Buyer’s Guide: Virtual Tours for New Home Construction (Part 1)

Part 1: Virtual Tour has to be accurate

Last week, I gave the introduction for the Buyers’ Guide to Virtual Tour for New Home Construction. Now we can roll up our sleeves and get into some detail. Our customers, the new home builders, are made up of a team of people, including architects and designers to sales and marketing teams to onsite construction managers to design center consultants. They all play an important role in selecting the myriad of details that go into the final design.

Fixing a mistake in a virtual tour is much less expensive than in real-world construction. Here are more examples if you need a laugh.

Real & Virtual World Construction

Real-world construction definitely is more complex than virtual. Still, the virtual tour (VT)  team has the responsibility to reflect all the necessary details and provide an accurate tour. For exteriors, the common details would be the selection of finishes, such as siding color, exterior door, lamps, window design, etc. In some instances, builders specify landscaping, sidewalk/setbacks, topography (i.e walkout basement), etc. For interiors, the level of details is astronomical from wall paint down to the color of the door hinge. Thus, if you are looking for someone to create a VT, look for a team who can build your virtual house accurately by:

  • Understanding Architecture & Design
  • Paying attention to details
  • Being very responsive
  • Balancing the details
Real-world construction definitely is more complex than virtual. Yet, virtual tours require knowledge and experience among those same trades.

Understanding Architecture & Design

As a builder, everyone on your team knows how to read plans and some can even work with CAD. This is a must-have in the business. Similarly, when shopping for a VT team, you are looking not just for general graphic artists but for those who have architectural visualization experience and understand all the industry terms. In addition to elevations and floor plans, the VT team has to understand the construction documents including electrical plans, cabinet design layouts, schedules for doors and windows, landscape plans, civil engineering topography, etc.

Kitchen and bath cabinets often required additional drawings beyond the floor plan to communicate detailed information on cabinet size, door vs draws, etc.

It is all connected to your house plans

More and more builders, especially those with an in-house team, now use BIM (Building Information Modeling). Overall, this helps in communicating the design to the VT team and may even speed up the process and lower the price for some projects. The quality of the BIM, just like the blueprints of old, is dependent on the skill of the person/team. If it is fraught with errors or outdated information, then it will actually cause delays and revisions.

From blueprints to BIM, technology is helping builders to streamline their design into marketing.

Taking this further, much of what is built is actually not documented on construction documents. Custom millwork, including trey ceilings and wainscot, is seldom drawn in the CAD. As a builder, you may only have a photo of the design for the VT team to replicate. Another challenging area is the staircase. This one area has many architectural elements and design choices. Builders know it is rare to develop house plans with sectional drawings. Without one, the VT team has to understand ceiling plans, especially if the room is vaulted. 

Custom millwork like crown molding, wainscot, and trey ceiling is often not drawn in the CAD.
The common staircase is often one of the most difficult areas to build in 3D due to many details and parts.
This plan shows special ceiling designs for the Great Room, Study, Breakfast, and Master Bed Room. Yet, the design details for each of those ceilings are seldom provided.

Paying attention to details

Details are everywhere. That is what makes each house unique and valuale. Builders work hard in designing and selecting every item to create a beautiful home. In response, the VT team follows all the selected details. In doing so, VT companies will offer the following options:

  1. follow all your details and create specific 3D models and textures
  2. ask you to select items from their catalog
  3. a combination of both. 

In our experience, most builders want “option 1”. For example, gone are the days of the standard 6-panel interior doors. Instead, builders offer specific interior door designs, which are nearly unlimited. 

The ubiquitous six-panel door at the far left has been replaced by many different door styles.

Thus, “option 2” with the builder selecting a particular door model from the VT team’s limited catalog would be like the tail wagging the dog. The VT team may enjoy some production efficiencies and even offer lower pricing, but it will not reflect what you are putting into the house. Moreover, some builders want to advertise their vendors’ product lines. Instead of a generic kitchen faucet, it is a brand name item, such as Delta, Moen, Kraus, Peerless, etc. Of course, there are hundreds of vendors, with many lines of products, each with many models.

A builder has to not only inform the VT builder what tile goes where. The builder has to include the size and the pattern.

Details & Accuracy

Since details are everywhere and there are many different ways to approach home designs, the VT team has to be knowledgeable to ask the right questions when ambiguities and conflicts arise. As diligent as the builder team may be, there are often gaps in communication. For example, the builder may specify a certain brand, model, and size of ceramic tile in the shower. The detailed-oriented builder may go further and spell out how the tiles are to be laid (i.e. straight lay, running bond/brick pattern, diamond, herringbone, etc.) 

Some bathrooms may also have accent borders and listellos. Yet, a good VT team will ask about all of this including: “How high do the tiles go?  Will it be 7’, 8’, or all the way to the ceiling?” Mirroring real life, a VT team will want to measure twice, cut once. There may be times a knowledgeable VT team will help you catch errors in your selection and design. This is often one of the biggest advantages of visualizing before building. 

An entire blog post has been written about this subject. This is the level of detail you want to address as you build your home on the field and in virtual.

Being very responsive

All the details that go into building a home can change at any time even while the VT is being built. (As builders, you can commiserate with on-the-field changes.) Adjustments are necessary for a wide range of reasons: miscommunications, change in product/vendor due to availability/pricing, designs being refined, etc. Thus, you will want a VT team that is responsive to these changes. One simple way to assess this is to find out how directly you will work with the VT team.

How many degrees of separation are you from your virtual tour team?

The fewer degrees of separation the better. If you are working with a salesperson or a project manager who farms out the work, then you may expect some lag or communication gaps, and repetitive explanations. As builders, you have an onsite construction manager that oversees a general contractor and/or a crew of subcontractors. With VT, it is actually very similar; you work with a “virtual general contractor” who has a skilled team for various trades and crafts. 

A virtual tour requires a skilled team to build your digital house, inside and out.

Mirroring real life, the VT team has to be knowledgeable about house construction, interior design, cabinetry, plumbing, electrical plans, landscaping, etc. Again, if you are not working closely with the VT team, then just like in real-time, there will be delays and errors.  

Balancing the details

A tour either reflects the real-world house or not. Given the endless number of details, the VT team has to know how to balance what to show and skip. This realistic approach not only helps keep the price manageable but also avoids confusion. The ceiling, for example, should include details such as the exact location of can lights, ceiling fan, trey/coffer ceiling, crown molding, etc. But other items, such as return vents or smoke detectors may actually be a distraction.

Although items such as smoke and CO detectors may not be critical to include in a virtual tour, some new smart home gadgets are now attractive features to show off in the tour.

Nonetheless, there is no industry standard as to where this happy medium lands. Some builders will want the tour to show more details and features, including different countertop edge profiles (i.e. straight edge, round, bullnose, etc.), a quarter round shoe molding around the kitchen island and baseboards, smart home electronic gadgets, etc. Be prepared to explain these detailed items to the VT team at the beginning of the project to avoid unnecessary delays, costs, and frustrations. 

Some builders will require the virtual tour mirror real-world construction, down to the quarter round molding.

So far, most of everything said above can be evaluated objectively. The builder actually plays the role similar to the homebuyer, conducting a virtual walk-through with a checklist and marking up what needs fixing. In the upcoming parts of this Buyers’ Guide, we will discuss (aesthetics, UX, etc.) which are all subjective which will complicate things.  

As you can see from above, finding a good VT team is akin to having a good construction crew. It will impact the turnaround time and amount of hand-holding you will have to do.

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