Connecting design and construction with Unity Reflect

How SHoP Architects accelerates communication in the office and at the job site with real-time BIM experiences in AR and VR

SHoP Architects: A Unity Reflect case study

Award-winning architecture firm SHoP Architects is on a mission to make the process for bringing buildings from vision to physical reality more efficient. Accelerating its progress, the firm is among the first in its industry to embrace Unity Reflect, the new architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) product from Unity.

The project

Custom real-time BIM applications for AR and VR using Unity Reflect and the Unity Editor

The goal

Decrease construction time and cost by making BIM more visual, interactive, and available on the job site

Platforms

HTC Vive for virtual reality (VR); iPad for augmented reality (AR) (using Apple’s ARKit)

Team members

3

Location

New York City, U.S.

Adam Chernick and Christopher Morse share their experience with Unity Reflect.

Creating real-time BIM experiences with Unity Reflect

Headquartered in New York City, SHoP’s 200-person team works on marquee projects in its backyard as well as around the world. With a diverse portfolio of clients, from Google to the U.S. Department of State, SHoP Architects embraces technology to drive better collaboration and create more meaningful, beautiful buildings. 

With Unity Reflect, Adam Chernick and Christopher Morse of SHoP’s interactive visualization department intend to catch design flaws early, solve problems faster, and reduce the time it takes to build. Based on their experience in Unity Reflect’s beta program, they see the product playing a crucial role in their firm’s ability to drive better alignment between design and construction. 

The results:

  • Streamlined creation of real-time 3D experiences takes minutes instead of days to optimize large design models
  • Democratized access to BIM readily puts information into the hands of users, on any device
  • Better communication with key stakeholders paves the way to reduce change orders, construction time, and costs

Enabling new forms of communication in AEC

SHoP Architects is known in the AEC industry for its unconventional approach to design. One of the firm’s objectives in revolutionizing traditional processes is to eliminate the 2D deliverable. 

As SHoP sees it, we already design and build in 3D, so why shouldn't we deliver the project in 3D as well?

SHoP sees so much value in this approach that it delivers a growing number of its projects directly to the fabricator in 3D – a rarity in the architecture world. SHoP also uses virtual reality (VR) as a collaboration tool throughout its firm. Regular digital design reviews in VR help clients and design leaders immerse themselves in the space and provide better feedback. 

To underscore its commitment to innovation, SHoP formed a dedicated team focused on interactive visualization in 2017. This department goes beyond renderings and diagrams and creates dynamic, interactive ways of communicating designs within the firm as well as to clients, consultants, and the broader project team. 

BIM to real-time 3D: From days to minutes

SHoP’s interactive visualization team uses game engines and real-time technology to communicate with people at all stages of the design process. 

The traditional workflow for bringing projects into Unity required decoupling the geometry from the BIM metadata, via FBX and Excel, and then forging them back together in Unity. When projects were in active development and undergoing design changes, Chernick and Morse estimate that 60% of their time was spent on this painful, time-consuming process. 

“I enjoy building tools that can help our teams solve design challenges they are facing,” says Morse. “But the reality is that most of my time was spent taking their models and exporting, optimizing, and importing them into Unity.”

Even worse, this hard work was often in vain. By the time Chernick and Morse completed the import, development, and deployment of their tools to design teams, the designs were often already out of date due to the speed of iteration and constant changes.

Unity Reflect’s plugin with Autodesk Revit and other design applications offered a much-needed solution. With one click, SHoP’s design teams can bring one model together in real-time 3D from different systems (e.g., architectural, MEP, structural) – with both the geometry and BIM metadata intact. “With Unity Reflect, I don’t have to worry about data prep anymore,” says Morse. “I just build the tool.”

And because Unity Reflect maintains a live connection to the design application, reimporting new designs is no longer a constant part of Chernick and Morse’s jobs. “This is a very, very welcome technology for us,” states Chernick.

The flexibility to build the right tool for the job

With data transfer and optimization solved, Chernick and Morse have more time to innovate and build interactive, immersive experiences throughout the design process. Depending on the particular issue their design teams are working on, whether it is interior design, fire evacuation code, work space lighting, or traffic management, the best tool could be a desktop application, an immersive VR walkthrough, or a mobile augmented reality (AR) app that can connect to their models.

While Unity Reflect requires no coding skills, it is also an extensible product. Unity developers like Chernick and Morse have the flexibility to build on top of Unity Reflect – both by using its viewer-reference application source code and by bringing Unity Reflect prefabs into the Unity Editor to create custom real-time BIM applications across various platforms.

One such SHoP application is a VR simulation that visualizes acoustic wavefronts immersively in a controlled environment. The simulation happens in real-time and is interactive, allowing a designer to make changes (e.g., adjusting the angle of a ceiling) and immediately understand the corresponding impact on acoustics.

In addition to sending geometry through to the application, SHoP can also send data about the materials. Different materials have different acoustic properties – reflecting or absorbing more sound. This data was previously unavailable to Chernick and Morse, but with Unity Reflect they can make changes to either the geometry shape or the physical material properties in Revit and have those update live inside VR. 

“Creating this iterative tool wouldn’t be possible without Unity Reflect’s ability to bring changes from Revit live into the experience and preserve BIM data. It unlocks a new way for our teams to evaluate the acoustic influence of their designs,” says Morse.

Making construction more efficient

Unity Reflect opens the door for SHoP to better connect design and construction, and to improve communication on job sites. SHoP used Unity Reflect and Unity Pro to develop a unique real-time BIM application for one of its signature projects: 9 DeKalb, a 73-storey residential tower currently under construction that at 1,066 feet (325 meters) will be the tallest structure in Brooklyn. JDS Development Group is both the developer and general contractor on this landmark project. 

The application makes it possible to view associated documents and information based on BIM data. Technicians on the ground can overlay SHoP’s designs in AR on top of the ongoing construction project. They can also surface construction documents from Revit that are tied to their exact position. 

“The combination of spatial understanding as well as instant access to all necessary information makes the consumption of construction documents much more fluid and immersive,” says Chernick. “We’re ultimately trying to save time for our construction partners onsite by transforming hundreds of page turns of paper documents into a few taps on a tablet.”

Although this app is a proof of concept at this point, SHoP envisions eventually using custom-built tools like this onsite for all its projects. By offering a more intuitive, immersive way to conduct quality assurance (QA) and quality control (QC), SHoP can help its general contractors decrease construction time. More accurate documentation and construction administration will translate to fewer mistakes and major savings. 

On average, change orders account for 8 to 14 percent of capital construction projects. On projects of the scale SHoP frequently works on, mitigating even one change order with this technology can save millions of dollars and precious time.

“The time it takes to create real-time experiences from a BIM model has historically not been swift. With Unity Reflect, it’s easy for any architect or designer to move a BIM model and data into Unity. This is a game changer for our industry.”

Adam Chernick, R&D Lead for AR/VR, SHoP Architects

“2D drawings can lead to a lot of confusion and ambiguity that result in costly mistakes and delayed projects. The better we can communicate our designs to the people responsible for building them, the better feedback and results we’ll get. Unity Reflect can help us improve that communication and ultimately save time and money on our projects.”

Christopher Morse, Associate | Interactive Visualization, SHoP Architects

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