How virtual reality got real

The Netherlands’ building management simulation centre is housed in the Crystalic Building, a giant glass pyramid whose construction apparently bankrupted its developer. Every taxi driver in Leeuwarden tells us how much everyone hates it. Hardly an auspicious beacon for young construction trainees.

Derek from Arup is pretty impressed by it though. “It makes me want to design one like it myself,” he sighs as our taxi draws near. Derek is working on the design of the British centre – “everything except the simulator,” he says - and is here to meet with his Dutch counterpart. Not before having a go in the simulator, though.

When we get inside, we meet Dave from the NHBC and Tony from a Major Construction Company. Dave is extremely excited about the simulator. Unfortunately, the Dutch cuisine has interfered with his constitution to such an extent that he has to keep dashing out to use the Crystalic bathrooms. In between visits, he tells me about the NHBC’s interest in the project. “It’s great to have someone doing something as new and interesting as this,” he enthuses. “I really think it could be a boost for the industry.”

Tony’s nominally here to advise on how the Coventry BMSC can incorporate British training standards, but I suspect the UK representatives are rather hoping Tony’s employers will invest in the centre, which is still searching for about an eighth of its budget. “That’s why I’m travelling with him!” says one British representative, with a matey wink. The training centre is a three hour train ride from Schiphol airport. I hope Tony’s negotiating skills are good.

After an hour of presentations, the four of us are ushered into the simulator. We each don a hard hat and wander through the avenue of site huts towards the fabled virtual reality building site. At first glimpse, I feel like I’m in a giant version of Grand Theft Auto. I wonder if there’s a way to jump into a JCB and go on a crime spree.

Lance, the cheery CIOB training manager, tells us that people are often overwhelmed by the gigantic screen: “Last week, we had one of our directors in here,” he says. “I had to hold her by the back of her coat to make sure she didn’t fall over!” You do find yourself leaning forward as you move around the ‘site’. It’s like the 3D theatre at Alton Towers, but without the wacky glasses. Dave looks suspiciously green.

After a minute or two in front of the screen, the simulation director claps his hands. Derek, Tony, Dave and I stop what we’re doing.

“We’re ready for you!” he says. “Time to become a site manager!”

I gulp, and gingerly touch my hard hat. I hope I’m not going to need it.