EVALUATING NEW HOUSING: THE POTENTIAL FOR DEVELOPERS AND PLANNERS TO USE VIRTUAL REALITY TECHNIQUES.
Jennifer Whyte and Dr. N.M. Bouchlaghem
Department of Civil and Building Engineering,
Loughborough University, Loughborough, LE11 5DR, UK
Virtual reality could be a useful tool for evaluating the quality of residential development. Its use in the housing industry becomes feasible as some developers are moving from a traditional paper based approach to a use of new technologies and the Internet. Ongoing research at Loughborough University is focused on housing developers use of virtual reality for marketing and collaboration with planners. This paper describes the results of a questionnaire to housebuilders about their IT use, and a pilot virtual reality project developed in collaboration with a leading British housing developer.
In Britain seventy percent of all urban land is used for residential development (Ball, 1996), but current housing is inadequate for future needs. The populations housing requirements are altering due to demographic and lifestyle changes, and the government predicts the need for 4.4 million new homes by the year 2016 (DOE, 1996).
In seeking to provide good quality new residential development, the ability to appraise proposed developments before construction will be increasingly important. Virtual reality (VR) enables environments to be created, that can be entered into and interacted with directly, greatly facilitating this process of visualising, evaluating and communicating new design ideas. The kind of homes required in the future may be quite different, and virtual reality could be used to present and evaluate innovative solutions to housing for the 21st century.
This paper describes early work undertaken to investigate the potential for housing developers to use virtual reality techniques for marketing and collaboration with planners, and also highlights the potential use of virtual reality to improve the quality of new build housing.
Whilst developers often get the blame for the lack of innovation in private housebuilding, they operate to tight profit margins in a competitive market, and are concerned with satisfying consumer demand. Good quality new housing can provide benefits for contemporary living in terms of comfort, safety, security, convenience, disability support, homeworking, leisure and energy management (Concannon, 98) but many of these opportunities are being squandered due to consumer conservatism.
Housebuyers are often more concerned with the stylistic considerations and initial costs, than the spatial considerations, longterm suitability and lifetime costs of new houses (verbal communication with housing developer, 1998). Comparisons have been made between the housebuilding industry and car manufacturing (Gann, 1996) but houses, unlike cars, are often purchased on purely aesthetic grounds, without a consideration of performance and running costs.
Current advertising focusses attention on glossy images, but virtual reality could be used to take attention away from the architectural style and show the consumer the spatial layout of new houses, the potential for change over time, and the improved running costs of efficient housing.
Simulation also allows for a more participatory design process (Lawrence 1987). Standardisation of parts of houses, rather than standardisation of whole housetypes may lead to greater consumer choice and customised designs (Gann, 1996). Virtual reality could be used to allow housebuyers to view the wider range of choices.
Planners can now model urban environments in three-dimensional electronic space, using CAD or advanced visualisation techniques (Levy, 1995). Virtual reality models of entire cities, are possible: a model of Bath, produced by researchers from CAD models, is one example of such a large-scale urban model (Bourdakis, 1997). Virtual models can be viewed from different viewpoints: both birds eye views which quickly give survey information about the city, and eye-level perspectives from the vantage point of pedestrians and motorists can be generated.
Housing developers use of virtual reality could benefit planners in their assessment of new housing schemes. Planners could look at proposed new housing developments in the larger context of a virtual city model. They can use virtual reality models to assess the impact of new housing schemes in relation to transportation patterns, and access to schools, shopping facilities, parks and other amenities.
Although many of the smaller house builders may never be able to justify using computer visualisation techniques for the design and sale of houses, many of the larger volume builders are already using CAD visualisation techniques and could potentially use low-end desktop VR. Predictions have been made that the future will have two different kinds of housing developer operating in the Britain, those that operate on a traditional land-oriented model, and those that have an IT base using advanced computer techniques to improve their competitive edge (Freeman, 1998).
Research at Loughborough University has found that the larger British housing developers have an interest in web developments and Internet presence. In a survey of major housebuilders, 31% of respondents already had their own web-site, whilst 28% were looking to obtain in the next two years and 6% said simply they would get one soon. Some of the housing developers who do not have their own web-sites currently advertise property online, through third-party websites such as UK Property Gold (http://www.ukpg.co.uk/). Perusal of the trade press also shows an increase in the number of housing developers looking at new media to market properties. Several companies have used video to market homes and one has marketed a social housing development using CD-Rom (Williams, 1997).
Whilst in the 1980s housing developers lacked formal explicit strategies with respect to computers and information management and had low commitment to IT (Thorpe, 1992), this can no longer be assumed to be the case. Today there are software companies that specialise in developing software specifically for housing developers, and CAD is used by many of the larger volume housebuilders. When questioned about building VR models from CAD, one housebuilder expressed the desire to use virtual reality as the design medium for future housing, taking two-dimensional working drawings from the three-dimensional VR building model.
Virtual Reality techniques can also be used for marketing in conjunction with both the Internet and new media technologies. The American journal, Builder Online, already has a virtual showhouse on the Internet (http://builder.hw.net/news/1997/showhomes/futurefinal/). This has been created using digital images of an existent building which have been stitched together into a QuickTime VR navigable movie. Hotspots create hyperlinks between different rooms and viewing locations.
Working with a leading British housing developer, a pilot visualisation project was undertaken to assess the potential of virtual reality. CAD data relating to a standard housetype was obtained from the housing developer, and a virtual model of that housetype was then created.
Fig1. Superscape model showing the standard housetype at different locations in a site layout.
Experimentation into methods for putting together virtual models was undertaken. Three different models of a housing scheme have been produced, using different modelling techniques. The first model was built in the commercial VR package Superscape. The second was built from CAD data translated into the Virtual Reality Modelling Language (VRML) and assembled in an authoring tool. The third model was built in 3D in the AutoCAD environment and then exported to 3D Studio VIZ, where it was structured hierarchically and further edited before being translated into VRML.
Fig 2. 3D AutoCAD model showing the housing development and a birds eye view of the resultant VR model in VRML.
It is intended that the project can be accessed through a browser, either remotely, or on the local computer: technical data or photographic marketing images can also be displayed when the user enquires about relevant parts of the housing scheme from within the virtual environment.
Fig 3. The VR Model shown in a web-browser, information about different housetypes can be linked to the model, and animations can also be shown.
Differing amounts of interaction may be allowed to different users: for example planners and architects may be allowed an ability to change the housing scheme which may not be granted to prospective clients.
Virtual reality has the potential to assist housing developers evaluate and market new housing schemes. It can be used to describe residential development both on its own and in conjunction with other new media and the Internet, as was demonstrated in the pilot project described in this paper. Further work is needed to establish appropriate levels of abstraction, and the amount of detail required in such models.
A survey of the larger housing developers found that many now have web-sites and in the future some housing developers may have increasingly computer-based methods of working, perhaps using virtual reality for design, as well as for collaboration with planners and for marketing properties.
Virtual reality models can be used by planners to assess proposed new housing schemes in the urban context, as they can be imported into larger city models. The use of virtual reality could provide benefits in terms of improving the quality of the new housing and interesting housebuyers in quality housing. Further work is needed to analyse the potential for virtual reality to assist planners and housing developers to work together using a shared virtual model, and its use for marketing of efficient housing.
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