Is virtual reality for design worth it? Yes. Here’s why.

April 23, 2019 Russell Thomman

VR makes communication with key stakeholders easy, increases project efficiency, and provides a valuable marketing tool


Virtual reality. It’s a term that has been around for decades, evolving in capabilities alongside computers and processors into what we have today. But what is it? How can it benefit my project? It sounds expensive! The experience of virtual reality (VR) can be a critical design communication tool, and it’s more obtainable than you may think.

I’ve been involved in 3D modeling since 2004, and I’ve discovered that there is something to be learned through every designed project. While I have been involved in several dozen built projects, I have built several hundred 3D models. Every one of those models not only contributed to design graphics, but resolved conflicts, gave valuable insight to clients, expedited decisions, and saved our design teams valuable time. And now, for the past four years, we are using VR to expedite the pace at which we can simulate the human experience. VR is now engrained into our workflows and can take many forms during a project, some of which are closer in reach than one might think! 

I’d like to dive into a few “levels of VR” as we are using the technology in Community Development at Stantec. 


Let’s take a virtual site visit

How many people’s lives changed after they discovered Google Street View? You can visit a site almost anywhere in the developed world on demand from your smart phone! But did you know this same content can be viewed in VR? We are taking project teams and our clients on virtual tours of built projects to give greater understanding of context, scale, and the fabric of what makes a place special. Does this substitute the “real” experience? No, but we can walk through landmark projects like Zilker Park or Klyde Warren Park in Texas, or even tour New York’s Central Park, all in an hour lunch break to understand specific elements that make a location special.

We even shoot our own spherical photography with drones and 360-degree cameras to customize a “virtual site visit” for our project teams. It is an extremely beneficial tool in initial project conversations, and it plays a critical role in site documentation of existing conditions. 


The Tennyson, Plano, Texas


VR plays a key role in communication

When it comes to visualizing design, VR has become essential to how we communicate with our clients and how we design dreams. It may sound expensive to people not familiar with the workflow, but VR is more obtainable that you may think.

By working in 3D early in a project, we can develop preliminary content to help a client understand where the vision is headed. We build quick models that can be shared in a VR headset, on a browser, or your phone or tablet. 

With client buy-in on our design direction, we begin to get into the details of design. Our models begin to show materials, planting, amenity elements, furniture, people, all of which are growing in complexity as the design process progresses. The process supplements our construction documents with a visual aide, as well as a coordination tool between consultants and contractors. The final product is a live model that evolves as necessary, and it helps us flush out many coordination items along the way that may not have been noticed in 2D documentation. Virtual reality is infused into this process as a communication tool available at any time, allowing the design team to drop into the design to verify and validate design assumptions. 


Shai Roos (left) and Russell Thomman (right) show the City of Cedar Hill employees the benefit of using virtual reality for projects.


Is VR expensive?

But what if your project budget cannot support a fully blown 3D model that has to be updated at every milestone?

We have helped clients with this challenge by what is closer to a traditional “rendering” by only modeling what is pertinent to a specific desired view. We can then blend this limited modeling into spherical 360 photography to give a photorealistic VR view, alternating between before and proposed improvements. This example also has had tremendous support during public engagement meetings. Early on in a project, a design may not be developed but we need a tool to engage people and get a reaction from them to help us guide the design process. VR is a very compelling and engaging tool that people are drawn to. Good or bad, they will usually have something to say about it!

A few items to consider when it comes to what it takes to achieve effective use of VR:

  • We prefer to spend our time (and budget) on design, NOT graphics. The graphics, VR, and video fly throughs are a product of our process. If I spend an eight-hour day developing a perspective graphic for a presentation—regardless if our client hates it or loves it—at the end of the day that graphic goes nowhere. If I spend eight hours developing a 3D model, that model continues during the design. 
  • I’ve heard clients say, “that sounds expensive!” Because this is our design process, we typically include this type of work in our standard proposals. What is hard to quantify is the value provided in increased approval times, the efficiency and clarity in communication, and less significant changes during construction documentation. The sharing of our VR content also leads to better understanding of designs early into a project, helping contractors produce more accurate bids with less RFIs, leading to faster construction times.
  • Our VR content can also be used for client marketing materials for their projects. As our clients take on the highly competitive leasing market, great experience imagery in their sales centers become essential to attracting potential buyers.


McKinley Park, Sacramento, California


The value of VR

Virtual reality can help you take the guesswork out of what a project may look like, and the value of VR has proved itself time and again. Whether it is used in predesign, construction documents, or simply to tour sites around the world, being able to see a unified vision increases the depth of knowledge in any project.

About the Author

Russell Thomman

Russell Thomman is a project manager in our landscape architecture and planning studio in Austin, Texas. Russell is currently spearheading our 3D visualization and virtual reality for community development projects in Austin.

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