Top Use Cases of Augmented and Virtual Reality in Architecture, Engineering and Design

Written BY

Emily Friedman

October 4, 2016

In our last post, we talked about some of the opportunities that new realities – Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and also Mixed Reality – present to the AEC Industry, specifically to the design side of the industry (as opposed to construction.) With these technologies, one can view and manipulate virtual elements in real space or immerse him/herself in a digital recreation of a real-world environment. This can help both in designing a building and in enabling others to understand the design.

The user could be the architect in the initial design stage, or the owner/customer in the pitch or approval stage; a group of architects, engineers and designers working together on a single project, or the construction team responsible for turning a building plan into actual architecture—all putting on a headset or heads-up display to visualize and create. The three use cases that follow are prime examples of this, of AR, VR and MR being used to envision new buildings and streamline the design process.


TreeHouse is a Texas-based home improvement startup offering eco-friendly, smart home solutions. For its second massive retail location in Dallas, TreeHouse CEO Jason Ballard wanted a store with zero annual energy costs—a completely sustainable store where consumers could buy sustainability solutions for their own homes. Now, the sustainability initiatives achieved at this, the company’s second big box store, are impressive. Just as impressive, however, is the use of Virtual Reality in the architectural design process that led to the groundbreaking for the store. In fact, VR was so valuable in this use case that TreeHouse intends to employ the technology in every step of future store planning. Let’s see why:

First thing, Ballard hired architecture firm Lake Flato along with a team of designers and technologists charged with the task of creating a virtual reality model of the new store based upon Lake Flato’s design. The team “hacked together” a system combining Unity (a video game development platform), SketchUp (a design program), and an Oculus Rift VR headset. This system would allow Ballard and the Lake Flato architects to virtually walk through the store, trying different design options and configurations and spotting problems before they became real-life headaches.

Big box retail stores typically use a lot of energy; in this project, the design team started with the idea of zero energy and then worked to reverse engineer the means to achieve it. Sustainable building requires conserving as much energy as possible and using renewable energy for any remaining power needs. Since the greatest “energy hogs” in a large store are usually lighting and air conditioning, the team knew they had to create something “bright and cool.” They used virtual reality to realize the key design decision, which was a saw-tooth roof line. Without going into too much detail (you can read more about the design specifics here), the roof design had three major effects: 1) lighting the space, 2) reducing solar heat gain, and 3) maximizing solar energy production; with the added bonus of looking really cool.

Using virtual reality technology in the design process on this project turned out to be both a critical energy- and cost-saving innovation. In one example, VR saved TreeHouse $50,000, by allowing the design team to try out an element of the original design – an elaborate staircase meant to evoke a tree trunk – and see that it would be a “great eyesore.” The staircase was subsequently scrapped for something simpler and cheaper before it was ever built.

As TreeHouse plans its third store, Ballard wants to create a full-time VR position at the company. Not only does he want to keep using virtual reality to design new stores but he also sees potential for the technology to help scout out store locations and design product displays in existing stores. He wants live models of all TreeHouse locations so that he can try out displays without traveling or resorting to trial-and-error, both of which are costly and environmentally-unfriendly. And, of course, Ballard wants to pass the benefits of VR along to TreeHouse’s customers, helping them to design sustainable homes in virtual reality for free.

TEG Architects and Thorntons

TEG is an Indiana-based architecture firm, and its client Thorntons is a Kentucky gas station and convenience store chain. TEG has been using Virtual Reality – specifically Samsung Gear VR headsets – to help bring clients like Thorntons into the design process by putting them into buildings that haven’t been built yet, or rather into 360-degree renderings of those buildings.

Before VR and the like, architects could show clients 2D drawings and 3D printouts to help them understand a space and give input on different design elements. In the end, however, a lot was left up to the customer’s imagination. Well, it’s pretty hard to imagine a 100,000-square-foot space (like the one in this use case), but having a 360-degree view of the architect’s design in virtual reality makes communication between architect and client easier.

Not only did VR give Thorntons better insight into and confidence in TEG’s design, but the technology actually revealed quirks of the design that might have been lost on paper, even to the design team. One aspect of a building that can get lost between 2D and 3D are sight lines. For example, in the Thorntons project, a monumental staircase – as originally designed – would have disrupted the sight line from the front to the back of the building; the architects were able to catch this blunder in virtual reality, and make the decision to narrow the staircase.

While the customer was thoroughly impressed by VR (so much so that Thorntons invested in four Samsung Gear VR headsets to use and experiment with internally); TEG found that incorporating the new technology required reformulating existing workflows. So in addition to the obvious technical challenges, adopting VR as a decision-making tool in architecture can necessitate accelerating the design process, or making certain design decisions much earlier on in the project lifecycle in order to create an effective 360-degree view. Another challenge – but one that TEG believes will be resolved as VR becomes more widely used in the industry – was to keep careful track of all design changes, ensuring that any alterations made in the design software appeared in the VR model and vice versa.

The TEG/Thorntons case goes to show that new realities can be a great tool for both architects and clients to make better-informed decisions, making for less unhappy and costly surprises all around.

Architect Greg Lynn and the Packard Plant Project

Greg Lynn is the owner of Greg Lynn FORM, a professor at the UCLA School of the Arts and Architecture, and the architect chosen to represent the U.S. at the 2016 Venice Biennale. For that event, Lynn was assigned the project of revitalizing the Packard Plant, an abandoned car factory in Detroit occupying 3.5 million square feet of space. Greg knew the project would stretch the imagination and that he had to be forward-thinking in his commission; so in perhaps the best-known use case of AR/MR in architecture, he decided to use the Microsoft HoloLens mixed reality headset along with Trimble’s building information modeling (BIM) software to develop his design for a new plant.

To begin, Lynn created a standard design model of the abandoned Packard Plant using the Trimble platform. He then used HoloLens to immerse himself in a holographic representation of the factory at scale. With the technology, Lynn was able to virtually navigate the space at all stages of the design – from the initial state in which he found the plant through each proposed design change – visualizing the project as he was designing it and without having to leave his Venice Beach office.

From the get-go, therefore, Lynn immediately understood the scale of the space he was working with because he could enter the Packard Plant in augmented reality and look around. He could also put on the HoloLens to compare the sizes of various structures and get a clear sense of how much space a given structure would take up, which enabled him to develop and perfect the proportions and individual features of his design without trying out different configurations in multiple 2D or 3D (scale) drawings and models. Even more, the technology allowed Lynn to model dynamic components of his design like vehicles and human beings, and make adjustments accounting for how traffic would flow in and around the factory.

Overall, AR/MR provided Lynn with the “perspective and foresight” to make design decisions months earlier in the design process than is normally possible, saving him in time and stress in addition to money and rework. We’ve also mentioned that new realities present an effective means of communicating one’s design to others via a shared experience, and Lynn did in fact incorporate the Microsoft HoloLens into his presentation for the Biennale.

Greg Lynn has been pretty vocal about AR, VR and MR in terms of the future of designing buildings as well as the future of building things. HoloLens personally helped him to both conceptualize and showcase his work, but the architect also sees potential benefits in construction project delivery and communication. In his opinion, new realities solve the greatest problem all architects encounter, which is getting a project from the screen to physical space.

“I’ve spent my whole life trying to get things from geometry into the physical world. HoloLens is going to bridge that gap between two-dimensional and three-dimensional and physical space—and that’s architecture.”
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