Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

Dream builders: Recreating the original vision for Habitat 67 with an Unreal Engine and RealityCapture Sample Project

May 30, 2023
Imagine if there was a way to replicate the spacious luxury of suburban living in densely populated urban areas. To build multi-story structures with streets, gardens, and a strong sense of community. It seems far-fetched, right?

Well, in the early 1960s, an audacious young architect named Moshe Safdie dared to dream up such a project. The end result was Habitat 67.

Safdie—now a highly respected architect and urban planner—couldn’t realize the full extent of his vision back then. Despite being a landmark in architectural history and inspiring countless architects, Habitat 67 is largely considered an unfinished dream, with only a small portion of the original design ever seeing the light of day.

Now, that boundary-pushing design is finally being completed, just not in the way anyone expected. Using Unreal Engine 5, creative agency Neoscape, in collaboration with Safdie Architects, has taken the original master plan into a virtual environment, with real-time tools and techniques that Safdie could have only dreamed of when he first envisioned the project 56 years ago.
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

A landmark of design

So where did one of the most important buildings of the 20th century start? As a master’s thesis at McGill University. At just 23 years old, Safdie submitted his idea for a novel, mixed-use community to the 1967 Montreal World’s Fair, an event that had become known for greenlighting inspirational projects.

“It began with a journey through North America to study housing,” recalls Safdie. “I came to the conclusion that suburbs weren’t feasible in the long term. They consumed too much land, energy, and transportation. If we could reinvent the apartment building to offer the quality of life of a house, with a garden, privacy, and access from an open street, people would be more willing to live in cities.”

The World’s Fair often builds temporary structures to host the event, but in 1967 Canada wanted to construct something that wouldn’t be torn down soon after—something that would make attendees rethink their way of life. Habitat 67 was just that, the pilot for a new type of housing that wouldn’t contribute to urban sprawl or fill the skyline with soulless towers.
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects
One of the first mixed-use concepts, Habitat 67 incorporated residential units, office spaces, hotels, schools, museums, and more into its self-contained community. Nowadays, this practice is commonplace, but at the time, the hybridization of different uses was a radical break with dominant development trends shaping the built environment.
 
At the core of Safdie’s forward-thinking vision were prefabricated apartments, assembled module by module on site. The original design had modules stacked 20 to 30 stories high in a frame-like tower, but Safdie soon realized that if he leaned them back—as if on a hillside—each apartment could also boast a garden and areas open to the sky. These structures would hover over sheltered public spaces on the ground below and contain streets every four floors.

“Every house had its own roof terrace,” adds Safdie. “Not a balcony, but a garden open to the sky. It seemed the ultimate realization of suburban life in the city. At the time it would have cost $45 million for a community of 1,200 families. Today, that's probably $450 million.”

In reality, a budget of $15 million was granted and Habitat was scaled back to just 158 residences across three pyramids, less than half the original size. While fulfilling the vision to provide urban residents with a high quality of life, Habitat 67 became a fragment of a much more ambitious skyward community that has still yet to be realized.
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects
Decades away from any computer technology, the design process proved to be hard labor, and 14-hour days became the norm. That was until Lego hit the shelves. “Lego was modular. It could be stacked and shifted in increments. It was working with that system that I designed Habitat,” adds Safdie.

Habitat 67’s eventual construction stirred controversy among traditionalists, who insisted the structure would collapse. However, the project was completed just as a record 50 million people descended on the Montreal World’s Fair. Safdie even occupied one of the apartments with his family throughout the event. And thankfully, the naysayers had missed the mark. The building was a triumph and Safdie became architecture’s new celebrity.

“Habitat 67 is a very desirable community today,” says Safdie. “It has the longest occupancy of any building in Canada. People love it and they want to be there.”
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

A new day for Habitat 67

But while Habitat 67 may be a desirable place to live, it also poses questions. For instance, what if it had been completed to its original design? Would this vision of housing be available to everyone? Could it still be? Recently, Neoscape set out to answer some of those questions by bringing the original design into Unreal Engine 5, giving a new generation (and Safdie himself) a way to experience what Habitat 67 could have been in real time.
 

“When Epic Games came to us with the challenge of bringing the complete Habitat 67 to life we were super excited,” says Ryan Cohen, Principal at Neoscape. “It’s a project that was so important to the architectural world.”

Neoscape worked with Safdie Architects to visualize the plan, incorporating all of those enormous 30-story towers that lean back so strikingly from the bank of the Saint Lawrence River. For Moshe Safdie, now 84 years old, it was a chance to finally see what would have happened if that $45 million had materialized, as well as if there were any unforeseen issues in the design he couldn’t have anticipated.

Even with the latest technology, the task was Herculean. Before Neoscape could begin modeling the unfinished aspects of Habitat 67, they had to start by mapping the existing structure. A drone equipped with a camera and LiDAR—a remote sensor that uses a pulsed laser to measure distances—flew a preprogrammed path around the building. At the same time, a second drone was capturing 4,136 high-resolution images to get all of the structural details inside the perimeter.
 
Courtesy of R-E-A-L.IT, Leo Films, and Drone Services Canada Inc, and produced by the Capturing Reality team.

These three datasets were then combined, aligned, and processed with our RealityCapture software to create an accurate and detailed model of Habitat 67. Not only did this give Neoscape an ideal starting point, but it preserved the current state of Habitat 67 for posterity, giving students a way to study it forever from anywhere in the world.

