Virtual reality as a tool for sustainable design

Nuthatch Hollow provides both indoor and outdoor educational spaces, and uses materials that are compliant with the Living Building Challenge (LBC).
Nuthatch Hollow provides both indoor and outdoor educational spaces, and uses materials that are compliant with the Living Building Challenge (LBC).

To visualize the ventilation within the project as a 3D entity, this complex system of airflow utilizing windows, fans, and mechanical means had to be modeled. This proved to be a challenge, and the design team initially chose to focus on natural ventilation visualization with other aspects of the ventilation system identified separately. To do this, the simplified model was run through a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) analysis tool, and ventilation data was exported as a CSV file containing x, y, and z positions and RGB values related to relative velocity of airflow. The CSV file was imported by using a particle generating app in the video gaming engine, which created a color particle at each corresponding point in the model. Particles near areas of ventilation intake, like windows and doors, were red while the ones near the center of the room were blue. The direct import of the CSV file cut down on modeling time, but reduced the amount of control the design team had on the final visualization. Ultimately, the design team assessed the static colored particles were ineffective in communicating ventilation. Therefore, they opted to synthesize the analysis results into a monochrome but animated approximation of airflow paths during passive and mechanical ventilation conditions. The team is continuing to develop and test alternate means for visualizing quantity and direction of airflow systems within the VR environment.

VR for sustainable education outreach

PH and LBC focuses on human comfort as a measure of how an environment operates from a thermal, acoustical, visual, and air quality standpoint. While high-performance buildings are designed to optimize the built environment, appropriate human interaction with it is essential. Additionally, IDVL integrated educational blurbs within the virtual environment to highlight key sustainability features of the building. For example, when one virtually strolls through the building and enters the restroom or the viewing platform in the mechanical room, educational signage pops up teaching about LBC’s Water Petal and how PH requirements are addressed. Another educational note highlights the composting toilet, a commonly used strategy to help achieve LBC’s net-positive water requirement for a closed water loop and all waste processed onsite. Other notes highlight the ceiling fans and acoustic baffles mentioned before to help users understand the multiple layers of design consideration that are imperative in creating good space and meeting PH criteria.


Ultimately, the design team created and tested two separate, virtual Nuthatch Hollow environments: a BIM/VR model and a simulation data model in a video gaming platform. These models were exhibited and tested during in-house project management meetings, client presentations, and a green building conference. User feedback for both models was collected informally through discussion while in or after visiting the Nuthatch Hollow virtual environments.

Users immediately recognized the value of VR in both models to represent the project at full-scale prior to construction. Designers and clients most appreciated the responsiveness of the quick change and test aspect of the BIM/VR model. This was most effective in analysis of the shading and potential glare conditions throughout the day. Team members were already familiar with both the environmental design considerations and moving through the VR environment. The fluidity provided by the VR software eased the learning curve of using the technology as a design tool, but limited the possibility for experiencing non-visual information like ventilation patterns.

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