Posted by in Software on 16th January 2020

Vu:City Model of London

VU.CITY was first conceived back in 2016. The idea was simple: can you model an entire city? Or, more specifically, can you offer architects, planning authorities and designers, a fully accurate model of a city to import their own designs into?

Fast forward four years, and a large amount of money and man hours, and you get VU.CITY, an entire, 3D map of a city that is fully customisable and highly accurate. The most impressive city on the platform right now is London, which includes all 33 boroughs down to 15cm accuracy. The website boasts 1,619 square kilometres modelled, including 10,390,300 trees and 3,300,000 buildings. No small accomplishment.

VU.CITY’s ambitions do not stop there though. They have also either completed or are developing all of the following cities, mostly just the city centres:

  • Manchester
  • New York
  • Belfast
  • Birmingham
  • Edinburgh
  • Dublin
  • Bristol
  • Liverpool
  • Brighton
  • Cambridge
  • Oxford
  • Woking
Views over St Paul's Cathedral with VU:CITY
Views over St Paul’s Cathedral (London View Management Framework) with VU.CITY

The real promise of the software, however, is in how interactive it is. You have the option to either import your own model or create one within VU.CITY itself. You can place this model exactly where it would be in real life and, with other buildings accurate to 15cm, you get a good vision of how your proposal will fit into its landscape.

Because it is a computer program as well, you have full control over the camera placement. While that seems like an obvious point, it means that you can look at the development from all different angles from worm’s eye to bird’s eye.

Additionally, VU.CITY includes a fairly detailed lighting system, allowing you to cycle through times of a day and days of the year. This is just the tip of the iceberg of features. Several map overlays simplify otherwise complicated and time-consuming processes. You can search developments, postcodes, and even see proposals that will be built in the future. Height constraint tools easily visualise limitations, transport overlays reveal train routes, LVMF (London View Management Framework) protected views can immediately be visualised, and several overlays can be used to mark out borough boundaries or historical buildings.

With new features promised in the future, and the weekly updates delivering revised models, VU.CITY promises to be a powerful tool indeed.

Lighting study
Day Light study within VU.CITY

Who is using VU.CITY?

At £5,000 per year, this software isn’t cheap. However, one license covers the entire authority, rather than user, and so while small businesses may be find it expensive, larger organisations could justify the cost. One such example is Salford City Council who are in the process of using the software to plan 5 different large developments. But VU.CITY is not limited to building planning. It is also being used to re-evaluate post-Grenfell fire safety for tall buildings by many local councils. It is important for them to know the heights of various buildings to check whether they have fire ladders tall enough to access the higher floors. What would have been a time-consuming process before is now drastically simplified

What can VU:CITY not do currently?

While on the surface, VU.CITY may seem to put pressure on several traditional processes and business, it does come with limitations.

While the entire map of London is impressive, it only makes up 1,619 square kilometres of land out of the UK’s approximate total 245,000 square kilometres. Less than 1%. The vast majority of cities are not currently supported.

The larger and more accurate these models get the greater the system requirements will get at an exponential rate. Every small improvement in detail has to be multiplied across thousands of square kilometres. The company is currently looking into cloud-based delivery to lighten the load but that could bring an increased cost.

Wind Analysis, London VU:CITY
Wind Analysis around London Bridge area within VU.CITY

How does the process of photomontage and verified views creation compete with VU.CITY?

Even with the increase in model details the simplified visuals crated by the VU:CITY software are currently not a match for the detail of a real-life high-resolution photograph. When we construct a verified view, we go to the real world location and use industry standard camera equipment to capture the view with as much precision as possible. An accuracy of 15cm doesn’t match the 2cm accuracy of localised GPS readings. Further, a photograph is able to capture the atmosphere and intricacies of a space with a snap-shot set in a specific time and date. This along with real world materials gives an extra level of details and expression missing from a block mass model.

Additionally, when we create photorealistic photomontages, we build custom models with tools which are extremely effective. We can detail the build to be exactly right in dimensions and shape. Then, several layers of post-processing allow us to make these models look entirely believable as we can provide high resolution material textures and accurate lighting and weather effects.

Blending these precise models into the real world photographs provides a level of accuracy that would be impossible to achieve currently on the VU.CITY platform. While it is a fantastical tool for assessing size and massing, the plain blocks you are working with do not provide an accurate view of the proposal at all. You can get a sense of which parts of the proposal will be visible from where, but not what the view will actually look like in reality.

rbmp model Woking
rbmp model of development in Woking

Is VU.CITY worth it?

For some projects, it is the perfect tool. Accurate models, covering an entire city, with a variety of overlays can massively simplify tasks that would have otherwise been highly time-consuming. It can offer a variety of different uses from traffic flow assessments all the way through to video game development.

But it is, inevitably, a simplified model. While it is highly useful in the early planning stages for blocking and experimenting with different sizes, shapes and sites, it cannot currently offer the level of detail in visual impact assessment to get through the latter stages of planning permission.