Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Personalizing property with Zaha Hadid Architects’ real-time configurator

Ken Pimentel
If mass production has been the defining characteristic of consumerism over the last 100 years, the big shift in the marketplace today is towards mass personalization. In short, customers want customization, and companies are giving it to them.

For many businesses, offering personalized options helps extend product lines and increase sales. The most well-known example is from the automotive industry, where automakers offer dealership and web-based configurators that enable buyers to customize cars before purchasing.

But purveyors of everything from bicycles, sneakers, watches, clothes, furniture, and more are now offering customers the ability to put their own stamp on purchases before they buy. What if you could do the same when buying a residence? That’s the idea behind an innovative configurator built by Zaha Hadid Architects.

The world-renowned architectural firm has pioneered a new, highly personalized way of buying property for a development on an island in the Caribbean, 40 miles off the coast of Honduras.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Personalized and responsible real-estate development

Beyabu is a real estate development on the Honduran tropical island of Roatán that features a series of apartments, airy offices, and communal outdoor spaces, many of which have stunning ocean views. After nearly five years of development, Próspera will start considering applications from would-be purchasers this summer. That’s when things will  get a little different.

Potential buyers will be able to choose their plot and customize their home in a photorealistic configurator built on Unreal Engine. ZHA has created a digital replica of Beyabu that acts as a sort of The Sims environment, governed by a predefined set of rules. Residents can use the interactive platform to select the location and size of their personalized unit using three-dimensional volumes of space, which are granted to the homeowner with their selection.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Buildings are made up of modular blocks that can be configured in different ways or stacked on top of one another. These timber-framed residences come complete with curved palapa roofs and expansive terraces with rounded balconies.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Buyers explore the environment to scope out different plots for their property, taking into account considerations like what amenities they’d like in the local area. Want to check out the view from the balcony? Wander out onto the terrace in the CG environment to see what the ocean will look like at sunset, or work out where the morning sun will fall.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
A standardized list of configurable options, such as floor layouts, roof types, fixtures, and fittings provides an opportunity to completely personalize the building. The result is a fully configurable community that has been influenced—and to some degree, designed—by its residents.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

Converging next-generation technologies

ZHA’s configurator is just one part of the picture. Behind it, a whole manufacturing and production chain exists to bring the purchaser's design request to reality. The stakeholders involved include the developer Honduras Próspera, structural engineers AKT II, environment and MEP engineers Hilson Moran, and specialist carpentry and digital fabricators The Circular Factory

Once a cluster of units that form a 3D neighborhood are chosen and configured, the fabricator initiates the digital manufacture of custom building components such as walls, roofs, and balconies.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
These are manually assembled along with other general, standardized parts available on the island such as toilet furniture, plumbing, and HVAC systems. Upon completion, the building is handed over to the buyer as usual.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
In the future, ZHA plans to develop a connection between Unreal Engine and the manufacturing facility, in order to pass the building data along for manufacture. “We are in conversation with Epic and The Circular Factory to integrate custom data-exchange formats developed during the project with Datasmith,” says Shajay Bhooshan, Senior Associate and Head of Computation and Design Group (ZHACODE) at Zaha Hadid Architects. “This will make an Unreal-based, design-to-production, end-to-end solution possible.”
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Sustainability is a driving factor behind the development. Próspera’s adoption of digital technologies provides a pathway to achieve UN sustainable development goals, both in its use of front-facing configurator technology and the rear-end, micro-factory technologies of The Circular Factory. 

The aim is to seed a resilient local economy with a focus on small-to-medium businesses; encourage the digitization and upskilling of the local AEC and adjacent industries; and demonstrate a low capital expenditure path to scaled city building. 

De-risking property development with real-time technology

For a developer, offering a configurator affords some interesting advantages compared to traditional means of selling property. First, it de-risks investments. 

