Preconstruction Reality, Upgraded

by Balfour Beatty

When considering design and construction choices, it’s helpful to visualize and imagine a complete space. But what can clients do when a building doesn’t yet exist? Experiential learning is powerful, and imagination and architectural renderings can only take you so far.

Balfour Beatty teams in California are leveraging the powerful advantages of virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) to provide clients with a firsthand experience of their projects before construction. Using tools like the Meta Quest 2 and 3 headsets, our teams lead virtual stakeholder walks, providing a critical early glimpse at design choices, building information modeling (BIM) data and even views from unbuilt condominium windows.

Reinforced by enlightening virtual experiences, our clients are better informed and empowered to make design and construction choices that result in successful, profitable projects.

Preview the View

Pre- and mid-construction VR use gives clients, particularly luxury apartment and condominium developers, a critical and early look at one of their most important selling points: window views.

Housing real estate is a fast-moving market, and developers can in turn leverage these views into early tenant contracts. It’s easy to suggest that a prospective tenant imagine what the street view from their third-floor apartment will look like, but with VR, our developer clients can show them a virtual walkthrough of their unit, even demonstrating a view from various angles.

“Private developers have even found VR demonstrations and walkthroughs useful for securing project financing,” says Balfour Beatty Senior BIM Manager and VR expert Claire Mao. “Instead of basing their financing proposals and tenant recruitment on hypothetical views and imagined spaces, we help them to attract their clients by providing virtual, experiential knowledge of the space.”

Further into the construction process and beyond even housing development, VR and AR empower clients to make the most informed possible decisions about their projects’ aesthetic features, trim levels, layouts and more. A paint color or flooring material may look vastly different on a sample swatch than they do applied throughout a room, but with VR, the impacts of those decisions can be experienced firsthand. In many cases, our team can alter these details in real-time so clients can see the immediate difference.

By providing confidence in their decisions throughout the construction process, Balfour Beatty helps clients avoid costly delays or re-work when the finished product isn’t quite as it was imagined. With VR, imagination is practically obsolete.

Less outwardly flashy but no less important applications, like utility chases and rooms and elevator mechanical rooms, also benefit from the inside view our teams provide with VR. The closely related AR overlays a virtual space with additional information like materials, measurements and the contents of walls, adding a further layer of intricacy and accuracy to the clients’ virtual experience.

“Two-dimensional drawings can be completely accurate, but it can still be difficult for clients to translate drawings into three-dimensional concepts,” Claire says. “With VR, AR or even with video generated through VR, we can demonstrate for clients how utility layouts, equipment sizes and more affect the entire project and inform their design decisions.”

Illuminating Blind Spots

In corrections construction, identifying and mitigating potential blind spots in a facility’s surveillance system is one of the most critical imperatives for the security of inmates, staff and visitors alike. With VR, our teams can give clients the virtual experience of sitting in a facility’s security office with camera views around the facility, potentially identifying and eliminating blind spots.

“Blind spots in correctional facilities can occur as byproducts of various design choices, whether more surface-level decisions on room and hallway arrangement or more technical aspects of mechanical, engineering and plumbing (MEP) pathways,” Claire says. “When our teams and our clients can sit in a virtual security room and see exactly what a future officer will see, blind spots are easily revealed and addressed.”

Once the team identifies a blind spot, AR can again play a vital role. By layering the virtual environment with information about the surrounding MEP systems, our team and client can work collaboratively to identify a cost-effective solution.

That solution may be as simple as planning for additional cameras, or it may involve subtle redesigning and changes to utility layouts. Either way, clients can make the decision with the confidence that their virtual experience perfectly foreshadows the finished product.

Adaptable to Every Project

Advancements from Meta Quest 2 to its third iteration, along with other user-friendly VR platforms like Google Cardboard*, enable our teams to provide clients with the most beneficial and accessible virtual experiences tailored to each project’s unique needs.

Augmented reality, an addition to the Meta Quest 3 platform, not only enables an overlay of technical information – but it also benefits renovation projects, where clients can view the proposed final project as a layer over existing conditions.

“On an existing school campus, where a client may want to convert or renovate a playground space,” we can 3D model the new building or renovated playground and, in AR, layer it over the current reality around us,” Claire says. “Clients can see exactly what the finished project will look like, how much space it will occupy, how it could change sightlines and more.”

Using AR in this way is also a boon to both client agency and safety within the VR experience. In a simpler VR environment, it might be necessary to keep clients on a predetermined pathway or even stationary to ensure safety while walking around a potentially hazardous jobsite. Not so with AR, as the end-user can enjoy the benefits of both the virtually modeled project and full visibility of the reality behind it.

Claire and her VDC teammates in California also provide clients with VR options to suit larger groups of client stakeholders, particularly for off-site VR experiences. With a larger audience to accommodate, a limited number of users can experience the full virtual or augmented model while many more can use a tool like Google Cardboard, a much less expensive platform that works with most smartphones, for a simpler VR experience.

Ultimately, the choice between VR, AR and simplified virtual modeling is always client-driven. Based on the client’s needs, the complexities of the project and the subtle differences in each tool’s benefits, our teams recommend and implement the virtual or augmented experience sure to benefit each client’s decision-making and budget.

Augmenting the Future

In many ways, virtual and augmented reality technologies are still in their infancy and have room to grow into powerful new advantages, and Balfour Beatty’s VDC professionals are committed to innovating and expanding the way we leverage these tools.

“We’re exploring the possibility of implementing VR and AR as internal safety training tools,” Claire offers as an example. “In a virtual space, we can walk teammates and project visitors through a jobsite, preparing them to walk the site safely, respond appropriately to safety situations and more.”

Whatever its potential uses, virtual reality is just one more incredibly powerful tool in the belt of Balfour Beatty’s VDC teams. Our VDC professionals are committed to pushing the envelope on every project, leveraging the latest technologies to give our clients confidence in their business, design and construction decisions.

*Google Cardboard is a simplified, user-friendly VR experience that can easily interface with clients’ smartphones.