VR for Architecture: Interview with Alex Garrison, Gensler Denver
With over 3,500 prestige clients, Gensler Denver is an architecture and design powerhouse creating remarkably diverse spaces for companies of all sizes. Gensler Denver was one of the earlier adopters of VR for architecture, and they’ve been using it in their business for a few years now.
We sat down with Alex Garrison (AG) about the company’s move into virtual reality and the impact they’ve seen from the integration of VR in key areas of their design and build processes.
To start, how has your office been using VR? What has the reception (by clients or internally) been like?
AG – We’ve been using VR for a few years now, primarily for 360-degree rendering and we share those with clients through Samsung Gear Headsets in the office.
Overall clients love it. It blends both seeing the design of their project with the novelty of being able to use a VR headset. We’ve had a very positive reaction and it’s certainly a real asset to our design process.
Our design teams internally are also really enjoying using it. There’s always something new we discover for the first time when we put on the VR headset and start looking at the space that’s being designed. Overall, it’s been really positive.
Can you describe a recent project where VR played a role in your design?
AG – We’re working on a project at Eagle County Airport, where we’re adding a new waiting area to the existing terminal building. As part of this, we needed to develop everything from a structural concept to the look and feel, including materiality, lighting, and even how large the windows will be for the mountain view while passengers wait for their flight. The visual impact of these separate elements really stands out when we render and look at the design wearing the VR headset.
For instance, in one case we had a couple of different structural ideas; one of them had large trusses that extended into the volume of the space and it felt cramped when we viewed it through a headset. Following that, we tried a concept without the deep trusses and the space felt big and voluminous. The fact that VR offered a compelling sense of scale allowed us to accelerate the design process.
Some other clients have told us that they believe VR helps their clients better picture space and scale – has that been true for you?
AG – The scale is definitely what you get from VR and that’s what’s really hard to get in other mediums. You can do it in physical models a little bit, but VR offers a true scale.
In our education program, we see that size estimation is really hard to teach students, so that’s one of the biggest things design professors are using VR to do. As a designer who has been practicing architecture for some time, is it still useful in that way?
AG – Absolutely. As architects, we often rely on benchmarks, such as certain story-to-facade ratios or typical window heights because we know they have worked in the past. Now, on top of using benchmarks, VR can help us explore, experiment and push these thresholds to see what a triple-height space would feel like, for example. We’re able to simulate our experimentation, learn from it and hone in on the right solution more quickly.
Would you say it can potentially allow for quicker experimentation?
AG – Yes, exactly. We’re then able to simulate that experimentation, learn from it and hone in on the right solution using VR.
Are there any projects in or around Denver that have benefitted from the use of VR for Architecture?
AG – One, in particular, is called Giambrocco – a mixed-use project planned in Denver. Here, we have been using VR to explore the public realm that stitches together several buildings and different uses into a cohesive whole. The intent of these areas is to provide a space for building tenants and the public alike to meet for a coffee, grab lunch, shop or catch a show. Also envisioned is a rotating schedule of events either day or night. In order to give our clients a true idea of what an experience such as a community movie night would look and feel like, we’ve been rendering these in VR.
We’ve also been doing a lot of interior VR rendering tenant fit-out for spaces and office building projects. All of this helps give clients a true sense of space before anything is built.
At Yulio, we believe VR is almost a translation of what’s in the designer’s head and allows them to put their ideas in front of people without any ambiguity – something that’s really appropriate in real estate spaces. Do you find it easier to communicate the ideas in this medium than most others?
AG – VR has a lot more potential than a 2D print-out of a rendering, as we’re able to provide spatial awareness which you can’t always get from 2D. But what VR is still catching up on, is allowing us to entourage and layer on a vibe that you can get on a 2D rendering.
What do you believe people struggle with at the moment when viewing designs?
AG – Probably the same things that’s always been true, in as much as our clients vary in their ability to read the drawings and renderings. Architects and designs often forget they’ve been training for years to understand and interpret the drawings and designs and so the struggle most people have is the fidelity of what we conceive of and what they perceive.
We’re often very focused on the current space and trying to get a lot of rendering of the building to tell a whole story the best we can – especially with pitches and earlier concepts. That way we can try to help clients understand. Sometimes though, in the time allotted to pitch, for example, clients don’t fully perceive the design, compared to say, another design.
How has VR changed client presentations?
AG – VR certainly expedites the sense of scale and space as well as materialities, so with the airport design, we were able to move quickly and in a linear fashion to make decisions on what stone to use, for example.
VR will probably open up more doors where we’ll explore more and more things. It’s tough to say whether the impact is faster, but it certainly is compared to static rendering.
Those are some great uses of VR in later stage presentations. Has Gensler used VR in other phases of a project, like pitching?
