Blog: The future of social housing design and build in Scotland is all about virtual reality

Euan Revell
Euan Revell

Euan Revell, senior architectural designer at planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore in Edinburgh, says today all eyes are on digital design.

Picture the scene. You’ve just been informed that there’s a new development planned in your neighbourhood, but rather than leaf through the image of a brochure, you reach for a pair of VR goggles. From the comfort of your armchair, you can now see the full multi-million pound housing development laid out before your eyes. Now imagine walking through it, reaching out to touch the bricks and mortar and interacting with the world around you in real time. It sounds like something from the future. But it isn’t.

This is the world of immersive virtual reality where spaces can be created using a combination of computer graphics, wireless tracking technology, headsets, HD projectors and polarised glass, all working together to create interactive and real-life experiences.

Today all eyes are on digital design, architecture and Building Information Modelling (BIM). The world of 3D virtual design and architecture is a fast-growing field and there’s some seriously forward thinking happening in these fields.

Every design will soon be made using virtual reality; enabling anyone to fully immerse themselves in a 3D (BIM) model which can be manipulated and provides an incredibly accurate sense of presence in a space that’s yet to be built. And it’s already happening here in Scotland.

As part of our national architecture team’s ambitions to lead the way in BIM, our Edinburgh team have used the modelling system for the City of Edinburgh Council’s Small Sites Affordable Housing Programme. The redevelopment of seven sites around Edinburgh which makes up the Small Sites Affordable Housing Programme, will provide around 260 new affordable houses for 21st Century Homes, to be built by Robertson Partnership Homes.

The pressure to use BIM on our social housing project didn’t come from the contractor or the client, it was a decision made by Barton Willmore. It’s inevitable that we won’t be drawing drawings anymore, we’ll be modelling buildings. It’s more fulfilling as a designer to use modelling, after all we’re designing spaces, so it’s better to create them virtually rather than drawing them in two dimensions. Yes, BIM takes a lot of energy to produce a good set of documents, but these documents will be more coordinated and more rigorous.

What’s more, you can walk around your drawing set, which in turn produces better designs. It can quickly highlight areas that are needing a bit of design TLC. When you model in 3D you also, by necessity, think about the buildability - if it’s difficult to model, chances are it’s difficult to build so you become much more aware of the construction. This is where we can manage costs more effectively and less builds running over time.

So it’s good for the designer, but what about the public? For the Edinburgh Small Sites Programme, we were able to present our scheme in a much more dynamic way at public consultation. Traditionally, members of the public are given a set of plans to review and maybe one or two visuals to give them a flavour of what the development might look like. But when you have designs modelled in BIM – you have the opportunity to take them on a virtual tour.

As well as the Edinburgh Small Sites Programme, we also used BIM as part of Fife Council’s Affordable Housing Programme at one of the key sites and the levels of public engagement soared. Presenting our plans in this way allows us to show residents how our development looks from their bedroom window, from across the street or three blocks away. It’s much more rewarding and transparent as your design gets interrogated far more extensively.

On the occasions that we could use the 3D model to walk people around the site, the public were much more engaged, and were able to make more informed comments. They could readily see how the development would look in the local landscape. People were interested in materials, roof forms, massing of the buildings and, naturally, ‘how will my house be affected?’

We can demonstrate how shadows will fall at various times of the year, how the building will look from a neighbour’s garden and many other design considerations. It’s proven to be a vital tool for engaging with stakeholders and getting their understanding and buy in. Everyone just got it when they could see it in 3D. The queries we received were more considered and the level of engagement across the board was fantastic.

We’re already looking towards using gaming software – much like Minecraft – where we can take communities on a virtual reality tour of our designs and allow the community to manipulate these designs to incorporate their own ideas. It will not only be empowering for local communities but will allow us to continue to stake our claim in leading the way in the social housing sector.

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