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The importance of walking through your building before it is built

Before a client meeting I stopped by an open house at some newly built townhouses. I love going to open houses and snooping. Sometimes I find good ideas worth borrowing. Other times I revel in criticizing everything I see. My latest joy is taking my daughters with me and challenging them to figure out what’s weird, odd, or wrong with the home. Is the ceiling too low? Is the floor sloping? Does inconsistent trim reveal an old remodel? Do my daughters notice how some of the posts in the basement sit on the floor slab rather than raised up on a footing? I explain that that means the posts were later additions…signs of a failing structure. Open houses—both new and old homes—are a great opportunity to teach my daughters about architecture, design, and construction. It also allows me to practice finding potential issues, a skill that’s very useful when talking to homeowners about their remodel projects. Sometimes it is a challenge to find fun and interesting stuff to share with my kids. Sometimes it’s not hard at all. Sometimes it hurts it’s so easy.

This particular group of townhouses had all the modern necessities: fancy appliances, bright open spaces, roof decks, reclaimed materials, skylights…but it was also clear the designers and clients never walked around the houses before they were built. None of them had ever experienced the design in 3D, let alone virtual reality. If they had, they would have realized how uncomfortable the roof decks were—how five tiny terraces jammed next to each other provide less than zero privacy. The five townhome owners are going to need a roof deck checkout calendar, be happy with joint parties, or else build a lot of temporary screens to provide some sort of privacy. But that’s maybe unavoidable. Doubtful. Often the biggest design challenges architects face are self created.

The real proof that these architects never walked around their designs before they were built are the skylights in the middle of each roof deck. Skylights that look down to the bathrooms below. Clear glass with a perfect view of the toilet and shower surrounded by a metal safety railing that provides a great place to lean on while having a drink, or getting a better viewing angle to the room below. Good luck entertaining on those roof decks. Maybe the homeowners can throw a blanket over the skylight so their guests can pee in private.

If you build a 3D model and let your clients walk around your designs in VR, there is no way either of you would ever let that sort of design mistake get built. Ever. It was a foolish mistake, with plenty of easy solutions. It’s appalling that it’ll be up to the new homeowners to fix the design flaw. Just shameful.

Don’t think 3D isn’t necessary. Don’t brush off virtual reality as something your clients don’t need or want. Or as something you can’t do because your firm is too small. It’s quite the opposite. Did you know that while you weren’t paying attention 3D models and VR became basic services for all projects? Architecture firms, regardless of their size, can’t afford to ignore VR and 3D walk-throughs.

For a more ARCHICAD-centric, nuts and bolts discussion of this topic, read my article Our clients need to see our designs in VR. In that article I talk about picking the best Google Cardboard viewer for BIMx (or whatever VR app you’re using) and my experiences with sharing Virtual Reality with other architects, clients, and hordes of children at my daughters’ elementary school. If you’re already building quality 3D models, offering Virtual Reality is so inexpensive as to be free. If your models aren’t good enough, or non-existent, get moving. The death rattle approaches. There is no time to waste.

Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century. Follow Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. Not only are 3D walk-throughs and VR important for all the reasons above, they are also required because the majority of clients don’t know how to read drawings. They never have and they never will. They have client eyes.


  • June 3, 2017

    Great Article

    Just a thought……Visible toilet thru a skylight from deck. If today’s architects cannot identify this without VR, then our industry is in trouble. I would hope in Arch schools, VR does not become a substitute for “thinking”. Our industry is facing some challenges, to name a few…….interior designers wanting to seal interior upfit permit drawings without architects and AIA National advocating changing the name title of “Interns”. This profession is a process, a journey, not a
    destination. If we become too dependent on VR to identify design problems – then we are skipping the process that leads to competency.

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