Tech for Architects: Our Top 5 Picks
At Visionarch, we are constantly experimenting with new tools that will help convey our ideas and the spatial experiences we are designing for. Over the past few years we have found technology driven gadgets that work wonderfully in bridging the gap between technical understandings of Architects versus experiential expectations of clients. We also find that using these tech tools in meetings turn an otherwise boring assembly of sitting in the conference room for hours into something that is more interactive, informative, and fun. Below are our top tech “must have” tools for architects who want to pump up and put more energy and vitality into their presentations.
Drones are becoming more and more common these days as you can see them in Toy Kingdom or even in Apple stores. For our use, we decided to invest in a semi-professional version, the DJI Phantom 2. The DJI Phantom comes with a camera mounted at the bottom through a gimbal attachment. The gimbal balances the camera angle so that it can take steady shots even while the drone is in motion.
Able to fly as high as 400 feet, we use it mostly to take actual footage of anticipated views. It works best for residential hi-rise projects, so we can see the actual condo units’ views before the building is built. The accompanying app that you download to your phone shows also the flying height so you can match that to the floor level of the design. As a result you can pick any specific unit and see what the view will be like. Since the flying height limit is 400ft, it’s best for projects up to 35 storeys in height.
It also has a pre-programmed flight path feature that uses GPS. So if you want to use it to scout huge properties that are beyond the remote control’s frequency distance, you can activate the pre-programmed path and wait for the drone to return without the need to control it manually (imagine resort island type projects). It is also helpful to scout the property to see its contour, to spot mature trees that you may want to preserve, as well as document the construction progress and inspect its hard to see areas. It is also best for cataloguing completed projects as it offers a different eye view than what photographers usually take which is just the normal man’s eye view.
The downside is a full charge of battery lasts only 20 minutes so you may want to get an extra battery. Shots taken at night or in low light also tend to be grainy and you’d want to avoid flying it during bad rainy weather, as it is not yet designed to be weather proof.
Promethean Active Panel:
The Active Panel by Promethean is like a giant touch screen tablet. It comes in 70” and 80” models that are Full HD, so its resolution and color is so much more vivid than if you just use a projector and it is big enough to rival a projected image in terms of size. Its key strong point is that you can draw on the screen and manipulate objects using your finger or the Promethean Pen. It also comes with software that allows you to draw on top of anything projected on the panel without having to open a new application. Imagine putting a piece of tracing paper on top of floor plans to sketch out some revisions, but this time it’s on a giant screen that everyone can see. The images and ideas are also saved digitally so it can easily be sent to all team members.
Manipulating sketchup is also quite a different feeling as you get to touch and rotate the building as if you are sculpting it. Imagine the technological equivalent of Tony Stark’s design arsenal, although it’s not quite there yet. It’s the closest we’ll currently get, though.
The panel’s only downside is that it is still quite expensive – the 70” model can cost you upwards of Php 300,000.00. Seeing the expression on your client’s face when they see it is priceless too, especially when they grasp the breadth and depth our architectural designs.
VR with Kubity and Google Cardboard:
Kubity is a company that makes apps that allows you to convert your sketchup files to be viewed on your tablet or mobile devices. In just a few seconds you can convert any SketchUp model to qrVR, and then explore them on your iPhone/iPad or Android devices in Virtual Reality. See them in VR with a Google Cardboard with just one click.
This is a very new way of seeing the project and its magnitude that you cannot experience even with scale models because you feel like you are there within the environment. This technology has lots of promise and it brings simulation to the architecture world. It is especially helpful for clients who have a hard time imagining the size and feel of the project with just perspectives. You experience a 1:1 scale as you are immersed within your project model so you see and experience the proportions more accurately. It really has the power to service us when it comes to architectural design and presentation.
The downside is that this technology is still in its infancy. For one, Kubity has problems translating larger sized projects such as anything more than one tower. It works best with houses to, say, 5 level projects. In addition, moving around the immersed model is difficult similar to how moving around a constructed building is difficult. Prolonged usage with Google cardboard is also not recommended as it can cause eyestrain. Overall though, it’s a very useful tool.
