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Model London: 3D platform aims to transform planning

A fully interactive 3D model of London aims to change the way developments are conceived and planning decisions are made – with major implications for contractors.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have an accurate, 3D digital model of the whole of London?

And what if that model could show protected views, traffic modelling, transport links, property prices, noise levels and much more– all helping developers and local authorities better plan where to put new buildings?

Well, this model is now a reality in the form of VUCITY.

The model, created by digital communications agency Wagstaffs and 3D specialist Vertex Modelling, is available now and could change the way developments are conceived in London – with benefits for contractors, too.

Construction News was this week invited down to the firm’s office in Primrose Hill to see the model in action and discuss what impact it might have on City developments.

Development in context

Wagstaffs began working on the model seven years ago, previewing it at MIPIM 2015 and other events since.

VUCITY London model 5

VUCITY London model 5

The software shows a range of protected views

It grew out of a requirement Wagstaffs had to create models for proposed developments, putting them into context with surrounding buildings.

“Over time, we realised the areas we were creating were more and more useful the further out we got from the developments we were working on – to the point where we thought of the wild idea to create a model of the whole of London,” says Wagstaffs managing director Jason Hawthorne.

“There are other models out there, but the unique part of VUCITY is that it has to be highly accurate and fit for planning to be able to go in front of the planning committee, with a development in it, and be accurate enough for them to make a decision based upon it.”

“We’re going through an accreditation process with a leading London university – they’re challenging our model to make sure what we’re saying is correct”

Jason Hawthorne, Wagstaffs

The team has now covered 200 sq km of London, modelled to an accuracy of plus or minus 15 cm – a claim currently being verified by a leading London university.

“We’re going through an accreditation process with a leading London university at the moment – they’re challenging our model to make sure what we’re saying is correct,” Mr Hawthorne says.

“The reality is that we’ll probably be significantly more accurate than that, but we’re using that figure at the moment – and 15 cm is still more accurate than we’d need to be for a lot of verification processes, which is usually around half a metre.”

All the views

The team used photogrammetry to collect the data, with aerial surveys taking images before buildings were manually sketched in for maximum accuracy.

The reason accuracy is so important is so the model is a truly useful tool for planners and developers, rather than simply a pretty overview of London.

With that in mind, the system includes an option to include consented and planned schemes, allowing planners to see the cumulative impact of development.

This is particularly significant in terms of overshadowing and rights to light, with a tool to display the sunlight at any given time of day in the year, as well as accurate weather modelling to allow for less-than-sunny days.

In one example we’re shown, a particular point on the ground gets denied sunlight for more than 90 minutes a day – but this increases as other consented and proposed developments are added in, clearly demonstrating the cumulative effect.

“My hope is the more this is used, and the more you compare the final verified image to what you saw in VUCITY, the more confidence people will have. It’s astonishing how well it matches”

Jason Hawthorne, Wagstaffs

The system also includes all of the City’s protected views, showing in colour-coded slices what is off-limits, what is debatable and what would require consultation, as well as other information such as postcode areas, borough boundaries and transport links.

“We’ve got all the immediately obvious views based around the City, but each local authority has its own views – and as we sign them up to use VUCITY, we’re getting that information and layering it into the model as well,” Mr Hawthorne says.

The model is also being used to assess the visual impact of a scheme, with the ability to place cameras at ground level to view how your proposed development will look in context. This allows the user to create views that are needed for the planning process, potentially even replacing some of the currently required verified views.

VUCITY London model 10

VUCITY London model 10

Any time of day or night can be selected, at any time of year

“Something like the Walkie Talkie had 60 views selected for it – we want to get to the stage where you might still have 60, but 40 of them you’d be comfortable with in VUCITY,” Mr Hawthorne says.

“The other 20 would then maybe still go through to verified views where you need full texture and detail, to provide context with buildings around it, or to show how it meets the ground. My hope is the more this is used, and the more you compare the final verified image to what you saw in VUCITY, the more confidence people will have. It’s astonishing how well it matches. We’ve done it retrospectively on a few buildings now.”

Change for contractors

So the benefits for planners and developers are clear. But what about contractors?

The system is clearly powerful as a demonstration tool, able to show off the different phases of a project from start to finish. “Some of the biggest issues contractors face are around vehicle movements, noise and consulting with neighbours,” Mr Hawthorne says.

“We’ve used this to great effect to show the phasing of a scheme, all the way from start through to completion. And we can bring in vehicle movement data from traffic engineers and put it in as real vehicles. The other element is that we can also link to the BIM process. While we wouldn’t replace the BIM phasing work, if we want to show a building going up in phases to explain how it will work, we could do that.”

VUCITY London model 4

VUCITY London model 4

Consented developments can be shown to show cumulative development effects

And in looking at a project’s whole lifecycle, VUCITY could be used through to the FM phase in future, with datasets from the in-use structure plugged in to show how well life systems are performing, or even revealing how many people have used the toilets and if they need to be cleaned yet.

The system is also virtual reality-ready, providing another layer of showmanship to the 3D visualisation process.

“The aspiration will be to get out to the M25. We’re also already in discussions with Manchester and Belfast – the only thing stopping it working with other cities is actually getting the modelling sorted”

Jason Hawthorne, Wagstaffs

“We did a piece down in the City, looking at a new building – and being able to actually walk along the street and look up at a building to scale is so different from looking at it on a screen. It’s not the same,” Mr Hawthorne says.

The biggest challenge for the team is keeping the model up to date, vast as it is – especially as it’s expanding all the time. “We have to fly pretty regularly, once every three years,” Mr Hawthorne says.

“We’re constantly growing, so by this time next year we hope to be out to the North and South Circular, so that’s a significant growth, over 7 sq km per month at the minute. The aspiration will be to get out to the M25. We’re also already in discussions with Manchester and Belfast – the only thing stopping it working with other cities is actually getting the modelling sorted.”

The team has also already worked on models of Dubai and Nicosia, with other international cities interested, showing the potential of the model.

It’s important to remember that this is a commercial venture, however, with a licence charged at £25,000 a year for developers. But CapCo and Sellar Property Group have already signed up, as well as the boroughs of Barking & Dagenham, Kingston-upon-Thames and Southwark.

Wagstaffs has high hopes for the model, which already shows clear potential to make some aspects of the planning process simpler.

And with huge opportunity for different datasets to be used, this is a system that contractors are likely to see a lot more of if they work with London-based developers.

Tech Sprint – book your place

This year’s Construction News Summit on 11-12 October plays host to its first ever Tech Sprint.

The Tech Sprint will take the form of a 24-hour hackathon seeking new ideas and solutions which could change the construction industry over the next five years.

These technology-based solutions should be centred on meeting the government’s Construction 2025 vision for reducing the cost of construction by 33 per cent.

Among the judges are Crossrail’s head of technical information Malcolm Taylor.

Visit the Summit website for more information and to book your place today.

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