of clients cannot read plans and it is quite difficult to get people to read renders in the right way. Even high quality renders or photos cannot achieve that.
VR is still a representation, but you get an experience of a space; it actually puts you inside it.
Does it speed up client decision-making?
Yes! Generally we find that people are making decisions much quicker.
Traditionally, we might need several meetings to convince a client of an idea. They might not quite understand and we would have to go away and do another render. Finally one of them would get it and the other might not.
By contrast, even if we put someone in an untextured VR model they suddenly engage with the space. The very first time we used VR we were trying to convince the clients to have a seat on a small staircase landing. They really were not into the idea but when we put them into the VR they understood immediately and agreed.
Have you completed any projects for which you used VR?
There is one that is almost complete; it is amazing because it is just like it was in VR.
Have you experienced any issues with the technology?
Scale is the only slight risk, and that depends on the method. One way to create a VR model is by using a static point of view and creating a 360° panorama from there. The problem is that with this method you have to set a fixed height for the viewer. So if someone is shorter or taller the floor will seem too close or too far away and they can get a bit disoriented by that.
The more advanced techniques allow you to walk around in the space. With these the viewpoint adjusts automatically to the height of the person wearing the VR headset. That gives the viewer a more accurate idea.
I think there is some small potential for exaggerated expectations. When the representation becomes increasingly realistic people expect it to be just like you have shown it. But so far we have only had these issues with renders, not with VR.
Is it difficult and expensive to produce VR models? What advice do you have for architects starting out in VR?
Architects already draw in 3D. To go from a 3D model to VR can be very quick. The kit is £2,000 including the computer and if you already have a really high spec computer it is about £700 for the headset. To access the latest headset then in development we contacted Oculus Rift and said we were game designers. But I think they were interested in selling it to architects anyway.
Nowadays you can export panoramic images called 3D equirectangulars from nearly any 3D programme such as 3D Studio or Blender. Architects starting out in VR can use their conventional rendering software to create single viewpoint panoramic images. They simply select a location in their model, generate a 3D equirectangualar and feed it into a free programme called Whirligig to produce a VR image.
How do you work with VR, do you use more advanced techniques?
Two years ago there were hardly any tools. Now there are more and more tools emerging and there are lots of different ways of using them.
To create a 3D model of an existing building or site I simply take a few hundred photos on my mobile phone during a site visit. It does not matter if the phone is sideways; I just have to make sure I capture everything. I have previously flown a drone around a site, but in an urban setting architects could take pictures from the ground only.
Then I feed the photos into Agisoft Photoscan, a photogrammetry software and incredibly powerful tool for architects that only costs £200. There is also a similar free version called 123D Catch [produced by Autodesk] for mobile phones.
The programme processes the data overnight to create a point cloud and from that a photorealistic 3D model of the site. I believe this is how Google produces its 3D models in Google Earth.
The 3D model can then be brought into any 3D software to model your building in. For our visualisation we use Blender. Blender is an open source software that is almost as powerful as [Autodesk’s] 3ds Max, but because it’s free we can have it on all 12 computers.
So we are able to go to site, take photos, generate the photogrammetry scan, come into the office for half an hour to draw up a few ideas and we are ready for the first client meeting. We do not need to get a survey, we do not need to go into CAD or spend time doing visualisations, and yet we get a very powerful [communication tool]. We have had amazing feedback with that.
One of the things that we still try to work out is the interaction with clients. [Using the headset] is a bit socially awkward, so we would really like to have a VR booth.
How do you bring the 3D model into VR?
To experience a 3D model in VR it is brought into a programme called Unreal Engine. Some of the best computer games use this software. As an example, we modelled a 1:10 section of a London townhouse that we are working on. We can now walk around and look at the virtual model from all sides.
How does your process compare to 3D scanning technology?
3D laser scans typically generate around 200 million data points. We could not find a software that could construct the meshes from such large files. A photogrammetry scan creates around 20 million points which is more manageable. The software is also extremely good at converting this into meshes.
How does it compare to BIM?
This process is particularly useful for visualisation and client communication. BIM is aimed at creating efficiencies in workflows – it’s great at coordinating the detailing of large projects. However, while BIM outputs 3D models, rendering and highly controlled visualisations isn’t its strength. Rather than trying to use one tool to do everything we use different tools for different parts of the process depending on what we are trying to achieve.
Is it possible to design in VR?
We have been programming a plugin for Unreal Engine which simulates a modelmaker’s workshop. We wanted to try and create something that was as intuitive as model making. We have a shelf with our raw modelling components and materials. Using the motion controllers we can build a model from these. One of the criticisms of VR is that it supposedly leaves little room for spontaneous creativity, a bit like renders. This shows that, actually, you can still be creative in the VR world.
What are the tangible benefits of using VR for your business?
I spoke to another architect recently who was mocking VR a little bit until he heard that it adds about 10% to our fees.
We developed a schedule that breaks our fees into basic, enhanced or premium service and itemises all that is included in each stage. The premium includes the VR. Clients are responding really well to that.
Previously we were competing with people who were providing less of a service. And we also found that we were giving varied levels of service to different clients. This fee schedule helps the project team by making it really clear what we have promised the client.
If we are working with a council, a library, or an arts organisation, we tend to give them a single service level. We still itemise it, but we usually include the VR at no extra cost because they might not feel they can justify the additional expense. Instead, we are using it to gain a competitive advantage.
What are your conclusions so far?
It has been really good. I would say it has revolutionised the way we are working and how we relate to our clients.
Millar downloads VR applications from Steam, a computer game platform.