With the recent Metaverse hype, let's address the elephant in the room! As more and more people dance around the subject of weather or not it is harmful for sustainably-conscious architecture designers to utilize the Metaverse, I decided to interview Oliver Lowrie, a Director at Ackroyd Lowrie, an award-winning London-based architecture practice dedicated to building the cities of the future, who is already using this technology to enhance Ackroyd Lowrie’s low-energy designs.
One of the biggest challenges the Metaverse is bringing upon us, as architects, is the topic of sustainability. We are only a few years away from 2030, the year by which globally, we are called to reach sustainability goals designed to make us better occupants of this planet. If you are serving clients in bigger urban areas I am sure you notice that a great number of them are only shopping around for low carbon or net-zero investments. How do we remain grounded in our vision of making this world a better place but also staying at the forefront of innovation and technological advancement?
As much as the words “Metaverse” and “Sustainability” together sound contradictory, Ackroyd Lowrie decided to fuse as much of their design approach as possible using the right technology towards an enhancement of a more sustainable solution.
Sara: How did your journey into the metaverse begin?
Oliver: My “journey into the metaverse” began six years ago at the one-year anniversary party of the formation of Ackroyd Lowrie, the company I set up with my friend Jon.
Since we didn’t have much finished work to show, we decided instead to showcase some of the interesting technological advances that we believed were going to change the design construction industry. We had a CNC machine fabricating building elements, a 3D printer whirring away printing out a scale model of one of our projects and in one corner we had a rigged virtual reality set up.
We bought a VR headset second-hand along with an Xbox controller plugged into a desktop computer. We hung the headset in the corner of the room, and projected a user walking around one of our projects (a new Film and Photographic Studio) up onto the wall at the back of the warehouse.
At one point we looked over and saw the client from the project queuing up to have a go on the VR. We were terrified about what his reaction would be, but when he emerged from the headset he had tears in his eyes. “Why have you never shown me this? It’s like you’ve made real the thing that I have been dreaming about for the past three years. And now that I’ve seen it I have so many changes that I want to make!”
S: This is pretty great, and as a business minded person I can see how offering this kind of experience to potential clients can be an unforgettable added value.
I am curious to understand how you still manage to keep your projects sustainable, while simultaneously exploring the technology from VR, AR to now the metaverse.
O: Jon and I first worked together on a school project whilst we were at Architype, a pioneering sustainable Architect studio. Jon undertook a two-year post occupancy evaluation on the project, and it scored very highly in terms of its user satisfaction. However, as with many school projects, the sign off process involved multiple different stakeholders and some of the feedback made it clear that whilst plans had been approved the reality was that the stakeholders did not fully understand the design based on 2D drawings only. The same was true with our clients in the photographic studio many years later. However, by using the virtual reality experience, we were able to implement changes before we got on site.
The most sustainable thing that we can possibly do is to build buildings correctly the first time. This is sustainable because the buildings are likely to end up being kept in the current form, rather than being altered or demolished because they do not work properly. The more people test out the design in VR, the more likely it is that it will work when you build it.
S: So we have come to understand how VR can improve the design process, but this still isn’t the Metaverse…
We had been talking about multi-user, remote virtual reality for a couple of years but we never had the incentive to fully set it up. When Covid hit, we had a working multi user remote VR process within the first month of lockdown. We hosted the model on a cloud storage facility, and could then meet our clients in the model space and talk to them via the headsets so that we could run design meetings within the model that we were designing. This was in fact our very own small metaverse.
In years to come people will look back on the words the metaverse and cringe in the same way that they do when we hear our parents talking about surfing the Internet. For us as designers working in three-dimensional spaces online is already the norm and we currently do this via Archicad. All of our models are stored on the cloud and accessed by multiple users from multiple offices and shared with other consultants. We are also then very easily able to access the same model via virtual reality headsets in our office and at home.
S: Your main design focus is on cities, how do you think this will make a difference to the design of future urban landscapes?
O: The reason that I get so excited about the application of the metaverse to the design process is because I don’t want to limit the feedback that we gain as architects to only the clients and stakeholders that we design for. We are building a company that designs the cities of the future, and therefore to make great cities, they must be tested by as many people as possible.
Public consultation events are currently exercises in building support rather than testing a design. Only the best views are shown, whereas I want every person to experience every part of the cities that we are designing to make sure that they are as good as they can be.
No one experiences a City in a two-dimensional plan form, they experience it by walking the streets, and the best way we can road test a city without building it is via VR. The Metaverse is a 3D interactive public consultation tool that, if used well, can help us road test the cities we want to inhabit in the real world. If we get it right, we only have to build it once, and that’s why the Metaverse can be a tool to achieve sustainability.
The topic of the metaverse is being explored by architects, globally. This spring 1-5th of May brings you Disrupt Symposium, the first of its kind Business of Architecture event designed to inspire and educate in matters of business and practice operations. At this event we welcome to stage Patrick Schumacher, Director of Zaha Hadid Architects with a keynote on the topic of: “Opportunities in the metaverse” and disclose advice and step-by-step strategies architect entrepreneurs can implement today to better strategize for success as designers for the metaverse.
Other event topics include business strategy, business development, client acquisition, financial management, sales, marketing, communications, branding, social media, public relations, the business of expertise, expert positioning, publishing online and in print, leadership, team building, recruitment, retention, and leaving a legacy behind.
Get your Symposium tickets now