Technological advancements have significantly improved the way we design, evaluate, construct and occupy buildings. One of the most notable technological breakthroughs in the built environment is BIM (Building Information Modelling). The advent of BIM has caused a quantum shift in how we create architecture, transitioning the profession from the picturesque scene of well-dressed gentlemen sketching over a series of drawing tables into complex collaborative cloud-based models. From the standpoint of the design process, BIM was transformative; but there is a new wave of transformation occurring that has revolutionized the consumer experience - virtual reality. In recent years, there has been a convergence of 3D visualization technology with the design process, enabling designers to visualize their work in real-time while allowing unprecedented visual access to the end-user.

Virtual reality is typically used to visualise a building before construction, serving as a digital representation of physical space. Imagine instead that the spaces you engage in virtual reality aren't representations of physical buildings, but rather a digital space of their own? The other side of virtual reality that has garnered considerable attention in recent months is virtual architecture. Covid-19 was a convenient catalyst for virtual architecture — with all forms of communication shifting online, a clear demand arose for virtual spaces that facilitate casual and professional connections. Among the most popular trends taking over the virtual world are NFTs and the Metaverse.

The rise of blockchain technology has brought about a wave of innovations such as decentralized currencies and NFT's (non-fungible tokens). Put simply, NFT's are pieces of digital content that are linked to the blockchain. NFTs may be anything digital, such as drawings, music, or even your brain downloaded and transformed into an AI, but the technology is now generating a lot of buzz for its use in selling digital art. Virtual architecture is a lesser-known facet of the NFT's area that is developing behind the scenes. This is a new and exciting frontier where architects can create unique designs backed with a NFT for people who like to collect one-of-a-kind assets.

The Mars house, designed by Toronto-based artist Krista Kim, made headlines as the world’s first virtual house, selling for over $500,000. The dreamy house staged in Mars features translucent glass furniture and a roof clad in LED's that can turn into anything in the owner's imagination. The project is described as a gateway to wellness accessible by a screen. Along with the house, the owner also owns the files for the furniture if they ever wish to have them manufactured and an accompanying soundtrack for them to enjoy as they embed themselves within the virtual environment.

As part of the NFT frenzy that began in early 2021, the price of blockchain-based real estate in virtual worlds has skyrocketed. In the blockchain-based online realm Decentraland, a plot of virtual land recently sold for more than $900,000. People may showcase their NFT art collections, wander around with friends, visit buildings, and attend events in virtual environments. For many, this may seem like a fad or hoax, and platforms may be in their infancy, but it is an intriguing and potentially lucrative sector and opportunity for designers to expand their physical design abilities into the virtual realm.

Central to the virtual realm is the metaverse. The metaverse is one of the hottest buzzwords in the tech world at the moment. The term was originally coined by Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash that depicts an alternate world accessible via virtual reality, described as "a successor to the internet." You may have preconceived ideas of what life in the metaverse can potentially look like from science movies like The Matrix or Ready Player One, where nothing is beyond the realm of possibility. The general concept of the metaverse is a highly immersive virtual world where people gather to socialise, play, and work. It is a shared virtual reality in which users can meet to be whoever they want and do pretty much anything they wish, from joining a group fitness class to attending work or concerts, the opportunities are endless. Considering that there is an entire generation enamoured by technology, growing up on Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox etc, it is inevitable that the metaverse will become part of our daily lives. The space is growing exponentially, with over 3 billion people playing video games globally and spending $100 billion US dollars annually. We must prepare for this inevitable adaptation because those who don't adapt will be left behind.

We are heading towards a time where there will be a virtual layer on top of our reality, that we’ll be able to switch on and off to the point that it will likely be indistinguishable from reality. Imagine a time where we will be spending equal or even a greater amount of time in the virtual world. This poses a range of questions that we, as designers of the built environment and proclaimed 'guardians of the public realm' must ask ourselves. What role might architects play in shaping and enriching the metaverse? What ethics and values transfer from the way we make physical architecture to the way we make virtual architecture? The values of architecture vary across history. From “stability, utility, beauty” in the Roman time, to Le Corbusier’s Toward an Architecture, do we need to define new values of architecture in the digital age?

The metaverse and associated technological breakthroughs provide a wealth of opportunities for architects to diversify and globalize their expertise. Architects are also able to design digital assets such as cities, buildings, furniture, and sculptures, and sell them in virtual worlds, video games, and movies. Architects are already showcasing their services on platforms such as Decentralandarchitects. But with great opportunity comes great responsibility. You see, while a world with no tight client budgets, environmental constraints, council regulations and even gravity may sound like heaven for architects, we must not underestimate the profound influence we possess in shaping and enriching the virtual environment. To illustrate one value that translates into the virtual realm, we need not look further than the users. While the metaverse is not location-specific, its users do come from a variety of cultural backgrounds, and we could design ‘vernacular’ metaverses that are full of varieties and cultural inclusion.

As a profession, we are currently at an important crossroads. We can either swim against the technological tide and risk drowning, or work out a way to positively influence the outcome. Like the age-old adage: "if you can't beat them join them." Just as we partner with property developers to ensure that commercial needs are met in socially conscious ways, I see an opportunity for architects to partner with web developers, the creators of the metaverse, to ensure that the virtual environments are built on the values of socially sustainable design.

It will be fascinating to observe how we as an industry position ourselves in the virtual world. Watch this (virtual) space.