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Eng 477 Principles of Virtual Reality, Fall 2002

Habitat for Humanity Construction Trainer (HabitatVR)

Group Members: Chris Cox, Gideon Danilowitz, Linda Nubani, Paul Parkanzky, Tom Vollaro


As a final project for the class entitled Principles of Virtual Reality taken at the University of Michigan, our group focused on creating a web based virtual environment where persons volunteering and working for Habitat For Humanity would be able to learn the process and materials used in building a house, gain a visual concept of what these materials look like and how they are used, and what the final product would look like. Habitat for Humanity (HFH) is a non-profit organization that works in all 50 US States and in 81 countries. Habitat was founded in 1976 by Millard Fuller to help build homes for families in need of decent, affordable shelter. Over 114,000 homes have been built by Habitat worldwide. According to Builder Magazine (May 2000), Habitat is the 15th largest homebuilder in the U.S. in units completed in 1999. For the duration of this project we were assisted by Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley ( and David Teare, who is a member of the Board of Directors for Habitat for Humanity. Mr. Teare is also an architect who designed the Habitat house we used for our project, which is located on Elder Street in Ypsilanti, and provided us with construction drawings of the house which enabled us to create accurate three dimensional models. To gain a better feel for how a Habitat house is constructed, some of our group members volunteered to work on a job site during the course of finishing this project. We also collected photos, notes, and interviewed staff and volunteers.

It takes an average of 4,000 volunteer hours to build a typical Habitat home. A homeowner is required to contribute between 300 and 500 “sweat equity” hours in building his/her habitat home as well as other local homes. In fact, neither crew leaders nor volunteers are required to have construction experience. Homeowners and crew leaders are usually given construction-training sessions by veteran Habitat builders. Classes include worksite safety, reading building plans, framing, roofing, insulation and drywall, building code, window and door installation, vinyl siding, and finish work. Each crew leader supervises 4-6 volunteers on site and is required to review safety procedures, building techniques, and quality control. Our VR application provides an environment for the supervising HFH staff to train volunteers and homeowners by demonstrating key construction techniques. This training can be conducted either on-site or remotely via the Web. The resulting model also acts as a reference tool for HFH staff as well as a public relations vehicle for raising funds and awareness.

Tool Pallet

The project is based on the existing house designed by David Teare and built in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The intent is to demonstrate how this type of application could be used by other HFH crews and construction professionals in general. The application environment consists of a mixed-media HTML page with an embedded VRML and supporting media and text. Supporting media includes external web pages, photographs, movie clips, and CAD files. The intent of these media objects is to allow our polygon count to remain low while providing the user with an adequate amount of detail. To create our 3-dimensional world, we used Form-Z and 3D Studio Max as modeling tools, and VRML Pad to program the interactivity.

How It Works

The VRML content consists of two primary model types. The first is an overall massing model of the house and site including accurate textures. This model allows the user to navigate through the house and site and get an overall picture of the effort required in the construction process. The secondary models offer a more detailed view of a specific room where construction methods are demonstrated. A combination of direct interaction and animation simulates the construction of specific details. For example, the construction of a wall consists of many steps, each with many sub-steps: framing, insulating, wiring, plumbing, drywall, and interior/exterior finishing. These steps occur over the entire construction timeline, each performed by separate volunteer crews. If the framing crew could visualize the entire process of wall-construction, it would ultimately help them understand and execute their particular tasks. The same holds true for the crew installing the siding at the end of the process.

Our demonstration includes framing, covering, insulating, drywalling, and inserting a window into one wall section. For instance, in the framing exercise the user starts with a stack of lumber on the 1st floor deck of the house. The interactivity incorporated into the simulation allows the user to move pieces of lumber into place according to replicated chalk guidelines and script nodes that sense when a board is close and snaps it into place . After a couple of pieces have been put into place, animation takes over and completes that phase of construction. Similar simulations are included for the other phases.

Usage Scenario

The usage scenario involves training volunteers, homeowners, and new HFH staff on the proper ways to construct a Habitat house. This scenario can manifest itself in one of three ways. First, a training session can be conducted on-site as part of the safety orientation process. This session would be conducted by an experienced staff member using a PC and a LCD projector. This scenario could also be used for Adult Education or other educational situations for more in-depth instruction. Second, the application would be available on a laptop as an on-site reference tool. Any questions as to the proper way to perform a specific task could be answered without lengthy delays caused by phone calls, faxes, and visits by experienced staff. Finally, the application would be available on the local HFH chapter website as a reference. It would be strongly recommended that volunteers run through some of the demos before coming to the site. This could help to cut down on training time and reduce potential errors. The application is designed for quick learning and usability. The versatility of HTML and VRML will allow the application to be equally utilized in all of these scenarios.

Project Purpose

The primary purpose of this project is to create an application that can be used to improve the efficiency and safety of unskilled volunteer crews for HFH. It is expected to supplement face-to-face training, not replace it. The concept of Universal Design is defined as “The design of products and environments to be usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design.” (Mace 1997: By designing for unskilled volunteers, we feel that our application could serve as a model for more advanced VR applications for use by architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) professionals.

Limitations and Future Endeavors

One of the general limitations we encountered in creating this project was the complexity involved in using different software programs. The modeling tools we used, Form Z and 3D Studio Max, are not completely compatible with VRML programming language and so the environment and objects we modeled needed a significant amount of clean-up. For example, when exporting from FormZ, our lighting attributes were not included and needed to be reprogrammed. Additionally, the models we created often contained many extra polygons and image maps often lost coordinate attributes. Another limitation involves the speed of current computer processing. Our virtual environment is intended to operate in conjunction with a website. However, because of the size of the WRL file, approximately 4 Megabytes, we are concerned that downloading time will limit real time movement and interactivity.

Proposed future work on this project includes multi-user VRML for the remote training of new Habitat crews and adding real-world physical attributes to construction materials. Additionally, we propose porting interaction scripts to the CAVE to create a full-scale construction training application.

Marketing Feasibility

The following is a plausible projected marketing plan, which is outside the ralm of this class, but gives our project a sense of real-world applicability and may be at least be partially acted upon by group members in the future.

  1. Catch the interest of HFH administration by presenting to them how valuable our VR application would be for their organization.
  2. Work with HFH to develop a real-time demonstration in which a supervisor from a remote location will communicate with contractors and volunteers on site.
  3. Consult with HFH about the plausibility of using this application on a regular basis and how we may be able to fine-tune/customize the program to fit their needs.
  4. Conduct usability tests with real HFH staff, volunteers, and homeowners to fine-tune the user interface.
  5. Contact other companies, NGO’s, and academic institutions that may be interested in and have a need for such an application.
    1. Broad-based architectural, engineering, and landscape architectural firms.
    2. Universities and educational institutions with on-going construction projects.
    3. HUD, Army Corps of Engineers, or other government agencies.
    4. Develop a package in which we provide some basic operations and then allow each entity to customize the product according to their needs.




  1. Accustudio: doors and windows
  2. 3dcafe: mailbox
  3. Fire hydrant - Chandelier in living-room - truck
  4. background pictures
  5. FORMZ Library: trees - Kitchen (cabinets-fridge-range) and Bathroom (vanity-tub-toilet)

Movie files:

  1. -, Greater Columbus Habitat
  2. -

Construction Documents

  1. Construction manual: St. Louis Habitat for Humanity
  2. Construction diagrams: Fundamentals of Building Construction by Edward Allen, illustrations by Joesph Iano
  3. Building Construction Illustrated by Francis Ching


  1. Huron Valley Habitat for Humanity
  2. David Teare; architect and member of the Board of Directors for Huron Valley HFH