Working from the schematic drawings in the firm’s archive, which is held at McGill University, Safdie Architects and Neoscape further developed the design to create the detail needed for a 3D model. Special attention was paid to how the many buildings would be assembled, connected to the parking, how the water features and gardens would be set out and function, and where the pedestrian and vehicle connections would be.

Safdie Architects’ team additionally elaborated on other elements of the original masterplan, designing the hotel, the school, office spaces, and other buildings that are part of the complex in a cross-generational effort to bring Habitat 67 to life more than 50 years after its conception. Providing context for the structure, the surrounding landscape and public realm, was designed by the Safdie team and then brought into the digital environment by Neoscape to provide users with a more immersive experience. What was just a concept in 1961 was becoming a reality.

“Many of the foundational principles that continue to advance Safdie Architects’ work today can all be traced back to Habitat 67,” said Safdie Architects Senior Partner Jaron Lubin. “Our projects through the years have evolved and built on the core values of fostering community, providing equitable access to light, air, and green space, and humanizing large-scale development, all of which are embodied in Habitat 67. To be able to use the latest technology to demonstrate the potential of these ideas allows them to live on beyond the walls of our studio.

Visualizing with the Epic ecosystem

While the scale of the task was definitely massive, Neoscape took comfort in the fact that their real-time pipeline was pretty compact. With just a few tools from the Epic Ecosystem, the team could handle all their key visualization requirements, without the need for rampant customization. Unreal Engine 5, in particular, proved especially useful, offering a scale and fidelity that would have been impossible to achieve in standard DCC software.

“The biggest thing is not having to click a render button to see what you did. Being able to reevaluate on the fly means we can focus on the artistry,” says Cohen. “We wanted to really test Unreal Engine to push the envelope on what architectural visualization feels like. And we did—on a really ambitious treatment.”
 
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

The model was built in Rhino and 3ds Max using basic materials, then imported into Unreal Engine 5 using Datasmith, a data import toolset that can save hours, even days of work. Once in Unreal Engine, elements such as trees, plants, and general set dressing were selected to be diverse, but not distracting. A discrete collection was used throughout the scene, helping Neoscape achieve a realistic look, all without compromising performance.
 
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

Once everything was in, the team took stock of how much data UE5 was processing in the moment. For instance, there are more than 4.5 billion triangles in Neoscape’s virtual Habitat 67, with thousands of residential units comprising the mixed-use structure, and Montreal on the horizon. In short, the entire scene was more than most rendering packages can handle. To lighten the load, Neoscape adopted the same modular construction technique as the real-world structure inside Unreal Engine. The process led to the development of a tool that converts native Rhino groups and blocks into static meshes, which are automatically placed in the correct location.
 
Image courtesy of Safdie Architects | Neoscape

Neoscape also leveraged Nanite, an Unreal Engine feature that radically changes how massive scenes are rendered, helping teams get in more detail without a huge performance drop. Neoscape could now add billions of polygons without old tricks like LODs (Levels of detail) or using cards in the distance for trees.

Neoscape also tapped UE5’s Lumen for real-time, highly detailed global illumination, which proved so compelling that the team opted out of the onboard Path Tracer. Lumen also had another benefit. Because it was rendering quickly, in real time, the art direction process could start straight away, helping the team host live reviews where they could edit the model and decide which lighting conditions, material finishes, or animations worked best together.
(Left) Path Tracer | (Right) Lumen
And how did Safdie feel about the finished model? It took his breath away. 

Today, that same model is available for anyone to explore via the Hillside Sample Project. Use it as a collection of high-quality assets, incorporate it into a cinematic, or learn from the fully interactive data set. Epic Games and Neoscape used the creative process to battle test Unreal Engine 5 and RealityCapture, now so can you. 

“Unreal Engine is more than just a tool for architects, it can open up whole new worlds and ideas,” says Safdie. “This is exactly what we need to rethink how our cities are made. I hope that making this model accessible to the public at large and the idea that you could live somewhere like Habitat 67 helps advance people's desire to have this realized.”

“We encourage people to take these pieces and come up with their own ideas,” says Carlos Cristerna, Senior Product Specialist at Epic Games. “Design your own habitats, have fun with it, learn from it, make your own movies and renders, practice your craft.”

Start today using any of the assets down below! Whether you want to explore the full model, assess the scan data, or watch a beautiful cinematic, we’ve got you covered.

The Hillside Sample Project was a collaboration between Epic Games, Neoscape, Safdie Architects, and many more.

LiDAR scanning was conducted by R-E-A-L.it, Leo Films, and Drone Services Canada Inc., and produced by the Capturing Reality team. 
 

Hillside sample downloads

.EXE and Cloud Hillside Experience

Explore freely or have Safdie take you through Hillside and the World’s Fair site in this easy-to-use executable or experience it in-browser with Google Pixel Streaming.
DOWNLOAD NOW

Hillside Sample Project

Examine and tweak every part of Hillside within Unreal Engine and RealityCapture, including interiors, exteriors, and the surrounding environment.
DOWNLOAD NOW

Scan Data Sample

Comb through all the LiDAR and photogrammetry mesh data gathered with RealityCapture while scanning Habitat 67.
DOWNLOAD NOW

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