AG – Yes, we’ve used VR in pitches to good effect. This can take the form of sharing new designs or sharing our work portfolio depending on the ask. In either circumstance, VR can be immensely helpful during pitches because it can evoke such a sense of spatial realism. It’s exciting for clients to see design concepts come to life so quickly. There is also an aspect of novelty that makes VR exciting to clients, as they may not have seen or used it before.
So, when we show potential clients projects using this technology, they are excited and feel we’re exceeding their expectations. They see value in working with a firm that is using the latest technology to solve their challenges.
Do you think there’s an appreciation from the client’s side when you’re using new technology and experimenting with virtual reality for Architecture?
AG – VR definitely has a feeling of being on the cutting edge. As architects, VR is purely a tool, so we’ve been aware of it for some time. For our clients, however, it’s brand new. They may have seen it, or heard their kids talking about it, but not necessarily have used it. So, when we show them their projects using this technology, they are exciting and feel like we, the architects, are exceeding their expectations and using new technology to solve their problems.
Are you encountering a lot of people that have not tried it out yet?
AG – Yes, we are. We use it with most of our clients, but when we get new clients that haven’t used it before, they definitely get excited about using it.
Do you find that with clients that have worked with VR before, that there’s a ‘been there done that’ sort of mentality? Or are they still engaged and excited?
AG – Yes, I think there is that ‘been there, done that’ quality, but it’s probably just a general human thing. It’s not like they’re bored, they just won’t take as long looking around – they’ll pick up the headset to look at one thing to make a decision and then they’ll put it down. It becomes almost second nature, which is, of course, the goal. It’s certainly happened on projects where we’ve used it several times with clients.
It’s a tool, not a flashy trick. It’s a great way to explore design. Clients will simply pick it up just like they would a print-out.
You presented designs with Yulio at the Colorado Real Estate Journal show in Denver – why did you decide to bring VR to the trade show and what was the response like?
AG – Gensler is all about new tools and exploring ways to increase our abilities to design, so Yulio is one of these companies that aims to create a seamless connection between what we do and what VR provides. As an office, particular Denver, we thought it’s a great opportunity to show people the potential of this at the trade show.
Typically, the environment of a trade show is so that you’re inundated by so many things, that people are usually a little guarded. Most interesting about Yulio being at that booth, was that we noticed that the Yulio content is a lot more simple. It relies on a lot less custom technology or special set up and instead, is a simple tool for conveying 360 renderings through screens, headsets – plus it’s all through the cloud. It was an interesting experience to see a technology that is effective.
From your perspective as a designer, what will make VR for Architecture a more robust tool?
AG – Probably the most important thing is more seamlessness. There’s still a perception (and sometimes reality) that the technology is still experimental, so there still needs to be a lot of tinkering and hand-holding. As a result, it can feel more like an impediment to design.
The most important thing a design tool could have would be to be a natural extension of the designer, so it’s like a pencil in the hand. You almost forget it’s there and so focus purely on what you’re drawing. VR‘s exciting next step would, therefore, be to become seamlessly integrated into our workflow, where it’s basically an output. We don’t have to specially think of creating a rendering in 360, we just do it. Or, it’s real-time and interactive. It just exists. We can literally jump into it like the Matrix and plug into that model with clients.
What are your next steps with VR at Gensler?
AG – To further integrate and make the use of VR seamless. We want to use VR not just with the headsets, but also online and through computers.
In the long term, we want to start exploring technology that allows people from across our firm all around the world to interact with each other through the model and experience it all at once.
Simply put, we envisage two stages; Step 1: interface and interaction, Step 2: to take it to next level to make it more of an online visual experience.
What do you think VR really brings to the industry?
AG – It’s literally adding another dimension to our design. VR is a new tool that adds the idea of scale that we haven’t had before. It’s another exciting tool that increases our power to conceptualize and iterate ahead of actually having to build something.
I’m really excited to see what VR will do and how it will impact design. There’s strong evidence that suggests new tools bring in different design sensibilities. With the use of more computer design, we say beautiful buildings with very intricate computer machine parts – Apple HQ is the epitome of this. VR is going to add a new dimension; I don’t know what that is yet, but it’ll be exciting to see where it goes with its ability to really ‘feel’ space before its built.
We’d like to thank Alex Garrison for taking the time to speak to us this week about his practice’s use of VR for architecture. Check out their unique designs at https://www.gensler.com/ .
We love hearing about how integrating VR into businesses has such a positive impact, not only on the design process as a whole but for the experience of the client and designer as well.
Trying VR in your firm can bring you ROI and allow you to become a technology leader. Want to learn more about VR for business? Check out our free 5-day course, or create a VR experience for free with a Yulio account.