Recent advancements in technology have sparked an emergence of motion-graphics, 3D visualization, and virtual and augmented reality tools in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries. Alongside the challenges of this new reality come tremendous opportunities, as designers gain access to the same technology used by Hollywood filmmakers and game developers. Such breakthroughs have immense potential for designers’ ability to accurately represent and effectively communicate their visions on projects of all scales. These technological leaps allow for the creation of scenes that are exceedingly realistic and expressive, capturing the imaginations of designers and developers in forms that are easy for broader audiences to understand and relate to, in record time. In a recent article in The Economist, “Engines of Creation”, Unity Technologies’ chief marketing officer, Clive Downie, explains that “the main advantage game engines give organizations is the ability to do instantaneously what used to take minutes or even hours.
Before the introduction of computer-generated graphics, most design presentations relied on two-dimensional plans and sections to convey ideas. These drawings could lead to misunderstandings between design experts trained to interpret these graphics, and clients and stakeholders who often struggled to translate the lines on the page into their vision. Perspective renderings improved matters, but could only represent a single angle or moment in time from any given vantage point. Today, we have the ability to invite our clients and collaborators to immerse themselves in our digitally conceived environments before they have even obtained the financing to realize them.
At SWA’s Laguna Beach studio, we have begun to integrate various new visualization strategies throughout our workflow, both as front-end design tools and back-end communications methods ranging in multiple scales and phases—from animated “fly-throughs” of 3,000-acre conceptual master plans down to construction details for custom structures and site furnishings. While building a digital site model can be a labor-intensive and time-consuming effort (costly), we have found it to be a worthwhile investment. Just about all projects on the boards this year have generated at least one model, if not multiple iterations, that have effectively informed major design decisions, instantly clarified a project’s scale into a tangible construct for all (this is especially effective with large projects), and conveyed a vision for the confluence of form, function, and pro-forma.
As design tools, our models are essentially feasibility studies. Design flaws are quickly revealed along with misconceptions about the project or site, and informative data unapparent in analog plans or sectional views can be easily extracted. We typically build several alternatives of the same element(s) as a testing ground to ensure constructability as we enter the detailed design phases of a project. In smaller-scale applications, these are often built down to the fastening hardware for amenities as a method to reverse engineer complex structures or abstract ideas. These exploded prototypes visualize the construction methodology and facilitate a level of documentation that in many instances exceeds contractor shop drawings and parallels Ikea-style assembly instructions. Parametric modeling can also play a role to rapidly prototype patterning and subtle variations of a particular object or component. The ability to leverage these tools can provide a substantial advantage in improving designers’ collective understanding of how ideas translate to realistic outcomes, which will likely lead to plentiful opportunities and more interesting work for the studio. Watch an example here.
As a vehicle for communication, our models offer a diverse range of possibilities for presenting design ideas that engages our audiences and immerses them into the project. For clients and stakeholders, we do often employ traditional two-dimensional renderings for printed documents but focus on building comprehensive models (in lieu of individual objects or portions of sites) that offer the advantage of near endless angles readily available to export. The next-level application is to compose an animated fly-through that showcases how various design components or segments of the project interact with one another, how they fit together, and what they offer in terms of value to the end-user. Integrating narrative and storytelling within the composition can sell your vision effortlessly as the motion-graphics converge on screen. Finally, virtual reality panoramas are decisively the most effective readily available communication and sales tool available to designers today (assuming you can convince your clients to put on a headset). The user can interact and engage with the digital environment distraction free, and focus on the tailored aspects of the model from the selected vantage point of the designer. As we continue to chase the next wave of innovation, these strides will certainly expand. Soon we may be plugging our designs into systems of motion-tracked virtual reality, augmented reality (projecting digital compositions over reality, as in Pokemon Go), and eventually immersive sense simulated reality (at which point we’re basically in “The Matrix”).
While the prospect of creating worlds beyond our own space or time is exciting in its own right, at the cores these technologies are tools to improve the environments that already surround us. From design exploration to client approval and construction proficiency, these technologies not only help showcase our ideas, but are integral to realizing them. The long hours and back-and-forth invested in developing each model can seem superfluous, but ultimately provides enormous value in facilitating efficient design explorations and effective processes of communication and decision-making. Through 3D visualization, moving images, and virtual environments, we can bringing our visions to life in relatable ways that help our clients, collaborators and end users see the possibilities, and believe in the appealing futures we’re working to help realize.
Associate Pavel Petrov is a designer in the Laguna Beach studio.