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Recreating a piece of history – virtually

Why we took part in Project Soane

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Last year Hoare Lea was one of the runners up in Project Soane, an ambitious competition to digitally recreate Sir John Soane’s Bank of England. Karam Bhamra, executive CGI designer and Dominic Meyrick, partner, at Hoare Lea, explain why the company took part and what they learned.

What was the business justification for taking part in Project Soane?

We took part because as a firm, we are committed to innovation and this competition allowed us to explore VR in an historic building, the likes of which will not be built again.

3D modelling is crucial in the construction world. Its early adoption at the design stage allows users to experience, and therefore sign off, design details which can only be understood visually.

In Project Soane, Hoare Lea wanted to explore the impact on visual impression of direct sunlight penetration into an interior and how it changes over the course of a day. A chance to do this in a building designed by one of the world’s legendary daylight architects was an opportunity not to be missed.

We believe there will be a payback in the future because of what we have learned through this process – knowledge which can be applied to live project work. There is also the PR value – as well as press coverage, we have taken part in Project Soane events and made valuable contacts.

Why was it important?

In the past, there may have been, on occasion, some tension between the architectural and engineering communities. However, BIM forces the two communities to work collaboratively, by bringing the engineering world into the BIM/3D environment. 

At its core, Hoare Lea is an engineering firm, but we are keen to show our architectural sponsors and fellow construction professionals that the BIM/3D world is also our world. The BIM/3D world allows the consequences of architectural and engineering decisions to be understood, or ‘seen’, more clearly to ensure that these decisions improve the environmental quality of buildings and spaces.

Soane is recognised by the architectural community as one of the greatest architects of all time. We therefore felt that by “inhabiting” one of his buildings, with a medium close to the hearts of both communities – daylight – we could show our commitment to the BIM/3D world and the environmental quality it encourages. 

The Consols Transfer Office

What were the challenges?

Though we are experienced architectural visualisers of still images and had been experimenting with creating immersive VR visualisations prior to Project Soane, this was the first time we had created a complete interactive environment to run on a VR headset – in this case the Oculus Rift DK2.

We discovered early on that generating 3D model scenes for VR is very different to traditional 3D still images, when the frame is restricted to the chosen camera view and the detail is kept within this frame – much like a film or theatre set.

For VR, the viewer can look anywhere, and so every part of the 3D model must be complete and spot on, there is no room for error, especially as it is not so easy to correct mistakes in post-production.

What did you learn on the practical side?

The idea was to recreate the Consols Transfer Office in Soane’s Bank of England, destroyed in the 1920s, as an interactive VR experience to showcase Soane’s ingenious use of daylighting design.

The base level Revit model provided by the competition organisers missed a fair amount of detail and we wanted to add this, so that we could be as true to the original architecture as possible.

The problem was that there were few sources to work from – only hand-made drawings, sketches and a few commissioned paintings exist to show what the Consols Transfer Office looked like, along with two grainy black-and-white photographs. Detective work and cross-checking between drawings, sketches and paintings was required to ensure we captured as much of the original detail as possible.

For the interactive element, we wanted an experience that allowed the viewer to step back and forth throughout the day in 15-minute increments, from dusk to dawn. We chose to show this experience during the winter solstice (21 December) because this is when the sun is at its lowest point during orbit and we get those wonderful effects of the warm sunlight entering through the glazing in the morning, shifting to cool and then back to warm again as it moves into evening.

We recreated this effect by accurately geographically orientating the building model and using the daylighting system in our 3D software to run sunlight studies.

Once the viewer reaches the evening, the scene changes to into an artificially lit one, with a contemporary lighting scheme designed by our in-house lighting team. But that’s not all, the lighting treatments to the various architectural features in the space can be switched on and off, allowing the viewer the opportunity to experiment and create different effects within the space.

The challenge for our VR experience was to work out how to control the lighting elements in a full 360-degree environment, in full stereoscopic 3D and without an interface spoiling the view. The thing we discovered about creating VR content is that when you have a unique idea, there is little information available concerning how to make it work – you need to figure it out yourself.

So, after some experimentation, we settled on using the Unity 3D game engine, combined with stereo cubemaps of our model scenes lit and rendered in 3DS Max, as the best method to create the experience we wanted, with the interactive functions operated via a hand-held game controller.

Why is it important to innovate?

Innovation is the bedrock of the UK economy. As a “nation of shopkeepers” we need to barter our wares around the globe. And as a small island with limited natural resources, we trade on our intellect and ideas. This ensures we continue to lead in the service sector, of which engineering and architecture form a major part.          

What overall lessons did you learn from the project?

One of the most important lessons we learnt whilst rendering this project was the importance of accurate lighting and the need to change our usual techniques for photo-realistic rendering when creating VR scenes.

For still architectural visualisations the popular method is to use photography techniques for camera and exposure settings, this gives that stylised high-end photo shoot look that you see in glossy design and architectural publications. This is great for still visualisations for print or for viewing on screen. However, this is not how we see the world around us, and reality is the key word here.

For the VR experience to work, the 3D-generated environment needs to look as real as possible – it needs to appear as the human eye would see it, not a camera. It is after all virtual “reality” that we are trying to create, not virtual “artistic impression”.

In Project Soane, Hoare Lea wanted to explore the impact on visual impression of direct sunlight penetration into an interior and how it changes over the course of a day. A chance to do this in a building designed by one of the world’s legendary daylight architects was an opportunity not to be missed.