Virtual reality immersive review is one of the most powerful tools in the planning, design and construction of projects.  Software and hardware are now available to provide an immersive experience for a very small expenditure.  The Smithsonian has leveraged this to fully integrate VR into its capital improvement program improving quality, efficiency, and reduce costs.

During project planning we utilize laser scanning and a Matterport camera to capture existing conditions. The model is then compiled through Revizto, gaming engine software, to create a lightweight model that is compatible with the HTC Vive VR headset. VR is then used to verify the accuracy of the as-built model. Completing models of the Smithsonian Institution Castle, Hirshhorn Museum, and the Arts and Industries Building provides an architectural ‘digital twin’ of these historic buildings which can then be leveraged for a multitude of uses.

We integrated VR into project programming such as the design of flexible research laboratories at our Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, in the Republic of Panama. Using a Matterport camera we scanned recently completed laboratories at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC and at the Environmental Research Center, in Edgewater MD. The photo-realistic 3D ‘Doll House’ models, along with HTC Vive hardware, were taken to Panama, allowing researchers to virtually visit the labs to better understand how flexible labs could be implemented in Panama.  VR technology saved several thousands of dollars in travel costs that would have been spent bringing Panamanian researchers to Washington, DC.

VR is used extensively during the design phase and have reaped significant savings through change order avoidance. Our most notable success occurred during design review of the National Air and Space Museum revitalization. This project, now under construction, has been the test bed for many of our VR initiatives. Maintenance technicians, responsible for operating the facility, were given a curated tour of the 35% VR design model, and within minutes of being immersed they determined the boilers needed to rotate 180 degrees to provide clearance necessary to maintain them. This comment, provided early in the design phase, avoided a costly change order.

Small projects can benefit from VR as well.  For a medical examination room, we presented nurses with 2-D drawings, a SketchUp isometric rendering, and 3-D visualization on a flat screen, the nurses were unable to provide any meaningful comments.  Once immersed in the room using the VR headset, and performing a virtual medical examination, meaningful comments came fast and furious.

The value of immersive review became instantly clear through these examples and became part of our normal design workflow.

The value of VR and immersive review does not decrease during the construction phase. In fact, the value appears to grow with each successive phase of a project. During construction, the use of Revizto software lends to the creation of a coordination model.

For the National Air and Space Museum project, we are using Revizto’s web-based collaborative issue tracking feature to develop a coordination model for all of the structures and systems in the building. The construction contractor, primary sub-contractors, the architect and their sub-consultants collaborate to locate the final routing and sizing for all systems. This real-time collaboration is essential to the successful coordination of the project.

Finally, many contractors are using the model for offsite prefabrication and modularization. For the National Air and Space Museum, the electrical sub-contractor is pre bending conduit offsite and prefabricating entire electrical closets that will be delivered to the site as a unit.

Virtual reality is not without challenges.  For example, problems in the coordination model can arise because not all elements of the project are modeled during design. Most notably hangers, piping, and conduit less than 1.5” are not modeled. Leaving the contractor to work out how to support all the systems and their final routing. In addition, to-date, most construction contracts utilize the 2-D drawings as the legally binding documents, leading the architect to create a model that is suited to producing 2-D drawings rather than the 3-D model being the highest quality document. Therefore, many items are modeled to be represented accurately on the 2-D drawings and not where they are in space.

The benefits of VR in the planning, design, and construction of a project are just now being realized, from cost savings to increasing efficiency. To accelerate adoption and realize the full benefits, several obstacles need to be overcome. Interoperability is a significant obstacle as true open source standards are lacking. Even different versions of the same software present interoperability challenges. Prefabrication software, utilized by electrical and mechanical sub-contractors, typically utilizes 3-D CADD instead of a Revit model, leading to problems creating a true federated Revit As-Built. Finally, the continued use of 2-D drawings as the legally binding construction contract will limit the adoption of VR as the model will always be a secondary consideration and not represent the most accurate contract document.  These obstacles can be overcome, and the benefits of low-cost virtual reality will be implemented throughout the lifecycle of facilities.

About the author

Michael J. Carrancho, PEChief of Engineering & Design, Smithsonian Institution