A video game is “play-tested” when players move through the environments to see how they interact with the features. Why couldn’t a building be “live-tested” when clients move through the spaces to see how they interact with the elements?

For Chris Chin (’87 Arch.) the lines between architecture in the real world and environments in the virtual world have blurred. After almost 20 years in traditional architecture, Chin was hired by Bellevue video game maker Valve in 2006 to create settings for game play.

Architect Chris Chin draws at his desk
Chris Chin (Courtesy Chris Chin)

Turning back to architecture to design his Seattle home for himself and wife Amanda (Rustine) Chin (’88 Pharm.), Chin incorporated the computer modeling techniques he uses at Valve. “I sat in my own house for two years before it was built (in 2019),” he says.

He designed the low-slung, contemporary, light-filled house using SketchUp 3D computer modeling software. “I teleported myself into the house with a virtual reality headset,” he explains. “I could catch things in the alignment of features that I wouldn’t have caught in a 2D drawing.”

Geolocating the model with Google Earth, he could see how the surfaces and colors would look at various times of the day and year, how the views from windows could change and how big the overhangs should be. He’s using the same techniques for a home he is designing for a friend in Bellingham.

Chin’s own path began with a lifelong interest in buildings and constructing physical models of them. He was told he was artistically inclined while growing up in Singapore and laughs about entering an art competition in second grade. “The other kids drew families and people flying kites; I drew the Singapore National Theater building.”

After high school, he served in the Singapore Navy for more than two years⁠—part of the national service requirement. A shipmate was interested in architecture and looked up the subject in bookstores when they had shore leave. Chin decided to study architecture in the United States.

“I got a very grounded education at WSU,” he says, particularly noting architecture professor David Scott and architectural graphics professor Kim Singhrs. The latter introduced him to computer design, giving him the assignment to digitize the first 3D rendition of Holland Library⁠—with each coordinate typed in manually.

He also had a chance to work on the design of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Pullman. A semester in Denmark in 1986 influenced his preference for minimal, restrained architecture. After college, he worked for BJSS, an Olympia architectural company, and then for ZGF Architects in Portland, with a few years with Thomas Hacker and Associates, also in Portland.

Hacker had been a student of Louis Kahn, about whom Chin wrote a paper in college. Kahn wanted his buildings to have meaning and symbolism. “Tom always wanted to know why you designed a building the way you did,” Chin says. “You don’t construct ornamentation; you ornament construction.”

One of his favorite projects was Portland State University’s School of Urban and Public Affairs building. In 2005, he and others in his office at ZGF did a weekend of training at Valve to learn how the techniques of games could be used to visualize architecture. “Later, I got a call from Valve asking if I would be interested in joining them,” Chin remembers. “‘What do you want me to do?’” I asked. “They said, ‘We don’t know.’ That intrigued me. I think I was one of the first architects to be hired by a video game company to design virtual buildings and environments.”

Beginning with Valve’s proprietary 3D modeling software, Chin has constructed environments from a Savannah plantation to alien worlds. He’s designed settings for Half Life 2, Portal 1 and 2, and Left for Dead 1 and 2.

For Portal 2, for example, he created a 1950s test lab, complete with twisted bits of metal hanging from the ceilings, debris scattered on the floor, and cracked cellar walls. Most recently, he has been updating a game map for CounterStrike: Global Offensive, giving it a mid-century modern vibe.

Virtual design isn’t done in a vacuum. Chin collaborates with writers, software developers, and animators to make sure his environments enhance game play, the primary driver of all decisions. In real-world design, the client’s lifestyle is the primary driver. “I don’t see why we can’t test architectural designs through the use of VR,” Chin says.

He notes that many larger architectural companies are hiring designated visualization experts, but they usually use the virtual models as a marketing tool. He thinks architects will soon use 3D modeling and virtual reality earlier in the design process so that clients can walk through the rooms where they will live and work, seeing the buildings from all angles, at all times of the day, and from all perspectives.