We are educating future colleagues on integrating
technologies that emerge really fast now.

Andreas Pilot, director of the BIM studio at the Technical University of Darmstad

Transforming Architectural Education with VR and BIM

Educating the Next-Gen Architects: Dipl.-Ing. Architect Andreas Pilot and colleagues at the Technical University of Darmstadt
have successfully established VR in their interdisciplinary Design and Building Technology program. © TU Darmstadt

The Technical University of Darmstadt is redefining architectural education with BIM and VR, ensuring that students are ready for the new era of technologies and methods in design and building.

The German university is one of the first in Europe that have integrated Virtual Reality (VR) in their Design and Building Technology program. Here’s a look at why and how they implemented VR into their curriculum.

– We are educating future colleagues on integrating technologies that emerge really fast now. I think it’s super important that we’re able to catch up with that, so that the methods they learn are done with the new technologies. This is also part of preparing them for the future, says Dipl.-Ing. Architect Andreas Pilot, director of the BIM studio at the Technical University of Darmstadt.

– When every company and everyone in the industry learns the new tools and methods; the new methods also change how we design, create ideas and buildings, he adds.

Darmstadt, in the state of Hesse, holds the official title «City of Science». Here, Andreas Pilot founded and developed a Building Information Modeling (BIM) Studio at Darmstadt TU in 2019. The following year Pilot established interdisciplinary courses with BIM and the VR technology, Vrex.

In 2022 he and his colleagues set up a new collaborative teaching concept, where students of different disciplines started creative collaborative and model based teamplay on a practical basis, and learned about the theory of digital methods in retrospective afterwards.

– The most important thing to me, is to integrate emerging technologies into the teaching concepts because they have changed the methods, and they make it easier to work together. The students collaborate in an interdisciplinary way, which is the core task of an architect of the future – to be more of a moderator, leading the team and to make sure that everyone understand eachother and the concepts, and that I believe that 3D models are a huge part of that. VR is really helpful to understand 3D models.

A playful and creative introduction to VR

The interdisciplinary courses start with a kick-off workshop with a VR playground, with a pre-crafted virtual environment, for instance a museum.

The students learn how to work collaborative with 3D models in an openBIM environment.

– This workshop gives a playful first practical insight into what is possible with interdisciplinary building information modelling. The students can use the VR equipment and get used to how to handle the hardware, and how to move objects in a VR environment.

The next hours, the students compete against eachother in teams, where they are coordinating something they create. They have no drawings, but must present their results it in VR only.

– We have this VR playground in the beginning, where they get a first insight into how to walk through a VR environment, and how to add something to the environment in a collaborative and creative way.

Students construct a building in VR

The study consists of several phases; a practical part, a reflection phase with input on the lessons, and theoretical background where the students learn more about what they did.

Over the course at TU Darmstadt, the students are constructing a building together, with VR in openBIM.

– One part of the team will do the landscaping, the other part will do the facade, another will do the technical equipment, modeling, and others might do the interior. All this has to come together as a puzzle. Each and every team also contribute to i.e. to the planning and the construction of the whole building. And while doing this, they more and more understand what building information modeling means.

The students are contributing in all areas of the building, collaborating to build it.

– Putting together some 3D geometry is not exactly building information modelling, but it’s a huge part of it. It’s the foundation – if you don’t know how to put together your 3D parts then you can’t do interdisciplinary BIM in a collaborative way. So, we have narrowed it down to basic method, basic technical function and collaborative work with VR.

Students constructing buildings in VR under the supervision from Andreas Pilot
© TU Darmstadt

Step by step

With VR, 3D modeling gains a new layer of clarity. Every nook and corner of a building can be virtually explored, ensuring there are no gaps in the design. This not only expedites the design and review process but also enhances collaborative discussions on design points.

The students learn how to set up models, how to create it, and then how to export it.

How fast the students adopt the VR technology is not age related, Pilot says.

