VR can be used to simulate different ageing eye conditions like glaucoma and cataracts to help designers better understand how people understand space. (screenshot /HGA Digital practice group)

Using technology to build houses cheaper, faster, and with more empathy

The new government is aiming to build 100,000 new affordable homes – likely to be off-plan apartments and townhouses – in the next decade. But today’s designers and builders are already working flat tack. So what’s the fix? The answer lies with technology, writes two Auckland architects.

Even after squinting carefully at the floor plan, can you really be sure the sofa is going to fit in that lounge space? Will the façade you pick look a bit harsh in real life? And is that hill going to end up blocking the light?

The Kiwi construction industry needs to embrace time-saving (and potentially cost-saving) technologies faster to make both home-buying and home-building that much easier.

The technology already exists to transform buying a new home into something resembling a game of Pokémon Go. By using augmented reality headsets and an app on your phone, a tabletop can be transformed into a working apartment building, complete with tiny people wandering into lifts or matchbox cars driving into carparks. Or try to imagine how your townhouse will fit onto an empty lot via geo-referencing (just like Pokémon Go) and a pair of AR goggles. You can walk onto a site that’s currently just an empty paddock and walk right up to your building positioned exactly as it would be in real life.

Architects in the United States are already using augmented reality with their clients and it won’t be long before it catches on in New Zealand, removing all uncertainty about what we’re actually commissioning or buying. If someone can actually move around a space, that adds a whole new layer of understanding. No need to drive to a show-home that isn’t quite the same plan and no expensive home-staging required.

Virtual reality is already being used to develop new homes here and is likely to roll out to home buyers early in 2018. The developers of The Country Club aged care facility in Huapai, northwest Auckland are already planning to use it as a sales tool.

Artist rendering of Country Club Huapai set to be completed in 2019 (Ignite Architects)

The essential difference between augmented reality and virtual reality is the setting. Augmented reality is overlaid on the real world, so you can see what something would look like in a real space. Virtual reality takes place in a completely created world and gives you the feeling of being immersed in the experience. Instead of viewing a flat artist’s rendering and trying to imagine your sofa in it, you can actually put on goggles and walk through the lounge for yourself – a massive help to designers wanting to explain a building to their clients, and developers wanting to sell apartments or townhouses off-plan or to buyers in another city.

The applications for people with disabilities are also tremendous. Around one in four Kiwis live with disabilities, including age-related impairments, and with our ageing population used to the best modern conveniences, architects are going to need to get smarter about how they create homes and aged care facilities to fit their needs.

Architecture and engineering firm HGA has experimented with virtual reality headsets to show designers how people with vision problems like glaucoma, macular degeneration and so on see a room. This will improve how we design aged care facilities, for example.

Architects typically worry about their designs looking good, but if you don’t have impaired vision, you wouldn’t realise that black area on the floor can look like a hole.

Meanwhile, Building Information Modelling (BIM) is helping streamline and speed up the building process. Using software like Revit or Archicad, architects create a virtual 3-D model of a building that can then be added to and amended by anyone else in the construction process, from builders to quantity surveyors and even property managers. This ensures everyone can work from the one single model on screen rather than searching through paper copies of drawings, making work much easier to coordinate.

A recent study by industry organisation EBOSS shows the uptake of BIM has recently plateaued in New Zealand, but that’s got to change fast if we want to meet the government’s target. The technology is considered so essential that it’s already mandatory for new government projects in the UK, and in Germany, all major infrastructure must be designed using BIM by 2020.

Because the models are three-dimensional, flaws or vague design can be spotted immediately, and it also ensures clients see exactly what they’re getting, meaning far fewer resources and time are spent fixing things up later. In the case of large government-led developments, that could drastically cut time spent on going back to the drawing board because of misunderstandings or even failure to meet local building regulations.

BIM modelling could save designers and clients time, money and a lot of confusion. (BSI Group)

City-level modelling is just in its infancy in New Zealand, but it will potentially slash the long wait to receive planning consent, as officers can see at a glance where any codes have been broken across an entire development, from height boundaries to clashes with underground pipes and historic middens. Overseas, architects are using software to automatically generate hundreds of options for placing buildings on a site, taking into account sight lines, height restrictions and myriad local building regulations, and recommending the best choices.

Technology in housing design is going to make homes smarter, faster and more sensitive to our needs. But to speed up new home building in New Zealand, designers and builders will need to start training and applying these technologies now instead of merely focusing on the work we have at the moment. While laws to compel it may be too restrictive, technology’s disrupting everything, and firms that don’t embrace the changes will go the way of Kodak very soon. However, if we’re willing to invest the time now, that dream home is already a virtual reality.

Michael Bilsborough is a director and Olivia Pearson is an associate at architectural firm Ignite.

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