Virtual Reality: The Architect’s Next Great Productivity Tool

NBBJ Is Incubating a New Virtual Reality Start-up Named Visual Vocal. Here's Why.

January 9, 2017

Managing Partner, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: This post was coauthored by Steve McConnell and John SanGiovanni and originally published by DesignIntelligence.

Virtual reality (VR) is transforming businesses and dominating media headlines as the technology becomes increasingly popular and surpasses $6.5 billion in annual revenues. Yet that number pales in comparison to what is predicted for the future: research shows that by 2025, the industry could be worth $110 billion, a 1500% increase.

Today, VR is synonymous with companies like PlayStation, Oculus, Vive, and Samsung, who have used the technology to develop devices and experiences which are focused primarily on entertainment. Meanwhile, the use of augmented reality, VR’s “sister technology,” is also on the rise as demonstrated by Nintendo’s Pokémon GO, which became an international sensation and boosted the Japanese company’s stock price to its highest level in six years.

Another area where the potential of VR is just now being realized is the construction industry, which accounts for $8.5 trillion globally in annual revenues. While development and building construction represent a small proportion of VR’s overall use today, we surmise that its market share will grow at a rapid pace as architects, developers, general contractors and clients become more familiar with its use. In fact, we predict the next generation of VR tools in development now will make the overall real estate industry more productive, efficient and engaged in the design process.

The Creation of Visual Vocal
That is why, earlier this year, NBBJ began incubating a new virtual reality startup, making it the first architecture firm in the world to do so. Called Visual Vocal, the namesake of which represents the core features of the project — visual and audible communication — the company is one of the first to actively pursue a new productivity platform through virtual reality.

The need for the tool is simple. Architects deal with complex visual datasets such as renderings and drawings. But getting those files into the hands of clients is difficult not only because of their size, but also because they are not often legible to people outside the profession. As it stands now, there is not a tool that can sufficiently communicate design intent in an immersive three dimensional format and easily collect feedback.

Here’s how the tool works. Let’s say a major healthcare system hires an architect to design a new hospital. Under the current methodology, hospital stakeholders — which could include executives, facilities managers, doctors and nurses — would meet with the design team at regular intervals, reviewing drawings and renderings to determine if the project is headed in the right direction. When changes are made, it would then take architects time to redo the design and present new options.

With Visual Vocal, a new process emerges. Using the tool, stakeholders would download an app on their Apple or Android smartphones, attach an inexpensive pocket-sized folding viewer to the screen, and immediately immerse themselves in a fully-rendered 3D environment that shows different versions of the hospital.

Users would be able to visualize major spaces throughout the new healthcare facility and, while doing so, select preferred design options and outcomes. At the same time, users will also be able to listen to embedded audio of architects narrating the design so users have a greater understanding of its concepts and intended outcomes.

During these processes, stakeholders can also use their own voice within the VR system to annotate more detailed feedback to the design team. The system also offers a patented “Immersive Survey” feature, to quickly capture feedback from very large groups of stakeholders. Best of all, clients can experience what the project will feel like, and provide their feedback, anytime, anywhere.

Project leaders using the tool are no longer required to be in the same place or even the same time zone in order to experience a project’s design and provide feedback. This feature alone could be a major time saver for busy executives. On the back end, the Visual Vocal tool allows user feedback to be quickly tabulated, calculated and organized in an easy-to-understand system that can be accessed in real time by the design team.

Driving Better Value for Clients
The benefits of this new way of doing business are numerous. First, the tool is a way to increase collaboration between members of the design teams themselves and, importantly, between the architecture firm and its clients, subcontractors and other consultants. Second, the tool saves time and money, by reducing the number of meetings required to come to a design consensus. Finally this approach makes the design process more inclusive and enjoyable for all participants.

Because everyone has a smartphone and downloading apps is easy, the Visual Vocal tool gives architects the power to solicit feedback from hundreds or even thousands of users. For example, while the tool might be used on a corporate headquarters project by only a select group of company leaders, a waterfront redevelopment project for a city could allow the tool to be accessed by hundreds of people. Citizen engagement has always been important, but it is especially so today, and the Visual Vocal tool gives governments and community organizations the power to solicit feedback from people everywhere.

Looking Toward the Future
Since its debut in May 2016, the Visual Vocal team has grown its staff from 2 people to 10 and has secured seven figures of venture-backed funding. As partner and investor, NBBJ has helped the company develop, test and refine the product and is in the process of integrating the mobile-based VR platform on projects in the US and Europe. These projects range from a large technology headquarters in the US to a research lab at a prestigious university in the UK. Beyond Visual Vocal’s architectural collaboration platform, the venture sees vast opportunities for its core VR communication technology as the landscape of Virtual and Augmented Reality continues to expand. Forthcoming innovations will only make VR communication patterns more commonplace, such as Google Daydream in late 2016 and AR systems like Magic Leap in the future.

