Since the emergence of Covid-19, I’ve often heard it said that in a crisis it is important to focus on the things that we can control. As architects, there are plenty of things over which we no control, even in normal times, and with the sudden onset of remote working, new challenges have emerged. Our role as architects has been to build tools and systems to overcome them, and ensure that our clients experience business continuity. This has been developed into an end-to-end remote service in four stages supported by VR: online consultation; design process; planning submissions; and sales support.
Ackroyd Lowrie has always used VR to explain our proposals to planners and other stakeholders. Allowing planners to ‘walk round’ our proposal in a first-person perspective often allows us to negotiate additional height on our developments, and results in higher Gross Development Values. Now that we are not able to meet planners for pre-applications, we are instead sending them VR headsets which can be connected to wi-fi, with our proposed 3D model loaded up. We have VR headsets in the homes of our staff, so they can ‘meet’ planners inside the proposed model and speak to them via the built-in mic.
We have noticed that since planning officers have been working from home, cases are being addressed quicker, and planners are engaging in the design process via Zoom, MS Teams and Skype. We are able to share our 3D models via screenshare and explain our proposals just as effectively as ever.
As well as engaging with planners, it is crucial that for a major application, public consultations are done. The pre-Covid way to do this was in a public space with boards printed out – events that were often largely attended by those opposed to a development. Ackroyd Lowrie is working with developer Evan Maindonald on a 150-bed apart-hotel in south London, and we undertook two online public consultation events attended by over 40 people who could ask the design team questions, as well as leaving feedback. The events were really positive, and I think this format will be one of the innovations that sticks around long after the virus is no longer a threat.
The inability of potential buyers or renters to view homes during March and April this year really pushed us to innovate on behalf of our clients so that they could still market their properties. We always create high-quality CGIs for this purpose, as well as a brochure and microsite. However, we have found that CGI videos attract more attention and have developed a computer game interface so people can explore properties in the first person.
We have also developed a VR solution for the sales process. We can post out Google Cardboard headsets that turn a smartphone into a VR headset. In challenging times, it’s important to have a competitive edge, and the tools and processes that we have developed will allow developers to have an edge on the planning, delivery and sales of their projects.