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Design and the VR Experience

Written by Michael Ryan

Photos by Keefer Bickel and Daniel Peurifoy

There are two places that we inhabit as architects and designers. The Inside Place: our personal vision of a project; and an Outside Place: our attempts to communicate this vision during the process of creating a house. The vision that inhabits our Inside Place is not a fixed thing. It is persistently changing as a project develops, and is therefore much like a hunt. This is perhaps best described in the words of the Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza when talking about the building of a house: “The project constantly moves away from the architect. It is vital not to lose it. The design tracks it down.” The Outside Place is the visible accumulation of our attempts to communicate this vision to our clients, the building crafters; and perhaps most importantly, to ourselves as designers.

How we experience a house is the true measure of the success of a design. The result of prioritizing experience is a less formal and stylistic approach to making houses. Experience becomes memory and our memories of places are what truly defines an environment, both natural and manmade.

Acknowledging the priority of experience affects the Outside Place of an architect’s work; how we actually work, the technology we employ, and how we communicate our ideas and vision to others and ourselves.

Historically, this process would begin with a sketch or parti that attempts to capture the initial vision. This would then be finalized through iterations before being formalized into technical drawings for translation to the real world. While effective for construction, this process has limitations in how it conveys the experiential qualities of a home to a client.

The integration of the computer allows us to digitally construct the building and from that construction, generate views of, within, and through the houses we are creating. It links the vision and the technical reality together in a way that was previously impossible. These views allow us to make decisions faster; to view and edit what we want to see at any step in the process.

By embracing the newest technologies, we are now able to visualize, respond to, and give shape to a house in a way that is experientially transformative, and imminently transferable. Virtual Reality, VR, adds the dimension of real-time experience that is directly related to the body; how we turn our heads; look up and look down; and pause to gaze at what we find interesting. Views of the architecture are no longer edited, framed, and curated by the designer. The house can be explored at the viewer’s discretion. A VR headset combined with a gaming controller puts the viewer in control.

VR seems to be the logical expansion of the way we work. By subscribing to a VR service, we can take the technical 3D documents we already create as a part of our design work, and upload them to be translated into a virtually inhabitable, experiential space. This can then become a shared experience, where users explore the space, and their perspectives are live-streamed to a monitor for comments by other team members. There is flexibility because both free-roaming and guided-tour approaches are viable ways to engage with the model.

In our work at MRA, we’ve discovered the value of VR to both our clients and our design process. We can see the effects that particular design choices will have on the experience of the home, how a specific material or product will work in concert with the form, or when it will clash with our intentions. We can then act to affect change, well before it would become apparent during actual construction. For our clients as well as ourselves as designers, this new method of working gives everyone the ability to LOOK TOWARD, LOOK OUT, MOVE THROUGH, and BE WITHIN the house.

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