Architects, designers and builders are starting to see the value of virtual reality technology as they work together on construction projects.
Virtual reality, or VR, is slowly being incorporated as a means to detect errors before breaking ground on a project, reducing time, costs and safety issues on the job site.
Those in the industry say that using visual technology has its pros and cons, can cost thousands of dollars and requires the purchase of equipment including headsets, goggles or glasses, advanced computers and software.
To view a project in VR, one may have to download a link to watch an animated video or put on special headgear, plugged into a high-powered laptop.
Since the technology is new for area construction and design firms, there also is an investment of time and labor, as employees have to be trained.
But the upside is that the realistic imagery gives all parties the ability to visualize many aspects and significant details of a project. And that likely means that it’s usage will grow.
“A lot of times, people cannot read a blueprint,” said Mike Kelly, principal of project development at KCBA Architects in Hatfield. “VR gives them a virtual view” and details, including even staging a room with carpeting, colors, design and lighting.
CONVERSION OF DRAWINGS TO VR
Spillman Farmer Architects in Bethlehem and Burkey Construction in Reading are collaborating on a project – a multimillion dollar venture to build the National Velodrome and Events Center at Albright College in Reading.
According to Christa Duelberg-Kraftician, principal at Spillman, and Christie Jephson Nicas, director of marketing at the company, Spillman has been converting 3-D drawings to virtual reality videos and has used the technology for the velodrome project. Drawings are still used, but the video helps to capture details that may have been overlooked with the drawings.
“The computer transfers our 3-D drawing into this animated video that people can look at as a link in their email, pull up on their phones,” Duelberg-Kraftician said. “We have been holding back a little with making a larger investment in it. If you jump on the technology too early, then you do not always get the most cutting edge [equipment].”
Jephson Nicas said Spillman Farmer recognizes that VR is the future and that clients request it.
FEEL FOR THE PROJECT
Margaret McConnell, marketing manager for Alvin H. Butz Inc. in Allentown, said the company has been using virtual reality to a degree for years.
“Virtual reality has been a valuable tool. It helps with safety and detecting errors, allows the user to immerse himself in that space, gives clients a feel for the project” and specific details of what is being built, McConnell said. “An example is a manufacturer that can look at a project with VR. He can see the floor plan, where machinery is located, get a sense of the height of a piece of equipment.”
By using the technology, construction crews can get an overview of when to schedule work, see conditions of a job site and discover objects that are not supposed to be exposed or even onsite.
She offered the example of VR showing a construction manager that he or she may want to schedule subcontractors at different times. For example, it may make sense to not bring the steelworker on-site, working above underground workers.
McConnell said virtual reality is being used among large construction firms but has not become prevalent in the Lehigh Valley and Berks County.
She noted that Butz in the last year has invested about $10,000 on advanced computers, headsets and other apparatus needed to produce the technology.
Other investments include time and money to train employees on how to use the headsets, how to navigate the visual space and understand the details.
“People can be distracted by the headsets, but we have to bring their focus back around to the construction project,” McConnell said.
BLOCK OUT THE WORLD
Kelly of KCBA Architects said he recently provided a client, Parkland School District, with a VR video of its project.
“It puts the project right in their hands. They can take the link that we send them and pull it up on the phone,” Kelly said. “We have glasses that you can basically set your phone inside and you can get a full view of the room.
“… You basically block out the world and all you see is imagery.”
VR glasses range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. Less expensive glasses may have a cardboard backing, while the more expensive, high-tech ones must be used with an advanced computer system.
EASIER TO SEE THINGS
The technology allows KCBA to detect errors, make changes that would have been costly to make in real life once “the shovel is in the ground,” according to Kelly.
Architects and builders say that virtual reality is replacing 3-D drawings or being used in addition to drawings. It makes it easier to see things that may have missed on paper.
A visual allows project teams to detect aspects of a room that are impractical or unnecessary.
GWWO Inc./Architects of Baltimore provided virtual reality on a project for Berks Nature’s The Nature Place in Reading. It worked with Burkey Construction on the project.
Eric Feiss, a partner and associate principal at GWWO, said VR helps all construction parties communicate and detect errors.
“Something simple [to look at] might be, ‘Does that pipe intersect with that steel beam?’ ” Feiss said. “It is an exciting technology that we are trying to make more efficient.
“We have an office dedicated to it, with computers, headsets. The computers need a lot of power.”
TIME, CAPITAL, LABOR
Feiss said his firm spent a significant amount of money – thousands of dollars – buying VR technology, as it has found the more advanced the equipment, the better the quality of images. It makes them more realistic, and the viewer can get a true sense of lighting and colors.
Feiss, along with others in the industry, said emerging technology is making it effortless for designers, builders and engineers to work collaboratively on a project.
“It’s an investment in time, capital and labor. More architecture firms are probably doing it than construction companies,” he said. “There is no right or wrong way to use VR. However, one challenge is bringing the equipment onto the actual job site.”
NOT AVAILABLE TO ALL
The power of the hardware and software required to generate VR poses an issue in a real world setting.
“The main challenge has been and still is hardware ubiquity,” said Billy Wong, director of research and development at Designblendz LLC, a Philadelphia design firm that has projects throughout eastern Pennsylvania.
Typical personal computers do not have the capabilities to run the live feed to the VR headset, he said.
But the positive points outweigh the negatives with VR, Wong said.
“The intuitive nature of the virtual reality technology enables all members of the team to understand the project as if it is completed,” he said.
“This synchronized understanding allows collaboration between experts in their respective field to solve actual problems that may arise during construction, rather than resolving miscommunication.”