Image: BetaPort System © Urban Beta

Unreal Engine is helping real estate developers to accelerate urban master planning

Urban master planning is an essential part of the real estate development process, but it’s also one of its most challenging elements. Developers need to be able to communicate their plans to decision makers during the pre-concept phase to secure investment. Not only must they convey their design intent and the impact that the development will have on the surrounding area, but they must also illustrate how this will look over the course of a number of years, possibly even decades, using all the relevant high-level data.

We’ve already seen how developers are turning to real-time technology to sell new-build homes, and build next-gen sales suites to showcase luxury developments, but it is also a factor from day one of the development life cycle. Developers are moving away from static 2D plans and written reports to an immersive 3D planning environment powered by real-time technology. Unreal Engine is helping them to communicate early planning and design studies of master plans, making the process more efficient and engaging and ensuring faster decisions that keep the timeline on track.

One company that is using Unreal Engine to develop immersive master planning assets is V2i Realtime, a creative studio and software developer based on Australia’s Gold Coast. V2i Realtime has decades of experience in property consulting and is now using real-time technology to give decision makers the confidence to make the necessary calls.

Accelerating pre-concept planning

V2i Realtime uses a large portfolio of tools, consolidating all project data into a single interactive 3D environment, and providing project stakeholders with the ability to freely explore the virtual project from any device with a web browser via Pixel Streaming. The idea is that a common visual language cuts down on confusion, errors, and misinterpretation, making it easier for all involved to understand a proposal, and empowering them to ask more informed questions and make better decisions. While enabling the unconstrained exploration and control of the 3D scene with an easy-to-use interface is the main focus, other communication collateral ranging from 8K cinematic perspectives and 4K animations to 360° panoramas and VR experiences, can also be generated with great speed.

The company switched to Unreal Engine after using traditional visualization software and huge render farms, which proved to be expensive and time-consuming. “Unreal Engine has been the most transformational industry tool that I've seen in 37 years,” says Luke Brannelly, Founder, Managing Director, and Creative Director at V2i Realtime. “It eliminates so much wasted time, energy, and dollars that we often see as a result of the need for third-party interpretation of traditional, and often technical, 2D data and reports. Unreal Engine enables the decision maker, or indeed anyone, to understand an outcome through the creation of a common visual language that all involved in the process can understand.”

This kind of digital storytelling is helping V2i to make the complex planning processes across the entire lifecycle of a project faster and more efficient. “It brings a smile to my face when I sit in meetings and witness firsthand how quickly people can understand an outcome and have informed conversations leading to faster, more informed decisions,” says Luke. “We can now move through a process that traditionally might have taken hours, days, or even weeks in a matter of minutes on some occasions.”

Communicating size and scale

Showcasing the support that V2i Realtime’s approach gives to the early planning stage is its work with real estate and investment group Lendlease. V2i Realtime worked with Lendlease on the Figtree Hill project, the first precinct of a new community in south west Sydney, Australia. Boasting 1,700 new homes, the development is focused on sustainability, comprising smart homes that run on 100% renewable energy.
Image courtesy of V2i Realtime
The key challenge for Lendlease was to communicate the size and scale of the project to a range of stakeholders including the New South Wales State Government and local authorities. The planning and development approval process in Australia is notoriously lengthy, and projects are often delayed for many years. Conveying the long-term vision of how the project will address the environmental, ecological, and topographical constraints of the site was absolutely vital. In particular, the plans needed to include provision for a “koala corridor” to support the growth and movement of the local koala population.

Urban master planning with real-time visualizations

To help Lendlease move through this process, V2i Realtime created a spatially accurate 3D model using Unreal Engine’s real-time technology. This enabled a more meaningful and equitable level of discussion and decision-making among stakeholders
“We have many years of approvals ahead of us, and I have no doubt that a real-time immersive collaboration environment will greatly assist with these various stakeholders understanding the vision and the design outcomes that are intended for Figtree Hill,” says Paul Melrose, National Product and Place Manager at Lendlease Communities. “We see V2i Realtime also enabling us to connect to a broader audience and to provide a much more immersive and meaningful online or mobile experience in terms of understanding the benefits of our community and, importantly, closing the sale faster.”

As well as helping Lendlease to move through the design and consultation phases in a more efficient way, the Figtree Hill project acts as a showcase to build support and understanding for this next frontier of real-time virtual collaboration, decision-making, and improved customer engagement.

“The next step in this exciting journey is the introduction of the Lendlease Metaverse, where all existing and proposed developments can be located within one web-based immersive 3D world—a journey that will completely transform and challenge many aspects of traditional thinking, particularly in relation to web content, virtual collaboration, and decision making,” says Luke.

