Is it time to see the world of architecture, construction and design digitally?
By Tiana Cline
HOW MUCH OF YOUR TIME IS spent inside? This may be the digital age where everything and everyone is connected but where we are now is also known as the ‘indoor generation’. Our living and workspaces are continually intertwining with technology shifting how we look at construction. It’s not only about the metaverse, but how we design and develop the built spaces around us.
Steven Pinto is someone who is heavily invested in virtual reality (VR). He’s the CEO of two South African technology companies – New Reality and CTRL Robotics – that have managed to attract a global client base.
“There is a commercial aspect of digital twins that is finding its way into mainstream. I think companies are going to start to realize the use of VR in their everyday lives so that they can become more productive and efficient,” he says.
For Pinto, digital twins – creating digital representations of physical entities – and VR are the starting point of a new wave of architecture that isn’t limited by the constraints and costs associated with physically visualizing an end product.
“We’re going to see a lot more adoption of
VR tech. There are currently architects in Cape Town doing international work that include VR walkthroughs – these are technically digital twins,” he explains. “Architects aren’t game developers so you need to be able to bridge that gap so that they can use digital tools more effectively.”
Gregory Katz, the principal architect at Gregory Katz Architecture, is someone who has seen first- hand how computers have changed the industry. “And for the better,” he says. “I remember sitting and doing hand drawings in an office in Cape Town and we used to work on tracing paper. If any changes were made to the design you had to try and modify the drawings and sometimes, you couldn’t scratch out what you had drawn. The paper quality was so damaged that you had to redraw the whole building… In that sense, technology has lightened the burden on the profession.”
FIT FOR PURPOSE
Digital twins present many opportunities for designers that don’t necessarily live in the architectural world. Industrial designers in the manufacturing sector that need to work with mechanical engineers can use a tool like The Wild, an immersive VR collaboration platform for the building industry.
“VR can be commercialized in a completely different way. Think about working from home – it’s becoming more accessible and companies are seeing the benefits of using virtual spaces to collaborate and design,” says Pinto. “It’s inherently a massive cost-saving and logistics is minimal. There are now companies investing in divisions of their business that have people who specialize in building digital twins.”
Using digital twins, the fundamentals of architecture don’t necessarily have to change – technology has the ability to mitigate challenges in the iterative process and ultimately improve profitability. An added benefit is that clients can become more adventurous.
“They trust the process because they can see what they’re going to buy and can be involved in major decisions before irreparable changes occur.
All the theory behind architecture is the same, it is the execution that’s a little different,” says Pinto. “Traditionally, visualizing for a customer called for a model of representation of some sort. Models can be wildly inaccurate but they were the only tool available at the time. Today, architects don’t have to be model builders. They’re 3D artists with all the understandings of light, shape and dimension.”
Pinto says that what he is starting to find is that the line of digital twins is becoming blurred between what is happening in reality and what people are building in digital worlds. “While there are magical, fantastical worlds that don’t apply to the world of physics, there is an interesting part of the market where people are looking into these ideas to try and minimize wastage when looking at the cost of development projects,” he explains. Looking at the commercial potential for VR, Pinto’s team created a simple tool that could place furniture in rooms to allow, for example, an office to work out how many desks would work well in a space.
“Here, you don’t call an architect but rather an interior designer and you only do that after you sign the lease. The customer cannot conceptualize, first and foremost, what space they actually require – and this is where costs end up being exorbitant,” says Pinto. “VR can go beyond simple walkthroughs.”
THE SHAPE OF THINGS TO COME
Katz teaches at the Graduate School of Architecture (GSA) located at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He still encourages students – which at the GSA, are all at a postgraduate level – to draw manually because “the thinking that happens between the hand and the eye cannot be replaced by a computer. The quick sketch, the intuitive understanding of potentials… it’s different on a computer,” he explains. “On a computer, scale is limited to the size of your screen. You can zoom in and out infinitely but sketch is a natural, scale-less interaction and things emerge in a hand sketch that you could never replicate on a screen.”
While drafting with a computer is more efficient and physical models are not as prevalent as they once were, Katz believes they’re a valuable tool for developing and design: “If something stands in a model, it obeys the same laws of physics it would in reality. That’s a very useful constraint to have at play when you’re designing,” he says. “When designing a digital version of an analogue construction, you’re not thinking through the actual construction.”
Another benefit Katz brings up is measuring the quality of light. While artificially replicating light conditions around a model can done with a computer, Katz says there is slippage between what you get in reality and the computer render.
“They’re seeing a perfect condition of your vision. There’s an ambiguity around those presentations which can be onerous.” The GSA students have Oculus goggles and are using them to explore the interface between VR and key dimension construction and augmented reality.
“It’s exciting technology but I don’t think we can throw out the baby with the bathwater yet,” warns Katz. “There’s still tremendous value in the handmade, in the physical world. The technology is there but we need both.”