Real-time configurators offer buyers as close to what-you-see-is-what-you-get as you can have in a highly fragmented building construction and condominium industry. “There’s less variance between the products as visualized and sold and eventually acquired—both due to the photorealism and the end-to-end, design-to-production nature of the solution,” explains Bhooshan.

Configurators provide a gamified, intuitive process of decision-making for people outlaying a large investment, one that enables the buyer to explore the implications of each decision on location, layout, and features of their house, in real time.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
And it's not just the end buyer who benefits from a configurator approach to real estate sales. All stakeholders on the project can get a photoreal understanding of the product being bought, designed, and invested in. For developers, that means there are assured buyers before major investments are made. For architects, engineers, and fabrication teams, it means there is a highly coordinated brief, together with performance specifications to design for and reliable pre-orders to procure against.

Finally, configurators also make it easier to convert/update the 3D data used in the design and construction into an operational digital twin.

Where Unreal Engine makes the difference

Bhooshan points to a number of factors that influenced ZHA’s choice of Unreal Engine for the platform on which to base its configurator. These include its many AEC-focused features, such as the Datasmith data import and preparation toolkit; photoreal pixel quality; and its platform-agnostic, browser-based Pixel Streaming capabilities.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
He also cites Unreal Engine’s compatibility with Autodesk Maya, which ZHA uses for 3D modeling, and other game and media software toolchains such as Quixel and Substance, as well as Epic’s technical and customer support.

The configurator leverages ray tracing to achieve the highest levels of visual fidelity for both the interior and exterior of units. Pixel Streaming, hosted on an AWS virtual machine or via Eagle 3D Streaming services, enables ZHA to share the configurator experience with clients/buyers and other stakeholders.

Epic provided support to ZHA for the development of the configurator via the Unreal Developer Network; ZHA also received help directly from the Epic AEC team. “They hooked us up with personnel within Epic, suppliers outside, potential collaborators in the Unreal Engine ecosystem, and kept us informed regarding road maps and upcoming trends in AEC and adjacent industries,” says Bhooshan. 

Real-time configurators: the future of real-estate development

Bhooshan thinks a configurator approach like this will become more widespread in the industry in the future. He has particular cause for optimism on this point, because this project isn’t some flash in the pan—it’s an innovation that’s been some two decades in the making at ZHA. “ZHA’s idea of a technology-enabled, online neighborhood formation and its subsequent hosting in resource-effective, sustainable, physical realization that utilizes advances in digital manufacturing has been in a very long, robust evolution,” he says.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects
Prior to this first real-world instance in Honduras, the idea has been nurtured at ZHA and AADRL (Architectural Association Design Research Laboratory) for over 20 years and more intensely and technologically developed in the last five years at Studio Nahmad-Bhooshan, AADRL.

Combining real-time technology like Unreal Engine with next-generation manufacturing technologies opens up a number of different pathways for taking a design from the screen to real-world bricks and mortar. The configurator can be coupled with microfactories for start-up neighborhoods that are low-capital investment, use local supply chains, and are regulation-compatible. 

Or it can be coupled with Tesla-style gigafactories for large-scale, industrially constructed housing developments to take advantage of economies of scale while retaining social and communal characteristics. “It can also be paired with other digital manufacturing technologies—particularly 3D concrete printing and established prefabricated building component catalogs in timber and steel construction,” says Bhooshan.

And it’s not just holiday homes that could benefit from a configuration approach. The concept can be extended to any conceivable type of mass-customizable building, such as office spaces, R&D labs, or start-up incubator spaces.

Real-time property configurators could even be coupled with blockchain technologies, providing a route to decentralized, crowd-sourced real-estate developments and transactions for and by retail investors. That’s a world away from today’s real-estate development that is restricted to large, institutional investors and where fractional ownership is not possible.

For Bhooshan, ZHA’s Honduras Próspera configurator is just the tip of the iceberg. “Our team has already actively extended this design thinking and technology to engage with metaverses, digital twins, NFTs, and start-up towns and cities.” he says.
Image courtesy of Zaha Hadid Architects

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