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Hillside: Moshe Safdie's Original Vision for Habitat 67 Made in 3D

Learn how Safdie Architects and Neoscape utilized RealityCapture and Unreal Engine 5 to finish one of the most iconic brutalist buildings from the 1960s.

Safdie Architects, an architecture and urban design studio established by a renowned urban planner and designer Moshe Safdie, has recently collaborated with creative agency Neoscape and Epic Games to produce the Hillside Sample Project, a digital 3D recreation of Safdie's original vision for Habitat 67, one of the most iconic and well-known brutalist buildings of the 1960s, located in Montreal, Canada.

For those unaware, Habitat 67 was first showcased during the 1967 Montreal World's Fair, designed as a massive pyramid of housing spaces that would incorporate residential units, office spaces, hotels, schools, museums, and more into one self-contained community. Initially calling for 1,200 homes, the project failed to get enough finance, resulting in the construction of a much smaller building with only 158 residences, a far cry from Safdie's original plans.

56 years later, the architect's vision has finally been visualized in all its glory thanks to Neoscape, who partnered up with Safdie Architects and Epic Games to produce a digital 3D version of Habitat 67 the way it was meant to be built.

According to the Neoscape team, the production process behind Hillside consisted of scanning the existing building using a drone equipped with a camera and a LiDAR sensor, processing the scanned data with the RealityCapture photogrammetry software, expanding the model in Rhino and 3ds Max using Safdie original plans as the reference, and then processing, rendering, and lighting in Unreal Engine 5.

Additionally, the team utilized UE5's Nanite to get more detail from the enormous digital building without a huge performance drop and Lumen, which was used for lighting instead of the onboard Path Tracer.

"Unreal Engine is more than just a tool for architects, it can open up whole new worlds and ideas," commented Safdie upon seeing the finished project. "This is exactly what we need to rethink how our cities are made. I hope that making this model accessible to the public at large and the idea that you could live somewhere like Habitat 67 helps advance people's desire to have this realized."

To get a better understanding of the nuances behind Neoscape's pipeline, we also contacted the team and asked them a few questions regarding the workflow behind Hillside. Here's what one of Neoscape's lead Unreal Developers Tim Eccleston had to say about the project:

80.lv: How did this project begin for you? How much time did you have to realize it?

Tim Eccleston: We have been working with Safdie architects for over a decade and have been creating real-time rendered environments of architectural spaces for years as well, including with past versions of Unreal Engine.

When we were approached by Epic Games to be the rendering firm to bring the legendary Habitat 67 project to life, it was a no-brainer. We jumped at the task. In the end, the final build interactive portion took about 3 months, start to end, though we've been involved in the project for well over a year and have been having conversations about it for nearly 2 years at this point.

80.lv: Could you tell us about mapping the existing structure with drones? What were the challenges?

Tim Eccleston: The LiDAR scan was done by the pros Real.IT and the photogrammetry mesh and data processing was handled by the Reality Capture team! They were amazing partners to work with and absolute experts at what they do.

80.lv: How did you process the capture data using RealityCapture? How much time did it take? What’s your take on the current state of the software?

Tim Eccleston: This was likely the longest portion of the exercise! For a long while the scans alone were over 100GB and it took a lot of brainstorming on how to condense it into a usable size. With just a few months left, someone figured out how to get it down to 10GB – I believe someone on the RealityCapture team. From there, it was much smoother sailing.

80.lv: Please tell us about assembling the final structure in UE5. How did features like Nanite and Lumen help you bring the project to life? What made Unreal perfect for this project?

Tim Eccleston: Both of these tools were crucial to bringing Hillside to life. Nanite essentially removed the polygon limit - which in turn removed the need for LOD. Nanite removes triangles dynamically to reduce render load, which saves performance, time, work – you name it. This made building the virtual environment much smoother and eliminated the need to create and add any additional mesh elements.

Lumen is essentially a high performance ray-tracing program that generates accurate lighting in real-time, so we never had to wait for lighting to render out as you traditionally would. This was a key element to creating the photoreal, navigable environment, just as we would if we were building a video game.

80.lv: How do you think UE5 will affect architecture and design in the future? How can designers use the engine to test their designs, even if they’re almost impossible?

Tim Eccleston: The photorealism and detail that is achievable in UE5 has the potential to make a big impact in architecture and design in the future. The ability to test materials and realize a design with such accuracy could translate into immense cost savings in time and money once construction is underway.

It's something that can now be tackled super early on in the design process – allows for constant iteration. Removes the ambiguity and struggles the architects and designers currently face in translating their vision to other stakeholders. As 3D artists, we also have high hopes that the ability to visualize daring, future-thinking designs like Habitat 67 will allow the architects of the future to reach new heights of imagination.

You can learn more and download the Hillside Sample Project to explore the interactive experience yourself by clicking this link.

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