HGA Architects and Engineers uses virtual reality to help its designers and clients better understand the experience of users with disabilities

By Joel Hoekstra

A few years ago, HGA principal Alanna Carter was working with a client on plans for a healthcare facility. Carter was explaining how various design elements would benefit the building’s occupants, including residents in wheelchairs and those with vision issues, when her client posed a vexing question: How could the architects know the design would function as promised?

From experience, Carter knew her design would work, but she lacked the kind of evidence that would persuade her client. What could she offer? What would help her client visualize the design outcome for people with disabilities?

Back at the office, she approached HGA’s digital practice group. Established in 2015, the group, composed of architects, engineers, artists, and computer programmers, serves as a lab for integrating new technologies into the firm’s practice. At Carter’s request, the group began exploring ways to use virtual reality (VR) to see unbuilt spaces through different lenses: How might a person’s experience be different if he or she used a wheelchair, had glaucoma, walked with a cane, or grappled with dyslexia?

In recent years, the cost of VR has dropped, creating opportunities for more architecture firms to experiment with the technology. Donning an Oculus Rift or HTC Viveheadset allows designers to walk through digital blueprints that appear fully built. Spatial proportions, circulation paths, and even lighting patterns appear in 3D form, allowing architects to make improvements before construction begins. What’s more, people from around the globe can “meet” in the same virtual space.

“VR can help decision makers understand the implications of the choices they’re making,” says Jonathan Bartling, AIA, HGA’s director of digital practice.“Architects, engineers, and contractors are trained to read drawings, renderings, and animations, but their clients don’t always get it. With VR, you put clients in a virtual setting and they say, ‘Oh my goodness, I get this.’”

But Carter’s client didn’t just want to see the building with her own eyes: She wanted to see it through the eyes of end users. As a result, HGA’s digital-design specialists began researching conditions commonly experienced by patients in healthcare settings. Then they adapted their proprietary CollectiveVR software to mimic conditions affecting sight, movement, and reading, among other things.

Glaucoma, for example, is a common condition that results in a dark ring around the edge of one’s field of vision. Things drop out of view quickly, and overall vision is impaired. HGA’s software is programmed to simulate glaucoma—or cataracts, or macular degeneration—with a quick click. Dark corners and hard-to-read signage become immediately apparent.

Another click puts the headset user at wheelchair height, where views can be obstructed by those who are standing or walking. Another push of the button and the user’s movements across the virtual space slow considerably—to the pace of someone walking with a cane.

But this isn’t just an exercise in empathy. Understanding how lighting affects the end user’s vision in a space may prompt the designers to add more windows—and persuade the client to pay for them. Having the virtual experience of reduced mobility may lead to an information desk being moved from the far side of the lobby to right next to the entry. “After they experience a design in VR, I’ve heard clients say, ‘We need to do this for our patients,’” says Carter.

The opportunity that VR affords architects and clients to make small yet critical adjustments can have the added benefit of reducing the number of change orders later in the project.

Kevin Ortner, director of transformation operations and transition at MetroHealth Systemin Cleveland, is working with HGA on a new hospital facility. VR, he says, has allowed specialists to evaluate designs in advance: Is the boom in an operating room in the optimal spot? Can a pharmacist move between the service counter and the medications room efficiently? Previewing spaces with future users not only elicits important feedback; it also creates buy-in from the people who will ultimately inhabit the new building. “In healthcare, minutes and seconds count,” says Ortner. “So, if our staff can use VR to understand the design and flow of the building before it opens, then patient care won’t suffer during the transition.”

Bartling says the digital practice group continues to experiment with ways to simulate experiences in VR. What’s it like to be in a crowded space? Is there a way to simulate the aural experience of moving from a concert-hall lobby into the auditorium? Challenges remain, but the group keeps testing ideas.

“It’s been pretty transformative for our clients and designers,” says Bartling.“At the most fundamental level, it’s about showing people something versus just telling them.”

Principal-in-charge: Jonathan Bartling, AIA
Development team: Adam Barnstorff; Rich Firkins; Anupam Das; Nicolas Ramirez, Intl. Assoc. AIA; Ryan Spiering; Lene Sollie; Tom Suess; Jared Widner