Touring Your Building Before It’s Built


Welcome back to the second part of last week’s post, where we began to model an existing home and explain the process involved. Today we complete that model, as well as dive into all the various things that can be done with the model once its completed. (The days of simply pulling Floor Plans from 3D models is over) I am proud to present the sixth post for the Video + Blog series “What the Hell is Architecture?” A series that will present Case Studies, Code Commentaries, How-To Videos, and anything else that comes to mind to try and get the word out on what Architecture, Engineering and Construction ACTUALLY is. (Something the industry has done a poor job of enlightening the public on.)

As mentioned last week, today we will not only finish the Site Elements for our project, we will delve into the Interior Environment and add further detail to our model. We also will be able to tour this finalized model in a variety of formats: Pre-Rendered Video, Interactive Walkthrough application, Stereo Panoramas, and Virtual Reality enabled Walkthrough. Disclaimer, the model we are producing is not “Post-Processed,” a term referring to taking a finished image or model and making it look a lot nicer. While any expert 3D modeler can probably find a lot of things to take issue with, (The “Work-Plane” hosted paintings NOT reflecting in the mirrors springs to mind.) we are concerning ourselves with an Existing Conditions model with some Interior Detailing added only. This has Plenty of Program specific tutorials planned for the future.

In fact, instead of just having people skip to the end just to see all the interactive items, we have included all the items below. When your done walking around and critiquing the owner’s taste in artists or cartoons, come back and read how everything was created. For anyone who is not an avid gamer, please read the tips below on how to navigate the Walkthroughs.


  • When either of the walkthroughs load, they will be in default “Fly Mode.” Press Spacebar to turn on “Walk Mode.”
  • Walk Mode and Fly Mode determine how you can move through the model.
    • Fly Mode has no gravity and you can phase through solid objects.
    • Walk Mode has gravity and can only walk through doors and up stairs.
  • If your computer is having framerate or graphic problems, simply making the window smaller will make it run smoother.
  • To the left is the settings panel, this allows you to change the speed, smoothing, and plenty of other options. Try each out and find what works for you.
  • This Settings panel is also how you toggle between VR and 3D.

Below are the four options for viewing or interacting with our model. The first two are Pre-Rendered videos that will simply be viewed through YouTube. The Web Based model allows you to walk through the model online, without downloading anything. (I tested this on the oldest, lowest end computer possible and it took roughly three minutes to load.) The fourth option allows you to actually download the model to your computer to view whenever you want, it is a large download (158 MB) so be ready for that. Both the Web Based and Download Model can be viewed with or without Virtual Reality gear, simply change the Input settings to the left of the screen to toggle between modes.

Finishing the Site

There was not too much that needed to be finished from last week with the site, as this house sits on a very tiny lot. The remaining items needed were detailing the Back Porch, detailing the Garage, adjusting the Topography and adding any Landscaping to the site.

As mentioned before, most projects need to start with a survey that relays the Topography of the site. For those who are not familiar, Topography is the shape of the ground at the site. (hills, flat areas, etc.) If you start a project without a survey that shows this, as we had to for this project, then you will find yourself digging through very poorly maintained public records at Town Hall. This site is fairly “simple” in terms of the topography, mostly flat in the front and side of the house. It is standard for grade adjacent to a building to slope away to move any water that may gather at the foundation walls.

However, from the house to the garage is a significant drop in elevation, resulting in a lot of water pooling in the garage. This is a prime example to prove the case where hiring professional Consultants is always worth the “Extra Cost”…as this solution may have seemed fine to keep water from the house, but inadvertently caused structural damage to the garage as any amount of rain results in flooding of the yard and then standing water at the wood studs in the garage. Not to mention the oddest condition between shared driveways, making any snow plowing impossible.

As mentioned before, as tempting as it is to “pretty up the site,” the reality is all the landscaping provided for this site is some sparsely planted shrubs in the front and an empty Brick planter in the Backyard. It is also worth modeling the “uglier” items of the site. The large exposed Air Conditioner next to the Back Porch is not a strong selling feature…but it doesn’t change the fact that it is on the property at that location and isn’t moving.

Air Conditioner is isolated from rest of property, except those using the Deck Alcove to relax.

Modeling the Interior…The Only Part Most Care About

As the title suggests, many people only focus on the Interior Environment of the building. I would wager that a majority of you who toured the model beforehand didn’t once look up at the roof, or even notice the T-800 Terminator Statue in the garage. (If not, please go look, it’s a large portion of the model, providing a perfect example of modeling “Smart” to keep file sizes down.) Is it because nobody cares about the Curb Appeal of their building? No, quite the opposite, but in terms of understanding drawings or renderings, people focus on what the experience will be like. Most people spend a majority of their time walking around and using the inside of a building. So, while almost every home or building purchased or constructed is given to the owner as a “Vanilla Box,” (a term referring to a building with empty rooms with blank walls, ceilings and floors) it isn’t very helpful to show Clients a bunch of empty rooms. See the two examples below of the same room with and without furniture and decide which one you would rather interact with.

