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VR Headsets Are Already Obsolete, Per This Architecture Team

As construction teams and designers across the U.S. implement virtual reality software into their work, one national architecture firm says it is ditching VR headsets in favor of more mobile technology. 

A Virtual Design and Construction model of Linx Watertown, an SGA project in Watertown, Mass.

“Better designs and faster decisions are what we’re after,” SGA partner and Director of Virtual Design and Construction Services Michael Schroeder said. 

Developers and construction teams have begun to implement VR and augmented reality for marketing. But the team at SGA says it is building its VDC to design and construct projects at each step in the process, and it does not require users to don a pair of goggles or make a trip to a technology suite at an office. A laptop or iPad is just fine.

The program is used on test fits, pre-builds, interiors, repositioning and master planning, and SGA has already seen it speed up the time from conception to delivery on projects like Linx Watertown in Watertown, Massachusetts, and 50/60 Binney St. in Cambridge. It enables all parties involved in the process to walk through a virtually built project and examine hard-to-reach areas, like mechanical equipment, and get detailed information before the first shovel hits the ground.

“The entire team was clicking. The design and construction team are normally on opposite sides of the fence,” Schroeder said. “Here we were on the same side of the fence. When you can do that, you can share innovations. The team generates innovations we couldn’t foresee.”

The post-VDC delivered product at Linx Watertown

SGA’s technology shaved six months off the construction schedule at the Cambridge project, home to Genzyme Corp. and Bluebird Bio, Schroeder said. Despite it being a complex site in the notoriously space-constrained Kendall Square, Schroder said VDC enabled the build-out process to work like a mining operation below the building as it was being built on top, due to the team already virtually constructing the building several times to work out design errors before actually moving ahead. 

The technology has enabled the team to tweak design flaws before construction commenced. A video stream model previously found errors in steel bracing in stairs on a project that Schroeder said would have been difficult to catch any other way. By discovering it ahead of time, SGA avoided what would have been a significant cost in the building process.

“We can make multiple mistakes virtually,” Schroeder said. “That gives us more comfort and knowledge about the building so that, when we go to execution, things will come together without having to be torn down.”

A Suffolk Smart Lab

Not everyone is ready to chuck the headsets. A Boston-based construction firm sees no problem with embracing them.

Suffolk has opened Smart Labs at its offices in New York and San Francisco and will add them to offices in Tampa, Miami and Los Angeles. It unveiled its latest Smart Lab at the ribbon-cutting for the first phase of its $60M Boston headquarters expansion earlier this month. The lab will test and scale new technologies, including those that use VR headsets.

Large construction projects take 20% longer to finish and are often up to 80% over budget, according to the McKinsey Global Institute, so Suffolk looked to reduce those odds. Its Smart Labs include VR “caves,” where users can step inside the building and address logistical challenges before construction starts and see side-by-side comparisons to how work is progressing on the actual job site.

VDC model of Titletown Tech in Green Bay, Wis.

But SGA stresses the need for mobility and ease of access for projects spread across the country where it does not have an office. VDC enables the firm to see areas requiring improvements and make changes in real time. It is working on Titletown Tech, a 45K SF tech incubator and campus in Green Bay, Wisconsin, that is a joint venture between the Green Bay Packers and Microsoft

“All of the engineers are in Milwaukee, and the design is happening in Boston and New York,” SGA New York Studio Manager Brooks Slocum said. 

A VDC model of Zillow's Manhattan office

The program is updated on a continuous basis to provide new uses, like at Zillow’s Manhattan office. SGA is at work designing two floors in the building, at 130 Fifth Ave., where the company says it gets feedback quickly. Zillow’s team can walk through an entire VDC model and pick out carpets and other fixtures, which an SGA designer is updating in real time. 

“There’s no more someone saying, ‘Oh, that’s what I approved?’ You know what you approved. We’re going to show you,” SGA Director of Marketing and Business Development Adam Spagnolo said. “If you don’t have kick-ass technology, it’s going to be a slower process.”