Later this year Visual Vocal will be available to the industry at large. The architecture industry is ripe for innovation, and disruptive technologies that bring greater productivity to the process of design should be encouraged. By making this tool available to many, it has the potential to boost the output of all architecture firms, thereby increasing the industry’s relevance to clients around the world.

What’s next for Visual Vocal and VR in general? After expanding to the architecture industry at large, the team will develop similar platforms for other industries that could benefit from its application, including aerospace, manufacturing and even molecular biology. In the meantime, look out for VR on your next architecture project, and see how it can make collaboration more effective and engaging than ever!

Steve McConnell, FAIA, is managing partner at NBBJ, named one of the world’s most innovative companies by Fast Company, and the architecture firm of choice for tech companies by Wired. John SanGiovanni is CEO and co-founder of Visual Vocal and a serial entrepreneur, strategist and inventor, having founded three ventures and co-authored more than 20 patents in the areas of AR, VR, and mobile devices.

Image courtesy of Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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When Everyone Shops Online, What Happens to Mixed-Use Retail?

How Changing Retail Trends Are Creating New Opportunities for Urban Experiences and Public Space

December 20, 2016

Partner, NBBJ

As more and more people desire an urban lifestyle, architects and developers are creating a large number of mixed-use projects — that is, developments and even single buildings that combine residential and commercial uses with retail and public space. A recent PricewaterhouseCoopers survey ranked mixed-use developments the highest-rated real estate niche for 2017 [PDF]. This paradigm is not new. What is new: everyone is wrestling with what to do with the ground floor, because retail is changing a lot.

In Seattle, the land use code either mandates retail at street level or exempts retail from counting against chargeable floor area. So developers and architects include it, either because they have to or because it is incentivized. But this part of the code was written a long time ago; retail then was different than it is today.

Many developers are now unsure what to do with retail at the ground floor, because most people now don’t go there to buy “stuff”: if you want something, you buy it on Amazon and have it delivered. But retail is such an important aspect of the street space and pedestrian experience. If retail at the street level is empty — and I see a lot of empty storefronts now in Seattle — it sends a bad message about the development, even when all the office space on the upper floors is full.

Restaurants open onto a public passageway at the new Amazon headquarters in Seattle.

Restaurants open onto a public passageway at the new Amazon headquarters in Seattle.

Because we buy things differently, a lot of retail is now shifting to programs that deliver an experience, instead of showcasing objects for sale. Some of these new retail uses in Seattle include things like “doggie daycare,” which creates lively storefront experiences by showcasing the pets belonging to downtown residents who work during the day. And Amazon is now experimenting with “Amazon Go,” a new retail model based on a seamless experience rather than product display, where one can buy items with a smartphone and not have to go through a cashier.

Another common way to expand the experience is by extending the feeling of the space from the inside to the outside. For this reason, many restaurants are installing glass doors that slide out of the way in good weather. At the new Amazon headquarters in downtown Seattle, where all the ground-level uses are food-related, public space is integrated with the dining experience, with tables and chairs under glass canopies. These intimate spaces spill out onto the sidewalks, into a midblock thoroughfare or into a small plaza where the public can gather around a sculpture and eat lunches bought from food trucks.

So the question of open space is no longer just about building big parks like Central Park. Many architects are experimenting with creative ways to use the edges and leftover spaces around buildings to create activated gathering areas for small groups of people. And many developers are realizing that distributing public space in this way can bring added value to their properties. Retail is changing, and this provides new opportunities not just for developers and retailers, but for the city itself.

Image courtesy of Pexels.

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Planning, Adapting to Rapid Change in Healthcare Design

Strategies to Future-Proof Hospitals Against Obsolescence

December 12, 2016

Healthcare Strategist, NBBJ


Ed Note: This post was co-authored by Donald Bellefeuille and Tim Fishking. It previously appeared in Medical Construction and Design.

The Hill-Burton Act was enacted in 1946 to increase the supply of hospital beds by providing construction grants to non-profit entities. It was very successful: Between 1947 and when funding ended in 1970, about a half-million additional hospital beds were added [PDF]. What the act didn’t, and couldn’t, anticipate were medical advances that slowly rendered the Hill-Burton version of the inpatient hospital virtually obsolete.


Hill-Burton era hospitals were not designed to adapt because there wasn’t much to adapt to.

