If you ever started on a household project and finished with something looking completely different, you’ll surely appreciate how gaming technology is changing the built environment.

Architects are making use of virtual reality to walk around buildings — before they even break ground.

SERA Architects software developer Marshall Nystrom in the VR visualization.

SERA Architects software developer Marshall Nystrom in the VR visualization.

April Baer/OPB

I went to try out the 3D virtual reality that Portland-based firm SERA Architects uses to think through new projects. I put on the VR goggles and grabbed a couple of Bluetooth controllers, kind of squirt gun shaped, with thumb pads. Suddenly I’m standing outside the design for the soon-to-be-remodeled Portland Playhouse theater.

SERA Architects got involved in the Portland Playhouse renovation through the firm's late founder, Bing Sheldon. A strong arts supporter, he also served on the Playhouse's board.

SERA Architects got involved in the Portland Playhouse renovation through the firm’s late founder, Bing Sheldon. A strong arts supporter, he also served on the Playhouse’s board.

Courtesy of SERA Architects

You move around this VR environment by pointing your controller at the place you want to stand — click — and suddenly you’re looking around from a completely different perspective.

Like many new VR users, I put on the goggles, accidentally pointed to the roof, and clicked. Then, I reeled on my feet as I experienced the realistic sensation of standing 40 feet above Northeast Skidmore Avenue. Used correctly, this technology can be a powerful tool to show people what their building could look like.

A New Way To Experience Design

A crowd gathered at a Portland Playhouse fundraiser, munching biscuits and sipping mimosas, to hear more about the reconstruction campaign. They strolled around the existing building. It’s a lovely, early 1900’s church. The company has adapted the space for all its needs since 2008.

Brian Weaver is the artistic director. He says space was so tight, actors rehearsed plays in the sanctuary at the same time the crew built the set onstage.

“We needed office space, a rehearsal hall, professional dressing room, a scene shop and some storage,” Weaver said. “We needed more things, it seemed like, than we could ever fit in 7,000 square feet.”

Taking the VR tour, you can see how the design for the remodel does all those things. Pam and Mark Grignon are new to the Portland Playhouse, a friend on the board brought them. They were dazzled.

Goggles on, Pam Grignon exclaimed, “Wow, this is going to be gorgeous!”

While VR is a pretty cool tool for fundraising, it has even more value for architects shaping the project, like SERA’s Molly Culbertson.

“The wrap-around porch section of the design,” she explained, “We were kind of struggling with the appropriate scale. Walking around it gave us an idea. ‘Maybe our design is a little too massive. This needs to be more open and welcoming.’ Same with the building, trying to carve out the appropriate size courtyards for people.”

Culbertson grew up with video games and knew what 3D animation could do, but even she was surprised at how the VR model let the team make and see changes on the spot.

“Being able to move it back and forth, if we wanted to, you could make the yard bigger or smaller, and be in the yard at the same time, really informed the design.”

There’s nothing particularly new about using computer models to envision a building.

Brian Stevens (left), SERA visualization expert, and software developer Marshall Nystrom.

Brian Stevens (left), SERA visualization expert, and software developer Marshall Nystrom.

April Baer/OPB

Brian Stevens is SERA’s visualization expert. He’s been making models like this for 20 years. Together with software developer Marshall Nystrom, they’ve been adapting tools like Photoshop and SketchUp for use inside VR.

On the Playhouse project, Stevens says, “One of the challenges is the space. Often we’re designing spaces that are smaller than what would lend themselves to a good still image.”

Portland Playhouse’s rooms are so small you can’t take a camera in and get a realistic panorama image.

Ever seen a real estate photo taken with a fisheye lens, and walked into the actual house, to find it’s nothing like you thought? Same problem. “That,” Stevens says, “is where VR really excels.”

Nystrom explains he built the visualization in the game development engine, Unity. It has several advantages. “It’s meant to run not just on computers like Mac and Linux,” he said. “It also runs on smartphones or other mobile devices.” (Nystrom also uses Unity designing for game jams with the Portland Indie Game Squad.)

It won’t do sexy graphics, but he said, “It’s a really smooth way to get from an idea to, at least, a first approximation of what you want to produce.” It’s much faster than traditional architectural renderings.

Stevens says his goal is to see how early he can get architects to incorporate VR into their design process. 

“It’s good to get it all into VR. Often times, I’m working with a team, we’ll build something in VR, walk around and they’ll say, ‘Oh, this isn’t what I imagined I was designing!’ It’s much better to walk through the space virtually and be surprised than to walk through it after the fact and be surprised.”