Cityscape Digital

Another forward-thinking company making waves in the urban master planning world with its real-time innovations is London-based real estate consultancy Cityscape Digital. With a focus on the UK market, Cityscape Digital creates early planning tools to help developers engage with stakeholders as well as the local community.
As with other firms working on the pre-concept phase, the key challenges for Cityscape Digital revolve around bringing a conceptual design to life. The company’s tools help stakeholders to visualize construction of the development from conception to completion. The ability to understand the scale and complexity of the master plan, and how it comes together over time, is vital in helping developers attract investors and engage effectively with planning authorities, potential tenants, and the local community.
Image courtesy of Cityscape Digital

One Cityscape Digital client that had to conquer these challenges was developer British Land, specifically in relation to its £4 billion ($4.9 billion) Canada Water redevelopment on South East London’s Rotherhithe peninsula. The 53-acre project involves the creation of a new urban hub in an area that was historically a network of working docks and canals connected to the River Thames. The project encompasses 40 new buildings along with 51,000 square meters of leisure and cultural space. The Canada Water development was master-planned by Allies and Morrison and led by Roger Madelin at British Land, in partnership with Southwark Council.

Enabling flexible and effective engagement 

The key challenge here was to showcase a 15-year development timeline for a large and complex development in an engaging and effective way. Using Unreal Engine, Cityscape Digital created a bespoke interactive platform that includes renders, videos, and applications such as the phasing tool. The latter helps to explain the diversity of Phase I, and the ongoing master plan.
“Unreal Engine enabled Cityscape Digital to create a flexible toolset and range of visual and interactive collateral to help British Land to engage with stakeholders in a way that was not previously possible,” says David Munro, Senior Consultant at Cityscape Digital. “The phasing tool that we built is a great example of how Unreal Engine can be harnessed to facilitate flexible and effective engagement, taking complex sets of data and presenting them in an easy to understand way.”
Taking the real-time approach rather than relying on traditional 2D renders enables Cityscape to deliver realistic visualizations that lead to better understanding of complex plans, thanks to more immersive and believable experiences. “Human perspective is key here,” says David. The interactivity involved also means faster iteration and decision-making with real-time technology, enabling much wider engagement. This shift away from traditional 2D plans and reports was absolutely key to the success of the pre-concept stage of the Canada Water project.

“Our physical model shows the complete scheme, and you can see actual construction progress on site, but we needed to be able to help potential occupiers and buyers understand how the place would be at any point during the build-out: what’s being demolished, under construction, or finished at the point they move in,” says Alexandra Maclean, Head of Marketing at Canada Water. ”The phasing tool that Cityscape built for us has filled that gap and is a valuable part of our full suite of visualization tools. The final bonus is that it’s easy to update, meaning we can easily keep pace with changes to the development programme. It’s a bit of a game changer.”

Morean and Urban Beta

Another innovative approach to urban planning comes from Berlin-based studios Morean and Urban Beta. Morean works across a number of industries, with a strong focus on showcasing urban master plan visions using cutting-edge creative technologies. Morean is collaborating with spatial innovation studio Urban Beta to develop the Beta Builder digital planning tool, which is designed to make urban master planning more efficient, collaborative, and fun.
Image courtesy of MOREAN GmbH and Urban Beta UG
Centered on positive impact, Urban Beta provides scalable, modular building systems for sustainable mobility hubs on demand. The company’s BetaPort system is the result of a collaboration with a number of industry partners around the globe, and is underpinned by the circular economy. BetaPort offers adaptive spaces designed to cover future mobility needs and use cases, using predictive planning for the most efficient layouts.

BetaPort’s circular production chain starts with the digital planning tool, the Beta Builder. This browser-based configurator visualizes design variants in real time and acts as an interactive collaboration platform for connecting stakeholders and decision makers, including public authorities, urban planners, and local communities. By gamifying the process, Beta Builder aims to make it more fun.
Image courtesy of MOREAN GmbH and Urban Beta UG
“The configurator was designed for playful and efficient planning,” says Philipp Eckhoff, Founding Partner at Morean. “It aims to eliminate planning errors, anticipates building costs, and creates production data. It also creates a photorealistic understanding of the future design in real time. The challenge was to put all these features together into one interactive and responsive application that is easy and fun to use.”
Acting as BetaPort’s configurator, the cloud-based Beta Builder platform uses custom algorithms for decision-making, with all data, cost, and energy consumption estimates, and even a production time forecast displayed on its dashboard. Immediate visual feedback enables stakeholders to visualize, compare, and optimize previously unseen data and processes and how they interact with one another.
When starting to develop Beta Builder, Morean and Urban Beta turned to Unreal Engine’s real-time capabilities. “We were basically designing a game for planners,” says Philipp. “The interactive process with that many different modules and possibilities involves a lot of testing and programming. Having a game engine that could show the final result in real time was extremely valuable for us.”
Image: BetaPort System © Urban Beta
Philipp calls out two features in particular: the Blueprints visual scripting system, and Datasmith, a collection of tools and plugins that enables users to seamlessly import entire scenes from a host of CAD, BIM, and DCC applications. “We were able to work on the functionality of our Blueprints, test the touch-based input, and see everything the way the user would see it, without the need to leave the software. With the help of Datasmith, importing any kind of geometry, materials, and collision objects worked very smoothly. Unreal Engine made the entire process very efficient,” he says.
Beta Builder enables Urban Beta to design its BetaPorts smoothly and cost-efficiently. Not only is Beta Builder automated for quick decision-making, it’s also detailed enough for production and assembly data.
These projects demonstrate how integrating real-time technology from the very start of the urban planning pipeline can streamline the process. Bringing project data together into a single interactive 3D environment helps to communicate urban master plans more efficiently, so that construction can begin without delay.

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