Real Value in Virtual Environments

For SMMA, an important part of our "day to day" is the investigation of emerging technologies and how they might be able to help us as designers. While virtual reality has been around for nearly 30 years, only recently have we been able to seamlessly and cost-effectively translate it to real value for our clients.

Capitalizing on the sense of presence and scale the technology offers, SMMA has used VR as an effective means of building consensus among key stakeholders.


Virtual reality affords an opportunity to approach and experience projects in ways that are impossible with standard drawings and boards. Once a user puts on a headset, they become immersed in design—not simply as an observer, but as an active participant, able to navigate digital surroundings and develop a real sense of how the built space will perform. This capability translates to an overall enhancement of one’s spatial understanding, allowing iterative design options to be investigated and coordination issues quickly solved. 

Being able to walk the site, orient oneself in the virtual environment, and see firsthand the possibility inherent to a space is an incredibly powerful tool that has benefited and helped advance recent projects in meaningful ways.
SMMA clients using VR headsets to view their designs

Virtual Environments, Real Impacts

Two projects on which SMMA has leveraged its VR capabilities are 321 Harrison Avenue and Somerville High School—opposite in typology, but commensurate in scope and scale. For both, the clients came in to SMMA’s Cambridge office to see where their respective designs stood, and left with a heightened sense of what their buildings would become. These visits also yielded a number of lessons learned for the design team, particularly in terms of how to best communicate design intent and build consensus.

Michael Pardek and Matt Rice, project architects on these commissions, offer insight into the value that VR brought to each, and why it is such an effective tool for designers.

321 Harrison Avenue

What was the client's reaction to the VR experience?

Pardek: They immediately became engaged and curious. They explored the model; sometimes they got stuck in walls, but other times they Spidermanned their way up the side of the building. Something I did not anticipate was that the VR demonstration also became a team-building experience, because it allowed us to step away from the conference table and engage with the client in a completely different way. It created an opportunity for interaction—sometimes we had to coach them on where to go, what to look at, how to move through the virtual environment. I think it also offered a little glimpse of the future, reminding everyone of what we are trying to accomplish together.


What is the most significant aspect of the technology, in your estimation? 

Pardek: For me, as someone who does a lot of modeling in SketchUp, the most beneficial part is the inversion of scale. When we model on the screen, we are looking at an object—we pan, zoom, orbit around, and go into it, but it's small. VR’s immersivity makes it powerful.


Somerville High School

How did the use of VR affect the design of the building?  

Rice: Virtually walking through the site and building at an early stage allowed both the design team and the owner to visualize an enormously complex set of urban, topographical, and tectonic relationships concurrently. Concepts that had been suggested in plan or section were reviewed, and were either confirmed or dismissed through the experiential simulation of the VR goggles. This full-scale vetting of ideas took place both within the confines of the design team, as well as in collaboration with various constituents from the City and community at large.


What was most valuable about the use of VR on this project to you?  

Rice: Its ability to help us achieve consensus. As is typical of a large civic project, there were many differing constituents providing during the decision-making process. Prior to the introduction of the VR model, various conflicting opinions persisted from those constituents about the path forward for many aspects of the design. However—after only two sessions of using the VR technology—a consensus approach was agreed upon. This was something that many months of dialogue and effort may not have been able to achieve otherwise.

The most thrilling aspect of the technology is that its potential is still largely unrealized—we are only now scratching the surface in terms of how it may come to influence design in the future.