Hill-Burton hospitals were a major improvement over what existed: cottage hospitals and facilities with open wards, for example. Many of the new hospitals offered double-bedded rooms and better operating and diagnostic facilities. These hospitals served their purpose well but didn’t lend themselves easily to retrofitting. Most chose to add onto existing facilities to gain more square footage and utility. Cost was no object, and adaptability was not a design feature: we just kept making more Hill-Burton-like facilities.

The 70s, however, began an era of medical technology advances that slowly made these hospitals obsolete. The first free-standing ambulatory surgery center opened in 1970, at the very end of the Hill-Burton era and, while many hospital surgical departments adapted to this change and grew their outpatient surgery business, the inpatient admissions they lost were never recovered.


We are now in an era of rapid change, and more is coming.

Today, technological and financial pressures are shuttering inpatient units, closing hospitals and, in many markets, consolidating inpatient care into academic medical centers. And these old facilities are not easily adaptable. Consider that:

  • Single-bedded rooms, deemed better at preventing the spread of infection and offering a better experience, are practically a requirement.
  • The migration of inpatient surgery to the outpatient setting has accelerated to the point that even a lot of outpatient surgery is now office-based.
  • The need for a physician to go to the community hospital to see patients, get information or even collegiality doesn’t exist. Much better and more accurate medical knowledge is available online and increasingly built into the electronic health record, hospitalists see inpatients and collegiality is built around organizations that manage at-risk contracts.
  • Machine intelligence and robotic systems will take over more and more routine logistical functions in hospitals.
  • Knowledge systems like IBM’s Watson will perform more diagnostic work.
  • Active and passive clinical robotics will quicken inpatient and outpatient operating and recovery times, rendering overnight stays, and even the less-than-24-hour stay, unnecessary.
  • Super urgent care and free-standing emergency rooms are replacing many of the functions of the traditional hospital-based emergency department.
  • Even research and training are not immune. Dry research is superseding wet research. As the new virtual world of healthcare becomes a reality, researchers will spend more time on the data generated from personalized sensors and computer modeling than on traditional animal studies. Research hospitals will struggle to adapt. We will need to produce more medical data scientists, and their residencies won’t take place in a hospital.


Inpatient hospitals aren’t going away.

Even so, we still need hospitals with beds:

  • Individual traumas will happen, requiring hospitalization.
  • Major emergencies and disasters will occur, requiring facilities to treat people.
  • There will be very sick people with multiple diseases that need intensive care.
  • Treating people with highly infectious diseases requires isolation.
  • Given the advances in healthcare nanotech, future hospitals will need to have a higher level of bio-containment than ever before to ensure this nanotech doesn’t leak into the environment.
  • Almost all births will continue to be in hospitals.


Let’s build obsolescence into our new healthcare facilities

If we must still build hospitals, they must be adaptable and able to anticipate their own obsolescence with the infrastructure to adapt and change rapidly and economically. By adaptable, this doesn’t mean designing facilities that can be added onto in a coherent way—we know how to do that. It means designing facilities where whole units, departments or functions can be easily replaced in situ without additional square footage.

We have advanced architectural, engineering and construction techniques that enable pre-fabrication and modularization. Operating and procedural rooms of all types can be assembled and reassembled easily now with no loss of infection control and utility. Wireless technology further enables this. We can take lessons from the military and how they have containerized just about everything, including patient beds and operating rooms. We need to think more about plug-and-play units, a decade at a time, housed in a shell built for the long term.


Designing Adaptability and Flexibility in Room Utilization and Facility Design

We need to move past the traditional view of a building as a static object, and instead explore opportunities for designing a building as an open-ended framework of integrated components. By developing a component logic that is highly standardized, demountable and multi-functional, key areas within the framework can be repurposed, reconfigured or replaced as requirements evolve. This reduces the likelihood of future disruption and waste and increases the potential lifespan of the entire project — a breakthrough in terms of lifecycle sustainability.

Elements of this integrated infrastructure strategy might include:

  • Permanent infrastructure elements, such as public circulation (horizontal and vertical), mechanical and electrical service areas and shafts or risers, located at the periphery of large and regular floor plates that are free of major obstructions
  • Open floorplate areas based on uniform modules of space suited for many different functions
  • Universal rooms sized and configured to accommodate a range of uses
  • Modular and/or movable casework and systems furniture

Bad adaptations serve no one well, neither patients, nor visitors nor the caregivers who work in the hospital. An adaptable and flexible hospital can future-proof itself against obsolescence, changing as healthcare changes and organic to the requirements necessary at any particular point in time.

Image courtesy of NBBJ.

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