360 degree camera:
For our 360 degree camera we decided to get the Ricoh ThetaS. They are the inventors of the 360 camera which was a big hit in Japan and is one of the unexpected successes in the camera industry. The 360 degree camera works by taking a full view of not just one frame but the entire environment. The magic of this is that as you are viewing it you can pan around the photo and see all sides as if you are really there. This elevates image capture to a whole new level as you are not just conveying a singular photo but also the experience in it itself. The energy and ambiance is fully captured within every 360 photo.
The Ricoh ThetaS uses 2 cameras mounted at opposite ends with a fisheye lens to take both hemispheres of any given environment. It then has internal software that stitches both images to form a whole. If that were not amazing enough, it also takes videos in 360 mode which can also be shared on social media.
Architects can benefit from it through documentation of space. Taking photos of a house can be a daunting task, especially because numerous takes have to made in order to show every part of its environment. With ThetaS though, all you need is to take one shot per room and it’s done; you can review any part and even zoom in and out to capture and review all the details. It is especially useful for special spaces because it captures the essence of the space rather than just a still shot.
There are few cons to the use of the 360 camera, but it does have its quirks. Do note that it’s best used with a tripod or selfie stick to get a clean shot of the whole environment. If you push the shutter button yourself, there is a tendency to induce what’s called “big hand syndrome” where you capture the whole room including your hand at the bottom, which is the closest to the lenses so it includes itself in the shot unnaturally. Also, be careful when handling it as it’s not shock proof like the Gopro camera. Though you can still make the argument that it’s so much better in all other aspects and if you are just using it for work then there should be no problem.
Forget about having to go through another sleepless night making scale models out of stiff boards and messy glue. 3D printers are becoming more and more affordable these days and it presents itself as a viable alternative. We use the Ultimaker 2 which we deemed to be the best after reviewing feedback of other models and brands. The Ultimaker is said to be the iPhone of 3D printing; it looks clean and simple and the controls are very intuitive. It also comes with a software that converts your 3D models from sketchup, CAD or Revit to STL. It even gives you an estimate as to how much your scale model will cost so you can control the budget for your ink spool.
Setup is a breeze as you just need to calibrate the glass plate to make sure it’s level on both axes and you’re ready to go. We ourselves have used 3D printing in large-scale projects as we service many building designs and experiment different configurations. The building block can easily be moved around and we can easily study angles of approach and massing from important view axes. The 3D printer is especially useful for early stages of design as it helps spot areas that may be too massive and need to be carved out. It is also an easy way to convey the design idea in a more tangible and tactile way as textures can also be done depending on the scale.
The downside is that 3D printers still can’t print suspended objects; they have a hard time when it comes to protrusions such as canopies and cantilevers. The printers will have to print a scaffold so that it can print the protrusions on a solid base. You then have to remove the scaffold once it’s done, but the resulting surface is not so perfect and it has a tendency to look slightly scratched. The printing time is also very slow so it’s usually leave operating overnight. Well, better for the printer to work overnight than for us to lose sleep.
Lastly, as architects, we know that iterations happen all the time as the project design is developed. Having each scheme printed out can be expensive and you will be left with discarded models that have no use, so it’s best for initial blocking and internal studies, then have Luis Intia do the final scale model, since he does it best.
In closing, these top tech tools contribute a lot to convey our ideas where words sometimes fall short. The illustrations offered, whether printed or virtual 3D, bring the abstract images in our minds into a solid tangible form that can be touch and experienced to ensure clear understanding of ideas. Sophisticated, as it may seem all these gadgets play a complementary role to our greatest currency as architects, which is our creativity.
Author: ARCH. Daniel “Terence” Yu
President and Founder of VISIONARCH (Visionary Architecture, Inc)
With more than 20 years experience in Architectural design, “Terence” has led Visionarch to be one of the top 10 award-winning firms in the Philippines.