Virtual Reality Property Design… For Mars

Award-winning US architecture firm, KeiranTimberlake, has teamed with former NASA physicist and TLRI president, Kerry Joels, on a virtual reality property design project. If that sounds like just another bit of architectural design news, what if we told you that the project is to design a city on Mars?

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS), NASA, and TLRI have come together with KeiranTimberlake architects, Fátima Olivieri, Efrie Friedlander, and Rolando Lopez on the pro bono project.

The Mars City Facility Ops Challenge

The Mars City Facility Ops Challenge, as it’s being called, has four main objectives in mind. Firstly, to bridge the gap for the future STEM workforce in facilities management and architecture in particular. Second, to test out the use of virtual reality property design within KeiranTimberlake. Third, to encourage funding for a Mars City-like space camp on Earth. Finally, of course, there is the possibility of the deep research and design work one day informing plans for a real-life future Mars base.

The project began back in the 2000s, following a grant received from NASA to create a STEM learning project about Mars. The Mars Facility Ops Challenge was launched off the back of this grant by TLRI. Initially, it was a dashboard-based system used by student groups working together to resolve the mechanical issues involved with building on Mars.

Once KeiranTimberlake came on board, the system was upgraded to a full BIM model incorporating light, nature, mechanical systems, living spaces, and more besides.

The Practicalities of Building for Mars

Obviously, the living conditions on Mars are harsh, to say the least. As such, the team’s next challenge was to consider how humans would have to live. For example, a person would have to go outside and dust off the solar panels every day to ensure power was sustained.

They also had to take into account which materials and technologies would work best on the planet, and work out what shape would be most beneficial for the buildings. The buildings, incidentally, must be a ‘bubble’ shape because of the way air pressure needs to be maintained – corners are out of the question.

Whilst space-living at the International Space Station, for example, is designed to be specifically a work environment. The Mars City project, on the other hand, emphasises the balance between living, working, and playing; public and private space. The architects were, therefore, able to use their existing knowledge about how people like to interact on Earth to inform their designs.

KeiranTimberlake architect, Rolando Lopez explains:

“The original design [created before the NASA grant] called for closed spaces without a lot of spatial definition, and we wanted to make it a place where people wouldn’t be depressed living in this bubble for an indefinite amount of time. So we introduced variation to the corridor so you would have openings in places where you could orient yourself and have a connection with the landscaping.”

The Educational Uses of this Virtual Reality Property Design

At present, the virtual reality property design for Mars City is an educational game used by middle- and high-school students in the US. The students use VR headsets to walk through the virtual space, and test solutions to an array of maintenance issues that might occur.

These can include things like a broken door, which isn’t a big problem on Earth, but on Mars, in a pressurised environment, it could be lethal to all inhabitants.

The team worked with 3ds Max, Stingray, and Autodesk Revit Live to refine the imagery in the virtual reality experience. Aspects such as the colour of the terrain, and the details on the space suits, were honed for precision using the software.

Though the design of Mars City uses much existing technology, there are aspects of tech that are simply not developed at this point in time. Transparent materials that can exclude radiation from the internal space are not available yet, for example. So the team have had to use some predictions as to what may be available in two decades or so… thinking ahead to a theoretical future in which Mars City could actually be built.

For now, at least, the virtual reality property design of Mars City offers a valuable STEM learning experience. It is vital that we continue encouraging children to move into these industries in order to fuel an innovative and productive future for humankind. Facilities Management, in particular, is a field of ever-growing importance, and we need to ensure that we have an upcoming workforce ready to meet the demands of engineering, technology, and architecture for the future.


If you would like to learn more about the sectors within the Property industry that will benefit most from these technologies, and the ways in which this will happen, then be sure to download our whitepaper ‘How Virtual and Augmented Reality Will Revolutionise House Building and Property Marketing’.

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