– It’s more related to how accepting you are in matters of new technology, and if you’re like more of an innovative person and a pioneer, and interested in using an equipment like this.

– Have there been any challenges implementing VR in your program?

– Well, for us it was also a bit of a research and figuring out how students can adopt the new technology. We put a lot of emphasis on the students understanding the tool and understanding how to use it in the real work life. The students need some time to get used to the equipment, and to get used to how it works to move in real world and in virtual reality at the same time.

Pilot points out that besides all the other skills and competencies the students get in this course, they also have to figure out all the features and functions of VR.

– It is all this is new technology, new software and new vocabulary for them to learn. It is a lot – but all in all, it is working pretty well.

Creative Presentations

In the end of the course, the students are asked to present their buildings in 3D and Virtual Reality. They have to create a short movie where they give the teachers a tour through their building.

– That has to be prepared very well. You have all the team members as actors in the building to explain everything there. Some of the students are very good in creating a story, and use all the features that the Virtual Reality environment has; like putting a section to the whole building and move the section through the 3D model, so that you get an idea about how it’s constructed. Or to, move in the building, and have another another avatar as the cameraman is following you.

In the end, the students presents very different movies.

– This program is truly innovative and creative.

– Very creative, yes, but it’s also a like a consequence of that we want a change of the paradigm. So 2D is no longer like the source of anything. 2D is only a documentation of what we did in design, planning and constructing. We believe that planning and constructing the building in 3D with VR, is way better than doing it in 2D only.

Pilot believes the use of VR in building and construction will increase in the future

– If you get everyone involved in the process to know how to work with VR, then it’s a no-brainer. We’ve always used 3D models on our sites, but the immersive experience of augmented reality; for example when you’re standing on a site and virtually can add what you can’t see there yet, is super helpful of course. I’m pretty sure that this will be used a lot more in the future, says Pilot.

Andreas Pilot is an architect, IT entrepreneur and BIM manager. He is the director of the BIM studio at the Technical University of Darmstadt, where he concentrates on teaching and researching model-based and interdisciplinary methods.

Creative Presentations

  • Current setups in the VR labs at TU Darmstadt involve VR headsets used in conjunction with PCs, with some participants choosing a viewer-only mode via their laptops.
  • The VR labs serve as hubs where students can borrow equipment and immerse themselves in hands-on experiences, combining theory with practice.

A VR-Driven Workflow

At the Technical University of Darmstadt, Virtual Reality (VR) has added a dynamic layer to the architectural design process, especially when it comes to model verification and team coordination.

  1. Model Quality Check: The primary step before publishing any architectural model is a stringent quality control. In the VR-enabled classroom, students learn to inspect their designs with an added dimension, allowing for meticulous verification. This immersive check ensures that every element aligns with the desired standards
  2. Publishing and Sharing: But it’s not just about creating; it’s also about communicating. Students are taught effective methods for publishing their designs, ensuring that all team members and stakeholders have access to the most updated versions.
  3. Coordinating in a Digital Space: VR aids in detecting collisions or design discrepancies, ensuring all components of a building design work harmoniously.
  4. Real-time Communication and Issue Resolution: In a typical scenario, if an interior designer’s stairway design clashes with a wall, addressing this would involve back-and-forths, lengthy emails, or physical meetings. But with tools like Vrex, Darmstadt’s students and staff can address such issues in real-time. The VR environment allows participants to highlight the problem, discuss it, and decide on responsibilities.
  5. Seamless Integration with Authoring Systems: Once a problem is identified and documented in VR, it’s seamlessly integrated with the primary design tools. For instance, using the example of the stairway clash, the designer would receive an alert in their primary design tool, complete with viewpoints and screenshots. This prompt would enable them to make necessary modifications, upload the revised design, and in the next VR meeting, everyone would witness the resolution.

This VR-driven approach allows students to easily access, collaborate, and moderate their projects in alignment with the core tasks of future architects.

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