Virtual Reality for the Architect

Keystone Bouchard

Here we have an architect, Jon Brouchoud, a large part of whose practice exists in cyberspace. The Arch website is one of his outlets, and we’re looking at a transcript titled “Visualising Design Concepts in a Virtual Environment” in which Brouchoud talks about the virtual 3-D world Second Life, which now has 7 million registered users.

On the physical plane, there is a Madison, Wisconsin, office run by an architect with a biography, and a family, and other normal-sounding accoutrements. But this architect lives simultaneously in a material world and a virtual one. When he was introduced to Second Life (SL), Brouchoud was practicing green residential design. He built some houses in SL, and immediately grasped the importance of what could evolve into real life (RL) applications:

I knew this medium had potential when I noticed several other avatars walking around inside the houses. Someone even started decorating the interior with their own furniture…We could use it to have meetings with long distance clients, and actually walk through schematic design ideas in a more immersive and engaging way than sending 2D pdf drawings via email…

Brouchoud spent some months polishing his skills with the virtual world’s software, and soon began to invite RL clients to experience his creations. He says it’s easy to build rough models, and with a little more work, the client can try out different building materials, different colors of paint, furniture arrangements and so on. They can be taken on a walk-through and experience how the doors open and close. They can plant trees in the right places and see how they look from the dining room window.

After the initial buildings were up, someone even came along to offer constructive criticism. Brouchoud sees this as one of the under-appreciated advantages of building in Second Life. Not only clients, but fellow professionals who know what they’re talking about can provide feedback to a newly-introduced design project. The Hilton Hotel chain built a full-scale hotel and listened to advice that actually caused design revisions, before taking the idea out into RL. Many other exciting things go on in Second Life, such as controversy over whether it is “fair use” to copy a Frank Lloyd Wright building in the virtual world.

At the time of the broadcast from which this transcript was taken, it wasn’t possible to build outside, for instance with CAD or BIM software, and then import the result into Second Life. In-world, buildings are made with objects called “prims” which is short for primitive. Brouchoud promises, however, that it’s well worth the extra work. He recommends a blog called “Virtual Suburbia” as an aid to getting up to speed with the necessary skill set. There’s a fair amount of technical information in this transcript, too.

Inside Second Life, Brouchoud owns land and rents some of it out to other professionals in the field on Architecture Island. Some of the resulting creativity is purely experimental, while other architects, like Brouchoud himself, build pragmatic structures and invite clients to tour them, with an eye to duplicating them in RL. Then there’s a communally-designed Wikitecture experiment. Brouchoud urges architects to be “thought leaders” in a new way of doing things, saying,

This kind of environment is exploding in popularity and I think architects ought to be taking it seriously – and considering how virtual spaces might augment or compliment the real life buildings they’re designing…I think we need a new language for virtual architecture… in a sense, its the ultimate in sustainable design.

SOURCE: ” Visualising Design Concepts in a Virtual Environment ” 06/19/07
photo courtesy of MysteryBee , used under this Creative Commons license

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