These free VR apps will help leverage your building design projects

Over the past 3 years, whenever we speak to construction professionals about VR and what it could do for them, the same thing comes up time and time again. “We need something to show our clients, I know someone that used this on their clients, and they were amazed!”. And yes, VR is great for communicating another level of understanding to your clients, but what about another level of understanding for your own company? Could you use the headsets you’ve spent all this money on to help you design and create? Absolutely you can, and most of it is ready to go! I’ve picked out a few free VR apps that we use that can help you out too…

Google Earth VR

So not technically a design app but it is definitely a good way to visit your project without leaving the office:

  • You understand the site much better in VR: Not only can you get a tiny bit closer to the map in VR, but that depth perception that two cameras gives provides that much needed clarity. It also gives you a great snapshot of the surrounding area for consistency with planning permission.
  • The street view is a cool feature but not much different to using a browser: Need I say more, pretty much the same as a browser due to the 3DOF you have with it, but it wouldn’t be the same without it.
  • If it’s not in 3D its pretty useless: I had a project that had a complicated elevation that was inaccessible from the rear, looking at this in 3D would help me get a better understanding of it however the site was not captured by Google’s digital scan model and I didn’t get any further with it.
Visiting the Brighton I360 in Google Earth

Google Blocks

I’d use this as your site massing tool, its basic shapes make it great for quickly laying out a site.

  • Easy to pick up and use: I was creating basic scenes and editing them within 5mins of opening the app for the first time, UI is very intuitive and has all the basic shapes you need to get started.
  • Reference images makes massing much more intuitive: This reference image can be a google maps screenshot or a site survey, either way, gives you a way to give your massing some context.
  • Can only export to an .obj file: Unlike Marquette, you’re limited to a .obj file which means a bit of playing around in 3DS Max. If you’re exporting to DWGs this isn’t too much of a problem but other formats like .FBX come with some pros and cons, more info here.
Massing a site in Blocks VR

Microsoft Marquette

I’d use this for your developed design stuff. Got some furniture you need to lay out or a specific feature on a building that needs a bit more attention? This will do it for you. 

  • Exports to multiple formats: When done with your models you can either export to native FBX, GLB or GLTF, or if you’re a wizz with game engines there’s a unity import plugin you can get for it. 
  • Huge asset library: First thing I noticed with this compared to Blocks was how many assets there are, even to models of people and premade furniture, no need to import custom objects to do those floor plan layouts.
  • Tricky to pick up: This took me the longest to get used to, but once you get used to it, its super powerful and can do lots for you.
Laying out furniture in Marquette

I’m a CAD pro and I can model all this in half the time, why bother?

And it’s a good point, why should you bother, here’s some things to consider:

  • More intuitive design decisions: Sometimes VR can explain something in a 1/10th of the time it takes to explain your 2D or even 3D drawings to someone, that time saved modelling in CAD is only wasted later when you’re spending hours round a table going through it. 
  • Greater sense of space and scale: Modelling at 1:1 and plotting at different scales is an industry standard, but there’s a difference to modelling 1:1 and actually being in 1:1. If you can mass a site as if you’re standing on the street, you’ll know when things are too big or too small straight away, this is harder to do if you’re behind a screen zooming in and out.
  • If you can’t model/design in VR, you should be reviewing in VR: This is sort of a repeat of the last point, its about sensing scale and impact of your designs but more importantly it’s a quick mistake checker, your door might look fine in plan but in VR its actually cutting into the floor.*

*These apps aren’t great for model review, try something like SketchUp viewer (free**) or Enscape (paid) for things like this. 

**With a pro license


This is just to name a few, and we do have plans to do a similar blog post for those paid apps too! In summary, if you’re early stage design and you’ve got a headset lying around, try visiting the site in Google Earth VR, massing your project in Blocks and experimenting with different layouts in Marquette, be prepared to be surprised…

We hope this helps! Remember, projects need to be finished at some point – VR can be fun and might cause you to drag out the modelling. Don’t say we didn’t warn you! 

If you have a VR app that you use all the time, mentioned or not, let us know! We’d love to hear from you.

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