Viewing a Space Before It’s a Space: Virtual Reality for Design Verification
By Laura-Lee Moran and Denis Hebert
Virtual reality (VR) isn’t always for architects to show off their pretty designs! Viewing mechanical and electrical rooms before they’re constructed, and before equipment is purchased, is important from a constructability standpoint. Just because an object fits in a space, doesn’t mean the design works. Having a contractor, operations manager, or client walkthrough, experiencing the space well before construction, can help clarify the design intent.
They can give insight on design “flaws” and layout preferences, which will help the designer to produce an efficient and clean design. This article will showcase case studies in which a design team at MCW Consultants Ltd. used VR to enhance and validate their design intent in a number of mechanical spaces.
Uses for VR in MEP Applications
As BIM software becomes more evolved, so do the designs of buildings and the systems that keep them running. We have seen a rise of expectations from owners and architects for more optimized and compact MEP designs that take up smaller footprints and less ceiling space. Having the ability to visualize and walk through these MEP spaces has immense value, such as the ability to validate or fine-tune our designs. It gives us a different perspective, allowing us to experience the design from a building operator’s point of view to identify maintenance issues, an architect’s or owner’s point of view for aesthetics, or from an installer’s point of view for constructability.
Design Verification — Maintenance and Constructability
We are often asked to prove our MEP space requirements early in the design process, either it be a new build or existing build that’s being retrofitted. In both cases, large pieces of equipment are usually being installed with ductwork and piping coming in all directions.
Case Study: Hospital Central Plant
MCW won its first major project in Manchester, UK. It was a dated central plant for a hospital that needed their three steam boilers removed for a more environmentally-friendly solution. We decided the best way to design this project was using Revit as we needed to ensure as much of the existing building, including catwalks and other interior support members would not need demolishing to remove the boilers or to put the new CHP boiler (combined heat and power) into the space.
Throughout the design phase, we sent the UK-based client numerous 3D models to orbit and walk around. This gave him the confidence that the existing building will be large enough to house the new CHP boilers. Once the project was tendered, our team sat with the winning bidder to discuss their construction workflows and the manufacture that they were planning to purchase the boilers from. We replaced the Revit families with the updated selections to verify the space and systems layout would still work.
Verifying the design pre-construction allows the engineer that last-minute check and reassurance of their design.
Design Verification — Engineering
Often times with the amount and size of equipment needed in one space, engineers might find themselves wondering if it will all fit. Sure it fits on a computer screen, but once you are inside the room, will it all fit as intended? Verifying the design pre-construction allows the engineer that last-minute check and reassurance of their design.
Case Study: University Chilled Water Pump House
A major Toronto university was getting an upgrade to their central chilled water system, and a team at MCW was tasked with designing the pump house for this system. The intended design of the building was a simple box with trenches on either side of the building for the incoming and exiting pipes. Numerous pumps that are significantly taller than the average human were then placed inline along one of the walls. When it came time to review the project however, the two project managers disagreed on whether the layout of the space would actually work once constructed.
One project manager thought the layout was acceptable, the other did not think the space was large enough, having to place the pumps closer to each other than acceptable. We exported the model to Revizto and used the Oculus goggles, allowing both project managers the opportunity to view the model in VR.
Once they were able to walk around the pump room virtually, it was determined that the space between the pumps was adequate; there was enough clearance for installation and regular maintenance. Being able to view the design intent virtually allowed the team to view all equipment in perspective, verifying the initial size of the space and the layout of the pipes and pumps would work.
VR Can Be a Powerful Tool for Designers and Engineers
Being able to walk through a virtual MEP space, hopefully catching design issues that might not be apparent during the design phase, is a powerful ability. Even when modelling in 3D, some design ‘flaws’ may not be apparent until you have a more realistic perspective and understanding of the design intent.
Case Study: Condo Mechanical Room
The team was a few weeks away from issuing a large condo project for construction when we decided to have a little fun with our internal design review. MCW in Toronto just received the Oculus DK2 goggles and wanted to show off their creative and complex design of a two-story mechanical room in the buildings underground parking garage. The engineer assigned to the review was virtually placed into the space and was soon ‘walking’ around boilers, air handling units, and chillers. It didn’t take long to realize that various valves that would need regular attending to were positioned in such a way that was too high for a ladder, and in too congested of an area for a scissor lift.
Being able to virtually walk around this space as if it were built allowed the designers to get a more scaled perspective of the room, getting a better understanding of how the current design of the mechanical systems would impact the daily operations of the building. Seeing the design in 3D on a computer screen is important, but seeing the space before it became a space allowed the team to modify the layout before it became an installation and cost issue.
Software and Hardware That Worked for the Team at MCW Consultants
Disclaimer! There are numerous products and programs out there. We are by no means listing what we think is the best, cheapest, or easiest to use, we are simply letting you know what we have found works for us.
After trying a few different options, we have adopted the following two VR strategies: Oculus Rift DK2 with Revizto software and Google’s VR Cardboard viewer with Kubity software and a smartphone. Both have their pros and cons, and as previously stated are in no way the only options available. We would love to hear what others are using too!
Laura-Lee Moran is MCW’s national manager of BIM Services, with more than 8 years of Revit experience and nearly 20 years with AutoCAD. She is responsible for developing and implementing company-wide BIM standards, and also plays a key role in creating project workflows and strategies for coordinating with other MCW offices and outside consultants.
Denis Hebert joined MCW in 2008 and began working with engineers to design and draft MEP systems using AutoCAD. Over the course of the last 8 years, he has acquired design experience in systems such as ventilation, heating and cooling, fire protection, plumbing, lighting, power distribution, and communications. In the past 5 years, he has taken a key role in implementing Revit in MCW’s Atlantic offices and has become a BIM leader, helping develop MCW’s national BIM standards.
Learn more with the full class at AU online: Viewing a Space Before It’s a Space — Virtual Reality for Design Verification.