How Construction and Architecture Firms Are Using Augmented Reality for Competitive Advantage

Imagine showing up to a completely empty plot of land and then putting on a specialized pair of goggles and seeing a life-sized building appear right before your eyes. This is augmented reality (AR) and it’s being used right now by architecture and building firms to show clients what proposed buildings and structures will look like and helping with the construction of those structures.

By utilizing the technology, architecture and building firms can save time and money on construction while easily keeping clients up to date on projects and giving them the ability to see future projects while they’re still in the planning phase.

In fact, according to JBKnowledge’s 2020 Construction Technology Report, 34% of construction companies say using AR gives them a strategic advantage over competitors who are not using the technology.

What is AR?

To put it as simply as possible, AR is when computer generated graphics are overlaid onto reality via a screen. The screen can be a phone, tablet or sometimes specialized AR goggles that are meant for that exact purpose.

This is not to be confused with virtual reality (VR), which completely immerses a person in a computer generated world that is separate from reality.

Marker-based AR

Marker-based AR uses markers to tell the software where to display its computer generated content. You would scan the marker with whatever device you’re using to view it and the AR would use the marker to access what it’s supposed to display and where it’s supposed to display it.

Markerless AR

This type of AR does not rely on markers to work. Instead, the software scans its surroundings and finds places to place the computer generated content. The software can be programmed to detect flat surfaces like walls and floors or it can be programmed to detect other surfaces like faces and bodies.

Web-based AR

AR can further be categorized by being app-dependent or web-based.

App-dependent AR relies on an app or some other delivery system that people have to download to their device in order to use it.

On the other hand, web-based AR is delivered using only a link and a web browser, meaning anyone who wants to use it need not download anything to their device.

Other forms of AR include light projection and AR that uses stationary screens, but these are not common in the architecture or construction industry.

AR combined with BIM

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a technology that allows designers to render a 3D model of a building or structure with all its components (electrical, heating/AC, plumbing, etc) that they can look at in three dimensions on a screen. The various layers of the structure can be separated to look at them one at a time or all together. AR often goes hand in hand with BIM since they both use 3D modeling.

How AR benefits planners, architects and builders

AR has already been in use in the architecture and construction industries for years, with some safety equipment companies even incorporating AR capabilities into their personal protective equipment (like AR goggles fitted onto hard hats, for example).

There are many benefits to using the technology.

Project planning

First and foremost among the advantages is accurate planning of a project. No longer just a confusing bunch of lines on a page that only a select few can read, now a project can be seen in its entirety before a single shovel hits the ground and anyone can easily understand what they’re looking at.

Beyond that, designers can use AR to show interested parties the various layers to a building, showing the framework, the electrical corridors, the heating and A/C system or any of the various other systems one at a time.

Project building

Once a project has started construction, AR is highly useful for viewing various parts of it to help guide construction. It allows users to “see through” walls and other obstacles at what is underneath (providing there is a 3D rendering of it that can be viewed) and can assist with parts of the project that may be tricky to construct.

For example, a construction worker could put on a pair of AR goggles and scan a marker on a wall and see the electrical conduits behind that wall (again, providing that there has been a 3D rendering made of it). Project maintenance Much like with the construction of a project, AR can help with maintenance of a building using the same principles. A worker could don a pair of AR goggles and scan a marker to show them what is behind a wall so they can make accurate repairs with minimal invasive damage to the structure.

Accurate measurements

AR need not be completely immersive to be useful on the jobsite. There are many AR applications that can take measurements in real spaces using a phone or tablet’s camera to calculate the distance, eliminating the need for physical measuring devices that may provide inaccurate measurements.

Real-time on site job revision

Being able to see an entire building before it’s actually built can help builders make changes on the go to avoid costly mistakes. If something is incorrect during the building process it can be more easily caught with the help of AR visualization and corrected before it becomes a costly problem.

In fact, workers can even view AR as they’re building a component to help them build it right, if necessary.

Safety and inspection

AR can also help with inspection of structures during the building process to make sure everything has been built to the correct specifications. It can also help building and structure inspectors identify where components are located if they are hidden from sight.

Spotting underground dangers

Walls aren’t the only things AR can help you “see” through. It can also be helpful for making workers aware of underground wires and pipes by allowing them to view where the obstacle is before they do any digging.

Training

AR is a cost-effective way to provide training since it works with hypothetical objects rather than real ones. Workers can be shown how to build something by viewing a computer generated image of it before they get their hands on the real thing to cut down on mistakes and resources.

