3D Printing or Virtual Reality for Architects?

How 3D printing and virtual reality are being applied in the architecture industry

3D printing (3DP) and virtual reality (VR) have been used in the architecture industry for a couple of years. Each of these emerging technologies serves architects for different purposes. 3D printing enables architects to save time on modeling and designing more complex scale models, ultimately helping them make better design decisions. On the other hand, VR enables architects to better visualize their final projects with various simulations and effects.

One of our co-founders, Jonas Eklöf, visited BoldArc Viz (a Swedish firm delivering real-time scenes in VR for the real estate industry) to learn about VR technologies. Jonas discussed with Dan Gemvall (Head of Division) about the future of these two emerging technologies and how they can be applied together in architecture. Several questions were raised in our minds: How will 3DP and VR evolve and interact with each other? Will VR complement 3DP? Or will the technology overtake 3DP? This blog post dives into the differences between 3DP and VR, as well as the purposes for which each technology is better suited for architects.

3D Printing — Touching and Feeling Physical Models

3DP speeds up the prototyping process — Source: Adobe Stock

3DP speeds up the prototyping process — Source: Adobe Stock

For those who are not familiar with 3DP, 3D printers create layer-by-layer physical models from three-dimensional designs. Before 3DP, the depictions of buildings were mostly appreciated on flat papers or computer screens. Architects can also depict their 3D designs through traditional model-making. However, the manual process of assembling geometric pieces for a 3D model requires as much time as sculpting. Thus, 3DP speeds up the prototyping process, so that architects can spend their valuable time emphasizing on developing more, improving design concepts, and correcting construction flaws without building the model from scratch again. Overall, 3DP enables architects to deliver better designs which are able to withstand the passage of time and boost their reputation in the architectural world.

3DP technology is particularly useful at early stages of a design process because of its precision, particularly in spatial understanding. There is one scientific study that emphasized the importance of 3DP models regarding this preciseness. Researchers at Osaka University conducted experiments with 24 people. These people were asked to evaluate the size of a section of Osaka city by using both physical and virtual models. The study results showed that the 3DP scale model enabled the respondents to evaluate the object’s size more accurately, easily, and quickly. A 3DP scale model can be observed from any angle and can give a complete overview of the depicted building(s). Undeniably, 3DP creates opportunities for architects to understand the exact dimensions of building elements such as shapes, structures, wall thicknesses, heights, and other dimensions. This helps architects have a more intuitive and quicker assessment of the look and feel of their designs which cannot be done alone with a computerized design.

A 3DP scale model gives a complete overview of the depicted building— Source: Jon Olav Eikenes

A 3DP scale model gives a complete overview of the depicted building— Source: Jon Olav Eikenes

Another advantage of 3DP is the design freedom; architects are no longer restricted by straight lines. For example, the technology can help architects depict numerous details which often require considerable time and are difficult to create, such as double-curved wall surfaces or rounded roof lines. Moreover, 3DP also acts as an effective communication tool between architects and their clients who might have difficulties in interpreting technical drawings. This way, clients can get a clear architectural visualization of how the end product will look like. Architects around the world have mentioned that using 3DP scale models at the early stage helps them and their clients grasp a better overall understanding of the buildings during their later VR experience. Therefore, using 3DP also assists and facilitates the whole design process.

On September 2017, we were approached by a Finnish firm, Studio Puisto, as they were interested in trying 3D printing. They had been using VR for a couple of months and were finding lots of benefits in it. However, they also realised that it was not suited for early design communication. One drawback they found is that in early design meetings, clients would get distracted by the color of the walls, the shape of the door handles, location of lamps, and other small details that were irrelevant for early stage discussions. They realized that VR was creating an overburden of information and hindering communication. They were interested in 3D printing as it strips a model from any unnecessary details and focuses the conversation on what matters at early stages: analyzing typologies and masses.

3DP brings the design freedom to architects — Source: Adobe Stock

3DP brings the design freedom to architects — Source: Adobe Stock

Virtual Reality — Seeing and Experiencing Virtual Models

VR goes beyond being just a video gaming technology. It has played gradually an important role in the architecture industry. Listening to Dan, he affirms that VR creates a collaborative environment between architects and their clients. VR enables the user to visit a building which has yet to be built. Architects can create a vision of what the building and its surroundings will look like. That way, their clients will be able to physically walk around their future home and neighborhood, instead of being bystanders looking at technical drawings. Thus, VR allows architects to apply bolder and more experimental expressions to their designs. Dan also asserts that VR shortens the design process by enabling architects to test the user experience from earlier stages. By working with plugins such as V-rex, VR facilitates the translation of CAD scenes into real-time virtual reality scenes. Architects can instantaneously experience how different design scenarios turn out to be.

VR enables architects to apply bolder and more experimental expressions to their designs— Source: Adobe Stock

VR enables architects to apply bolder and more experimental expressions to their designs— Source: Adobe Stock

A major difference between VR and 3DP is the interactive experience. While VR enables architects to tell fully immersive stories, it also allows them to change the interior environment, including ceilings, wallpapers, tiles, doors, windows, lightings, and furniture - in real time. In addition, the interactive environment allows architects to walk clients through their designs. Changing a wallpaper color, turning a lamp on or tossing furniture around can be done ‘in the blink of an eye’. For the sake of landscape architects, Dan explains that VR enables them to test different simulations beforehand to find flaws in the construction. These simulations include the sun’s movements during the day, seasonal changes, visitors in a park, customers in a mall, and sounds from cities.

Dan states that VR can be used throughout the entire design process. However, the visualization that VR presents is particularly useful for later stages of a design process. The technology provides architects a better understanding of how certain changes affect the entire design. How can you test your lighting interior design? How easily can the emergency exit in your building be found? With a VR headset, architects can find answers to these questions by simulating the user experience in different environments.

What does the future hold for both 3DP and VR?

Is it possible to combine 3DP and VR together?

Well, why not?

Both 3DP and VR pose several values that can help architects improve their designs, meet their clients’ standards and gain a market advantage over their competitors. Because of their distinct characteristics, 3DP and VR can be used together in planning or design. “The only word I can come up with is parallel architecture”, Dan says about 3DP and VR. In other words, two buildings — “one in the real world and one in the virtual world” — should be brought into play to assist architects. Before meeting a client, architects can prepare a physical representation of their design with a 3D printer. With a VR headset, architects can walk clients through their projects to check out different simulations and effects. Combining these technologies saves a huge amount of time for architects to meet their clients’ standards.

Many techniques about 3DP and VR are yet to be explored. The 3DP technology will make more complex designs possible. In terms of VR, Dan believes that architects design not only with the technology but also for the technology. Specifically, VR technology allows architects to experience new creative features that might not be possible to build.

The advantages of leveraging these two emerging technologies in the architecture industry will be fruitful for those who are willing to take the plunge and turn their ideas into reality. We all look forward to more amazing masterpieces of architecture in the near future. Where do you think these technologies are heading to? Do you agree or disagree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

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Julio Tiusanen