A number of incredibly talented architects and engineers use the Unity engine to bring their blueprints to life and let their clients adjust the designs as they wish. How does Unity fit their needs? And how are they changing their industry?
Interactive applications allow you to walk around something that hasn’t been built yet or has been lying in ruins for centuries. Even though most Computer Aided-Design (CAD) tools can create 3D visuals, it’s hard for clients to really understand what their architect has in mind.
“They still don’t give the user an experience of the space as if they were really there. Interactive 3D allows us to create completely immersive environments. It is now possible for someone to step within their future home years before it will be built, and know exactly how the sun is going to shine through their windows in the morning,” says Adam Simonar, lead designer at NVYVE, a studio that makes photo-realistic renders, animations and interactive applications.
Stefan Boeykens, university lecturer on CAD and author of “Unity for Architectural Visualization”, points out that using game engines is useful at the design stage as well. It helps architects see their ideas from the perspective of the visitor to their upcoming building.
Fun with importing
“I do believe that working in 3D and experiencing your own design interactively helps to assess spatiality and how it performs for a user of the building,” he says. A true veteran of 3D modelling, he has tried to work with other engines before Unity came along, but found the workflow between design applications and the virtual model too painful.
It is much easier to import from Graphisoft ArchiCAD, Autodesk Revit or Sketchup Pro to Unity with good results. “The authoring is very familiar when you come from a 3D modelling background. It’s also important that the models are updatable,” says Stefan, while mentioning a few issues like Pivot points not being in the ideal place or doors coming in as monolithic sets of meshes.
The biggest problem is performance, because most architectural models have too many details. “When students introduce trees, cars and people in a CAD/BIM engine, they overwhelm the polygon count. Just three trees usually equal the whole building,” points out Stefan.
“The great thing about Unity is that it is extremely flexible and extensible. Almost every time that we came across an issue, we were able to implement our own solutions, or find a ready-built extension on the Asset Store,” says Adam Simonar of NVYVE.
Design it yourself
Zahner is a consultancy and engineering shop that’s known for its innovative facades. It rose to prominence over the past decades as the fabricator behind a number of globally renowned architects, from Frank Gehry to Rem Koolhaas. “A few years ago, we started hiring coders. We realized that if we could create an interface to use all of the technology that we've built, we could let architects and their clients directly design and build in a much more transparent way,” says Tex Jernigan, creative designer at Zahner.
Zahner used Unity to build ShopFloor, where users can create unique designs for their facades and see how much it would cost to engineer, fabricate, and ship the assemblies. The first app, CloudWall, is based on the curvy metal facade of Zahner`s headquarters. When users change its size, colour and material finish, the cost updates in real time. “We wanted to give people direct control. Our generation is not used to the quoting process, we like transparent pricing,” explained Tex.
Using Unity allowed Zahner to speed up the development, while keeping the app secure and flexible. “I know that one of the big reasons we went with Unity was because of security. Another is that we can someday deploy to mobile and other platforms — Unity means flexibility,” says Tex Jernigan. Currently, Zahner has more than a 1000 sign ups for the ShopFloor open beta, mostly architects, but also fabricators and customers.
The platform was a side project of the engineering and web teams, who learned Unity during development and fell in love with the workflow, rapid prototyping and collaboration possibilities it offered.
In the future Zahner hopes that the designs will empower many to consider original high quality designs that had previously been attainable for only a handful of mostly corporate clients. Tex Jernigan can see its potential from an end user perspective: “I'm not an architect, or an engineer, but with ShopFloor I can create something unique, and install it in or on my own home — that's what's exciting to me.”
Bright future for interactive 3D content
ShopFloor is one of the many new architectural visualization projects that emphasize interactivity, immersion and end user empowerment. For NVYVE, this is only a step in a larger information revolution.
“The industry is definitely moving towards a fully interactive, 3D experience. We see a huge potential in pushing the boundaries with Oculus Rift and other emerging technologies. We believe there will be a point at which real-time 3D content is so powerful and accessible, that it becomes the dominant medium with which people experience not only architecture, but products, information, and more,” says Adam Simonar.
Check out more architectural visualization projects made with Unity in our gallery.