Assemblies…Nothing Is A Solid Mass

This was briefly touched on last week, but to reiterate, we are building a BIM model, not a 3D Model. So, while we had the size and locations of all walls, ceilings and floors, they were simply masses. The first thing is to build all the pieces of these assemblies. More times than not, Architects are never given permission to rip anything apart or to even move things, so confirming how things are built often takes an amount of expertise to investigate how the walls, ceilings and floors are built. In this case we are fortunate, the tub was once replaced and gutted, exposing how the First Floor’s Ceiling and the Second Floor is constructed. The drop-down ceiling in the Basement can easily be opened and we can peek our head above it and the construction of the Panty on the First Floor gave insight into how the Walls are built.

Screenshot of “building” a wall assembly.

How the Walls Meet the Ceiling, The Floor…and Other Walls

Here is another item I would wager many people are not even aware of, but would instantly notice if missing in a room, the Crown Molding and Wall Bases. These not only add aesthetic value to rooms, but truly are there to hide the inherent inaccuracies of Construction. Where the wall meets the Ceiling and where it meets the Floor is often not a very attractive condition, the molding and the base hide this fact and make the room look better. Most homes and buildings have very standard “Profiles,” however older buildings can have unique or custom shapes that will have to be matched. Personally, I take a piece of clay, press it for the profile and then trace alongside it. (Another low-tech method of many used in documenting a building.)

Built-Ins, Casework, Fixtures and Appliances…Oh My

The “final” step, (those quotations are intentional, while this can be the last step, the reality is more detail is usually needed.) is to create all the items that are “Built” and any appliances that are either included or left behind. In this case, this refers to all the Kitchen and Bathroom Cabinetry, the Marble Island between the Dining Room and Kitchen, (personally, people always want these and then NEVER use them, except to pass food and dishes back and forth) a false Fireplace in the Living Room, and then all the plumbing fixtures. (toilets, sinks, shower) Any realtor will tell you the two most important rooms to sell a home is the Kitchen and the Bathroom, so some real time and effort will be spent making sure the Kitchen cabinets are made perfectly.

It is imperative to get Cabinetry to have the correct size, layout and material.

Now for All the “Stuff”

I already hinted at it before, but while we have our building with everything that is included if someone were to move in, we don’t really have anything that would be helpful for a client or user. While leaving the model empty or with minimal items looks clean or minimalistic, it tends to look very “sterile” and lifeless. (Something a lot of Architectural Magazines and photoshoots tend to overlook.) The reality is that when human beings are given space, they need to fill it with things. (It being no coincidence that as people get older, they keep getting bigger and bigger houses…often thinking children dictate the need, not their stuff.) The other advantage of adding to our model, is it helps people understand the scale and use of the space, both are easily understood with the use of everyday objects.

Most people understand how big desks, chairs and Televisions are. They will instantly understand this office once these familiar items are placed in it.

The Things We Sit On

The first thing a user will bring into their new space is their things to sit on and things to set other things on. We start with modeling all the furniture of the building; the tables, chairs, couches, beds and shelving. Luckily for us, as BIM has moved more into the mainstream of Architectural use, manufacturers and vendors have really become a great resource for models of their products. When creating models for New Builds, it can be a lifesaver to find your specified products already built. Existing Conditions however, always require more effort, as they always seem to be filled with custom items. This however, is a judgement call from the Architect, as it is too easy to get caught up in the details that sadly, nobody cares about. (I would wager that anyone who walked in the office didn’t even view the custom modeled table that held the TV, most likely everyone either scoffed or laughed at the image of “Adventure Time.”) When it comes to quickly communicating ideas to people, the size, shape and material of an object are often enough to convey what it is.

Certain items may require custom modeling, many do not.

Nobody Owns an Empty Shelf

The owner of this house is an avid collector of Blu-Rays and Books. While it would save a lot of time just placing the properly sized shelves in the buildings, this tends to look even more “sterile” than an empty room…the only thing people need to fill with things more than an empty table is an empty shelf. Now just one paragraph prior, I mentioned not getting crazy with custom modeling, but walking in and seeing somebody with three shelves filled with the same six hundred copies of a gray Blu-Ray can take the user out of the experience. (This is one of the judgement calls I mentioned, the custom shape of a table leg may not matter, but something as small as four inch Blu-rays can change everything.) The same goes for the books, particularly in the quantities of this house. We definitely will not model every individual movie or book…But by creating five or six color cases for the movies, and making ten different sized and colored books, we create a shelf filled with “unique” items.

What’s on the Walls?

I have never cared for polarizing statements, however in all the years of visiting homes and buildings there appears to be two types of people on this planet…Those who put NOTHING on their walls, and those who cover every square inch with decorations as if they hate the paint color and need to hide it. This owner is in the latter category, with the walls filled with many personal photos of their wedding, since it would not be appropriate to put those in the model, instead I covered the walls with all my favorite classic Surrealist Paintings. (Bonus points if you can guess my favorite painter, it should be easy, there is twenty something of his paintings throughout the house.) This is another mistake I often see in other renderings or models, the effort to place televisions, picture frames and artwork, but often they are left as empty shapes…giving a very empty feel. So, as well as the paintings, the four televisions are playing the four greatest cartoons of all time, the computer in the office is somehow creating this model, and the picture frames all have photos of characters from Dragon Ball Z. (I should note that this is a perfect opportunity to tailor the model for the client.)

