Q&A: Architect Ackroyd Lowrie embraces VR to move business forward

A unique ‘trial and error’ approach to innovation has helped London-based architects Ackroyd Lowrie overcome planning hurdles and respond to the challenges of lockdown. But as Director & Founder Oliver Lowrie explains, it has also resulted in some painful experiences…

What drives you to do things differently? 

The design and construction sector is like the human eye – it is the product of evolution, but has settled on an inefficient methodology. The human eye has evolved over millions of years to see the world upside down, and your brain has to flip over the image to make sense of it. Although this works, it is not the way you would design the system from first principles.

Likewise, the construction industry is not an efficient system of delivery. As a result, almost nothing is ever delivered on time or on budget, and at the end of every project the people involved are unhappy with one another.

When my business partner and I set up our practice five years ago, our key driver was that there has to be a more effective way to deliver value for our clients. There has to be new ways of thinking about things. From the start our question has always been: what bits of technology or different ways of thinking can we adopt to try to make the process more efficient?

What digital tech has worked well?

We’ve had a lot of interest in our use of virtual reality, which started out as a bit of gimmick, but our attitude changed at an event four years ago when one of our clients viewed the 3D model of his future film studio in the VR viewer and came out in tears! He thought it was amazing and made a lot of changes to the design based on that one walkthrough, and now we use VR with every client as a testing tool, and with subcontractors and contractors.

You obviously can’t build a one-to-one prototype of a building, but you can build a one-to-one virtual version. This is useful with multi-headed clients, schools in particular, where you need everyone’s buy-in and we’ve spent a lot of time in VR with heads of departments, the head of school, and the head of the board of governors, so they can look at the specific aspects they are interested in.

Has VR resulted in changes to how you develop designs?

A lot of architects forget to consider the human perspective and VR gives you a direct experience of that and helps design inspiring places.

The most effective thing we’ve started doing recently is using it with planners at pre-application meetings. As much as planners like to say they understand drawings presented to them, the reality is they often don’t and sometimes pick up on concerns that aren’t really important.

Building height is a key one. We recently put in a pre-app for a two storey extension to a five storey school and got the response from the case officer at the local authority that they weren’t even willing to meet with us to discuss it. The building was in a conservation area and the council had a reluctance to permit roof extensions.

The architect has employed Oculus Quest to share designs in VR

The meeting eventually went ahead and when we put the head of planning into VR he walked along the route past the school and realised he couldn’t see the two storeys at the top because of the height of the existing building and the narrowness of the street. By the end of the meeting he was very comfortable with our proposal and only asked us to change the pitch of the roof slightly. That direct understanding of the impact just wouldn’t be possible by traditional means.

What experiments didn’t work out?

A few. We tried to set up a construction company for one scheme to reinstate the idea of the architect as the master builder, responsible for both design and project delivery. However, there was a cultural non-fit, the subcontractors didn’t really take us – a team of middle class architects – very seriously. It was a very unpleasant experience not to be repeated.

Have you tried anything new in response to the challenges of lockdown?

Previously we talked about the idea of doing multi-user VR so we could hold a design team meeting inside a project model with everyone wearing headsets. Lockdown gave us the impetus to get on and do it. 

The technology has moved on, we now use the Oculus Quest, which is wireless and incorporates its own computer powerful enough to connect to an online server hosting our models. Just before the ‘Stay at Home’ message we said let’s order as many of these headsets as we can and send them out to key clients.

We’ve had multiple members of the design team and the client team log on and meet in the virtual space, all they needed was a decent wi-fi connection. Each person has their own avatar and the Quest includes a microphone and headphones so you can speak directly to each other as if you’re in the same room, except that you’re not in a room, you’re walking around chatting inside the actual project. How cool is that? 

Isn’t there a reluctance from some people to engage with ‘nerdy’ kit like this?

Sometimes yes. We have found the most effective way of engaging with lots of people is using QR codes and smartphones. We’ll send clients out a 3D CGI of a proposal with a QR code stamped in the corner. Point your camera at the code and it pings you into a 3D version of the building which you can either view using a mobile-based VR headset, like Google Cardboard, or simply hold up the phone and move it around to pan around the model.

We’ve used the same system to help sell and lease properties we designed. During the first month of lockdown we lost around 30% of our revenue, so to make up the shortfall we started creating virtual tours and interactive brochures to help the commercial and resi developers get tenants signed up.

A QR code can enable a full walk through of a property on your phone, it has helped us diversify our revenue streams and provide an additional service to clients in such a challenging time.

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