Image courtesy of AHMM

AHMM creates cost-effective, scalable archviz using real-time technology

By Ken Pimentel |
June 29, 2020
Allford Hall Monaghan Morris (AHMM) is a prestigious, award-winning architecture practice. It works on projects all over the globe that feature commercial, retail, residential, amenity, and educational elements. 

With architectural firms of all sizes increasingly using visualization engines for projects, AHMM has opted for Unreal Engine to gain a competitive advantage. “Investing in Unreal allows us to differentiate with greater interactivity, higher graphical quality, greater scale of data, and open outputs,” explains Aaron Perry, Head of Digital Design.

AHMM is often brought on board right at the very beginning of projects, through construction to client handover, and it leverages real-time technology at all the different parts of that process.

Proving architectural ideas with real-time tools

AHMM’s use of real-time technology begins right at the start of the architectural lifecycle, when the team is trying to convey its big idea to clients. 

During this phase of a recent project, the firm was hired to review the acquisition of a high-profile site. Its city-center location meant it was important to get any proposed alterations to the building right. “The single most important thing for us was to have an early ability to test massing, and that sensitive context being in the Unreal environment was fundamental,” explains Perry.

Massing is the study of the general shape, form, and size of a project. As well as impacting things like walls and foundations, it’s also needed to test out the visual integrity of designs proposed for high-profile areas. 
AHMM recreated a high-fidelity 3D visualization of the area in Unreal Engine to explore the building design. “We were able to establish key views, and we were able to quickly switch between the existing condition and any proposals that we were suggesting in context,” says Perry.

The team was also able to add realistic flora and fauna, people, and traffic into the visualization: “all of those kinds of things that would not necessarily have been possible in a traditional workflow of static images and visualizations,” explains Perry. 

AHMM could update the visualization immediately as core designs changed, experimenting with materials, colors, panels, glazing, and facades, and updating images in a matter of hours rather than days. “For this project specifically, that ability to have one single digital media for all reasons, that scalability of having one single file for all different kinds of journeys with all different stakeholders, was key,” says Perry.
 

Showcasing designs in VR

AHMM uses Unreal Engine further along the architectural lifecycle to refine ideas as a client's brief becomes more developed. One of the first projects the firm used the engine on was for the design of the Alder Centre. This building is an extension to the Alder Hey Children's Hospital in Liverpool—a facility for counselors to provide support to anybody suffering from the loss of a child. 

The original deliverable for the project was static images, but by leveraging Unreal Engine, static images quickly became animation and VR, providing the client with a host of assets that could be used for fundraising.

Later during the project, AHMM was in conversation with the counsellors who would be using the center. Upon hearing that they didn’t fully understand floor plans, sections, or images, the architects saw an opportunity to reuse the dataset they had produced in Unreal Engine. Using the engine’s VR capabilities and a HTC Vive Pro headset, the team took the counsellors into the design and had conversations about layout, fit out, and fixings, enabling them to better understand the space.
 

Immersive real-time marketing 

This process of leveraging real-time technology to demonstrate what a building will look like as you move around it led to AHMM being asked to provide some of the advertising collateral on a different project, this time based in central London. 

When finished, Soho Place will be a 285,000 sq ft mixed-use scheme in London’s West End. AHMM was tasked by their client Derwent London with creating some of the marketing materials for the building.
To achieve this, the team had to create a revolving loop workflow—from the design models that were being produced, tweaked, and updated in Revit, right the way through to the visualizers’ assets in 3ds Max and into Unreal Engine via Datasmith. 

The ability to integrate these tools was one of the biggest factors that influenced AHMM’s decision to use Unreal Engine. “Our primary authoring and visual tools are Revit and 3ds Max, so being able to connect them to Unreal efficiently with tools like Datasmith made a substantial difference in the time taken to update designs and optimize geometry,” says Perry. 

Datasmith is a workflow toolkit that simplifies the process of importing different types of content into Unreal Engine. “We use Datasmith to import geometry, materials, and even lights from 3ds Max”, says Perry. “The process is fast and easy—even with millions of polygons.” 

With the specifics of the Soho Place brief still in flux, AHMM found itself experimenting with ideas around VR and walking through the building. “We had utter confidence that whatever those deliverables would eventually be, we could achieve them with Unreal,” says Perry. 
The resulting marketing assets include static images and videos, some of which were shown as 4K, two-storey-high laser projections, as well as custom apps running on 4K touch screens. 

The Soho Place office tenants had different ideas about what they wanted to do with their spaces. But whether it was a standard, professional, or creative layout, the team could manage design options in the same file without having to redo anything. “And we were also able to tell a bigger story about the location of the building to the city—only achievable in Unreal,” says Perry.

The architects went on to build a custom app that enabled the client and office tenants to explore the key spaces. “Compared to your standard marketing, it was a real eye-opener, and it allowed us to build a much deeper and richer relationship with the client,” says Perry. 

The power to leverage huge datasets 

Later in the architectural lifecycle, AHMM leverages Unreal Engine to prove its capabilities to prospective clients. Traditionally, the firm has done that using static images. “It was always missing something,” says Perry. “It was always missing that ability for us to talk about that building in context to its neighbor. Or the surrounding area. It didn't quite give us the ability to jump from one side of town to the other.”

To fill this gap, AHMM embarked on a project to bring in all of its mapping data into a single Unreal Engine project, showing buildings on which it’s worked along with the contextual data of the surrounding streets and architecture. “We can jump from one side of London to the other,” says Perry. “We can go down to the micro level of looking into the lobby or a core design, and analyze one building against others.”
AHMM sees limitless possibilities now that it has adopted Unreal Engine into its visualization pipeline— and this has also proven to be highly cost-effective. “We have amazing value and return on investment for the time and efforts we've put into this process,” says Perry. “It’s fundamentally changing our business model.” 

The benefits of using Unreal Engine have manifested in numerous ways across the business. “The ability to explain a variety of topics using one model gives our clients more confidence in projects,” says Perry. “Turnaround times and workloads to prepare external-facing content have been reduced at each stage, and we now have the ability to offer new services.”

AHMM also now has a record of the project model at key moments and can build upon it. Different options can be turned on or off live, and simple tweaks like color changes can be made directly in the model with the client. “And because Unreal Engine is an open platform, we’re not constrained by a fixed library—we can bring in any models or assets we want,” says Perry.

Adopting Unreal Engine has led AHMM to believe that real-time technology is set to fundamentally alter the architectural process. “Traditional limitations that architects have faced, such as file size or choosing between quality and scale, typically disappear,” says Perry. “Multiply that by being able to ditch render times for static images, which can now be captured on the fly, and it can substantially change how we have been working for years.”

To see Perry tell the story of how AHMM adopted real-time technology, watch the 13-minute presentation he gave at Epic’s Build for Architecture event last year.

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