The Ginyu Force assembled.

Don’t Make the Same Mistakes as the Rest

Interactive Modeling and VR are still nowhere near as big as one would think they would be in Architecture, but they are still making their rise. As exciting as this is, it does present the challenge of seeing the same mistakes in multiple models. I already mentioned the empty frames, but taking the time to correct other common mistakes will only help in the client using the model. The biggest item I have seen a lot is the user being forced to “crash” through closed doors. When drawing and modeling doors, they are always done so as if they are closed, so when you use the model you are able to walk through them…but not too many people I know can do that in real life. (When wearing a VR headset, this is particularly jarring, see below for a comparison.) A future post can explain the process of creating parameters to have the doors opened or closed, for now we will leave it as it is worth the effort to open the doors you want the client to walk through. Another common mistake often seen is multiple items taking up the same space. Since this is a computer program, it is possible to model multiple floors in the same plane, causing each to pop in and out of a model you are walking through. (Very hard on the eyes when using VR.) I am sure the point has been brought across, but creating these models is not as linear a process as; measure, model, then be done. Test and view your model as many times as you can. (There is ALWAYS a floating item, or colliding mass you somehow missed.)



Not Just A Pretty Model

This is a lot of effort, no doubt about it. Many may argue that creating a “cool” model that people can view or interact with isn’t worth the effort or time, obviously I disagree, or I wouldn’t have spent two weeks discussing it. As I mentioned last week, if a BIM model was being created, as opposed to a “Visualization” 3D model, then we can create drawings for the client, consultants and the Contractor. We haven’t just created a Pretty Model to look at, we’re also able to create Construction Documents, the part that others argue is what Architects need to focus on getting done and paid for…We literally just killed two very time consuming and expensive birds with one stone.

How many can you name?

The “Guts” of the Building

It will hopefully appear that we have added a lot to this model in terms of detail. However, we are missing a lot as well. Buildings are not uniformly lit, they have lights to provide that, air can’t magically travel around the building, there are vents and ducts that move it, water in the plumbing fixtures cant just teleport away, pipes need to be installed, floors and ceilings can’t just hold themselves up, there is a lot of structure needed for that, and countless other examples. I touted the merits of BIM modeling last week as a method for all engineering consultants to add their respective designs to the building, a future post will provide an update of these items to this model. Again, many high-end Architectural images and renderings tend to leave these items out, as grills, cables, ducts and columns tend to be viewed as “undesirable” …however that won’t change the fact that they need to exist and should be integrated in the design, not tolerated or hidden as a surprise later. A very large portion of cost and effort for a project goes into the items buried in the walls and above the ceilings that most never see.

Stairs, Structure, Plumbing, HVAC, Electrical Cables…There is no end of things that need to crammed into all the walls and ceilings.


Hopefully, before or after reading this you were able to walk around and view the model. Whether you own a VR headset or not, the goal is that you could see what works and what doesn’t work in the house…without ever visiting it! From the comfort of your own home, you could see that the bathroom door swings in the wrong direction and is too close to the sink, that the upstairs office door cannot be opened when the closet door is open, or that someone seems to have constructed a five-foot logo on the front lawn of TOEPFER Architecture, PLLC.

BIM and VR Modeling allows greater success for your projects. It helps communicate ideas to clients, it assists in the design collaboration between consultants, and it speeds up the production time for drawings and details.

A final note, if you do not own a Virtual Reality system and truly do want to experience how revolutionary it can be, contact me. I don’t just talk about its benefits for this series, I truly believe it and it is an integral part of my firm. If you are in the Rochester area, get ahold of us and we can schedule a demonstration here at the office, and you will see why you will want it in your future projects.

If you feel I missed the mark or am misinformed on any aspect of what I wrote, please let me know. If you found the game consoles, then even more bonus points for you, let us know that as well.

If you did enjoy the post or have any ideas or questions you would like to see or hear about in the upcoming posts and videos in this series, please let me know that as well.

Thank you all and have a great day.

  • Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM
  • Principal – Architect

Lets Build Something Together

<strong>Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM</strong>
Bryan Toepfer, AIA, NCARB, CAPM

Bryan Toepfer is the Principal Architect and founder of TOEPFER Architecture, PLLC, an Architecture firm specializing in Residential Design, Construction and Virtual Reality modeling.

Taking his philosophy of the importance of education to heart, he guide clients through the process of Design and Construction with each project. He runs a blog titled “What the Hell is Architecture?” with the goal of sharing with others the many aspects of Architecture. He also coaches Intern Architects studying for their Architectural License exams, as well as teaches at a local University.

He lives in Rochester, New York with his wife, two dogs and two cats.

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