Correction: Landis Architects/Builders was misidentified in an earlier version of this story.
After their dishwasher broke, homeowners Tim and Gina Seigne decided to go big and renovate the entire kitchen of their 1970s house in Oakton, Va. They worked with Moss Building and Design in Chantilly, Va., to come up with a plan for the space and agreed to tear down a wall between the kitchen and entrance hallway to open up the view.
“But there were a few things that I didn’t have a feel for,” says Tim Seigne, a software development manager. “I wondered how much space we would have between the countertops and dining table, and what it would look like when we took away the wall.”
So the design-build firm invited Seigne to try out its new Moss 360 technology in a corner of its office. The homeowner put on a headset with built-in goggles to experience a full-scale, 3-D model of the kitchen design. With the aid of a wand, he walked through the simulated environment, from the front door and into the kitchen, up to the sink and stove, and entered the dining and family rooms.
“I was amazed at how real it felt,” Seigne says. “It convinced me that the sightlines and how things will look were the way we wanted them.”
Welcome to virtual reality, the newest tool being used by design-build firms to sell homeowners on renovations. The immersive technology is a step up from two-dimensional floor plans and 3-D computer models in allowing viewers to experience the full depth of spatial relationships and feel like they are inside the rooms of a house. Builders say VR helps homeowners to better understand the dimensions of a space, the impact of light at different times of day and views from one room to the next, so they can make design decisions more quickly.
“Some people have trouble understanding floor plans and two-dimensional drawings, and virtual reality is helpful in allowing them see and experience a space,” says Bill Millholland, executive vice president of Case Design/Remodeling in Bethesda. “It helps them to be more confident and make better decisions about every detail.” Since last summer, Case has been experimenting with a virtual-reality system called Oculus Rift, primarily for kitchen and bathroom projects.
Each design-build firm uses a different type of virtual reality, combining viewing hardware and 3-D modeling software to create the lifelike images. Headsets incorporate stereoscopic lenses and tracking mechanisms corresponding to the viewer’s motions to create the illusion of moving around a space.
“No rendering can do what virtual reality can,” says Moss Chief Operating Officer Paul DesRoches. “It puts the homeowner in the design, allowing them to understand all the spatial relationships between walls, ceilings, floors, openings, furniture, lighting to ensure that the space meets their functional and aesthetic needs, all before construction begins. We’re fanatical about the customer experience and try to present the most accurate information possible. Virtual reality helps us do that and reduce risks for the homeowner.”
DesRoches and his team started researching the technology in 2014 and experimented with Lowe’s Holoroom, a 3-D visualization tool, before investing “six figures” on its own software and hardware. In 2016, the firm hired virtual-reality whiz Tyler Tappan, who has applied cutting-edge tools to about two dozen projects and wowed homeowners such as the Seignes with walk-through designs.
“In every case, our Moss 360 has garnered some change in design, whether it be the height of a countertop, the placement of a window or the size of an entire room,” says Tappan, who showed off the technologies at the Capital Remodel and Garden Show in January. From the demonstrations at that event, Tappan says, he booked 10 appointments with clients interested in the service.
At Moss, project designs are presented through virtual and augmented reality. The firm uses HTC Vive technology, a sophisticated system of headset and wand. Sensors in the devices allow users to move within an area of about 15 by 15 feet and track their position as they look around the virtual environment. The handheld wand is used to point to the area where users want to stand and allows them to change the view to any location within the virtual environment.
Augmented technology superimposes holographic images onto real settings similar to the Pokémon Go craze. It requires homeowners to wear the Microsoft HoloLens, a device resembling ski goggles that transfers pictures of house plans and room settings onto the floor and walls. The wearer can walk around the virtual models and view layouts from different angles to better understand the design and quickly decide on what they want — or don’t want.
Landis Architects/Builders in the District is another local design-build firm using virtual reality to help homeowners envision renovations. “Our goal is to reduce the gap between homeowner expectations and the ultimate space we create,” says co-owner Ethan Landis. “We want our clients to have a great experience from beginning to end, and using this technology can achieve that while managing costs, because there are fewer surprises and changes along the way.”
Since last June, Landis has been presenting projects through Google Cardboard, a folded paper holder fitted with lenses and a smartphone to create the virtual-reality experience. While not as sophisticated as VR systems requiring computer-connected headsets, Google Cardboard is inexpensive and portable so designs can be viewed on the project site.
Capitol Hill homeowners Chris Ernesto, a building contractor, and Marianne Huber, a medical device marketer, reviewed the details of their renovation through the Landis cardboard viewer, while standing in their 1895 rowhouse. In addition to splitting one large bathroom into two, they are adding a rooftop deck with views of the Capitol dome and Union Station.
“Virtual reality allowed us to visualize the spaces much more clearly,” Ernesto says. “Blueprints and plans are helpful, but VR has given us a much more real sense of what we’re trying to achieve.”
After viewing the renovation scheme through the Google Box, the homeowners changed the bathroom designs to become more minimalist. The 3-D model made them realize that there was not enough space for all the fixtures originally envisioned, and they switched the tile patterns from bright colors to neutrals.
“The VR models allowed us to see mirror and lighting reflections, which gave us a better sense of the overall look,” Ernesto says.
Most design-build firms do not charge extra for virtual-reality models but treat them as part of the design process and overall project costs. VR can also help builders in the field spot mistakes and solve construction challenges, saving money on fixes before the renovation is completed.
Tim Seigne says the virtual-reality experience bolstered his confidence in Moss’s proposed kitchen design before agreeing to pay the firm more than $70,000 to build it.
“When you consider the amount of money you are going to spend, VR is a valuable tool because you can make changes during the design process,” Seigne says. “This tool is especially helpful for people who don’t have strong spatial visualization skills. It’s definitely the future of design.”