Cost cutting

And, speaking of cutting down on mistakes, perhaps AR’s most common usage in design and construction is to help builders make fewer mistakes and thus help them to save money by preventing the need for do-overs. Being able to see how something should look can act as a guide for builders to follow, which will inevitably lead to them making fewer mistakes, saving money on the project.

Uses of AR in construction & architecture

Augmented reality in architecture and construction has myriad uses that can help all parties involved increase efficiency and accuracy and reduce errors while saving time, money and resources.

Facilitates emotional connections

It can be difficult to form an emotional bond with something that doesn’t exist yet, but with the help of AR, real estate agents can get their clients to form those bonds with their future homes and commercial properties by showing them what they will look like.

Or, if a home already exists, an agent can show prospective buyers what it will look like with furniture in it without having to go through the trouble of staging a house.

Even with commercial buildings, AR can give clients the true scale of the structure by having them stand virtually inside of it. That’s not something you can get by looking at a piece of paper.

Provides a sneak peek at new yards

Building architects aren’t the only ones who can benefit from using AR with their clients. Landscape architects can also use it to give clients a look at the proposed plans for their yards and allow the clients to request changes before the work starts.

Gives architectural and building firms a marketing advantage

While AR is becoming fairly common in architecture and building, not every firm is using it. Those that are can advertise this fact and give themselves a brand positioning advantage over competitors. The ability to show clients what a structure will look like before anything is built is easy to market as an advantage.

Makes clients feel more involved

Blueprints are hard to read, especially if you’ve never had any training with them. While someone like an architect can look at a blueprint and imagine what a structure will look like based on it, most people will not be able to do this.

By using AR, architectural and construction firms can make clients feel more involved in the planning and building process instead of feeling like an outsider who needs everything interpreted for them. Rather than just listening to the planner, clients can be involved in the discussion as informed participants and know exactly what is going on.

Increases efficiency

Everyone wants buildings and structures to be constructed as quickly and efficiently as possible. AR increases accuracy by allowing planners and builders to see what they’re constructing before it’s built, reducing the occurrence of errors and saving time, money and resources by eliminating the need to fix mistakes that may not be caught when you’re relying solely on paper plans.

How planners and builders are using AR right now

As mentioned previously, AR is not some far off concept in the future. It is being used now and increasingly being adopted by more architecture and building firms, giving them a distinct advantage over competitors that are slow to start using the technology.

These are some of the ways it’s being used right now:

AR smart sketches

As the name implies, these are sketches that virtually come to life when viewed with AR equipment, giving users the ability to view a building before it’s actually there. The smart sketches make a building appear as you walk around the site, like a living, growing sketch. This makes it much clearer for customers who can see the building being “built” around them before it actually is built.

AR Capable helmets and glasses

Augmented reality in construction requires specialized equipment to see it. While you can use the phone in your pocket, it’s much more convenient to have glasses with AR capability and safety equipment that incorporates it into the design.

There are hard hats with built in AR glasses and many firms are using Microsoft’s HoloLens glasses to give workers the ability to visualize projects and 3D models in augmented reality as an immersive and large-scale 3D environment. Teams using AR enabled equipment can compare work-in-progress with the original design and keep the work and the head office in sync with each other with an all-digital workflow instead of relying on paper.

Virtual measuring apps

These apps use a phone or tablet’s camera for accurately measuring spaces and they can help with drawing plans from existing rooms. The more advanced ones can show viewers 3D models in real time in their proper scale, transforming a plan into a 3D model hologram, or simulating life-size products, thus reducing the cost of creating prototypes.

Software that shows builders life-sized instructions

Some construction AR software aims to turn 3D models into fully life-sized construction instructions that builders can simply follow with the use of tools like a HoloLens. For particularly complex structures, builders could just follow step-by-step instructions that are overlaid onto the real world throughout the construction process.

Software that overlays the BIM

There are building site monitoring applications that use AR to overlay a structure’s 3D BIM with the use of a phone, tablet or other AR viewing device. These applications allow you to compare what has been built to the plans so you can see if it has been done correctly. This helps builders avoid errors and reduces construction costs.

With its ability to show people what is not actually there, augmented reality for architecture and construction is quickly becoming a must-have tool for design and construction firms that want to increase efficiency and keep their clients in the loop easier. It’s an obvious positioning advantage for companies that use it already and soon will be an indispensable tool in the industry.