Virtuatecture in Second Life: What Makes a House a House?

We have reserved Saturdays to invite people outside of ‘the industry’ to share their thoughts on our industry and aspects we may not have considered. For the next 3 weeks, SL Virtuatect and RL designer, Avril Korman, will share her thoughts on Second Life and human behavior in virtual worlds. Enjoy.

What makes a house a house?

This question isn’t as easy as you might think. When it comes to how we perceive the built environment, do things change when familiar spaces we experience in the real world are recreated in a virtual environment?


Enter virtuatecture. Virtuatecture is the process of creating structures (whatever they may be) in a virtual environment that will be used solely within that environment (as in, never ported out to be a real life, three-dimensional structure.)


But before we talk about how virtuatecture works, we need to clearly define what it isn’t. It isn’t architecture. Architecture is bounded and controlled by physical principles that can’t be denied.


Although modern materials may allow us to design and build fantastic structures and have brought us from the Coliseum to the Burj Dubai, gravity, last time I checked, still worked. Weather and climate still exist in the real world as definable, frequently destructive, and (sometimes not) predictable forces.

Architecture is also bounded by things like budget, zoning, and in today’s modern world, sustainability and environmental friendliness. In terms of things like houses, they contain clearly defined functions; needs which must be met. Places to sleep, cook, eat, store things — oh, and bathrooms. You need lots and lots of bathrooms.

paradise treehouse

But in a virtual world, such as that found in Second Life, gravity is optional. Weather is optional too, and has no potential for real danger. Climate is flexible, zoning is loose (at best), every material is equally sustainable, and (best of all) budget usually isn’t much of a consideration or barrier. Also, no one ever really has to pee.

So perhaps it sounds easy then — since none of these restrictions exist, you can redefine what a house is, and make it look like anything. Go nuts!


Though that’s possible, you’ll quickly find that when it comes time to convince people to live in your creation (assuming you’re not just making it for yourself) that they balk. Not because there’s anything wrong with what you’ve designed, but because it doesn’t ping their internal, emotional connection to what a house is, and how it’s defined within their consciousness.

There is a strong architectural community within Second Life, largely populated by real life architects, interior and architectural designers, who are using SL to explore how architecture and design function within virtual and real world environments.

Of course it’s also a fantastic social networking and educational system. Although my original intention in SL was to become involved with that community, my natural tendency towards introversion interfered early on, and I’ve mostly worked on my own, with the invaluable help of my partner, who does my building (and afaic is the single best builder on the grid.)


One primary reason I got involved in Second Life was to be able to create virtual design projects. I wanted to be able to walk through them and identify potential problems, gauge reactions, and anticipate trends.

I’m a professional designer, unlike most people who work in Second Life, which gives me an advantage in terms of how projects are laid out and accomplished. However, when I got down to designing structures for SL I began to learn quickly that the differences between how architecture and design function in the real world and the virtual world of SL made comparing the two… well, tricky.

scale issue

The first problem in Second Life is the matter of scale. Aside from the fact that most people (self excluded, thank you very much) make their avatars ridiculously tall (mine is my RL height), the standard camera position in SL is behind you, and over your shoulder.

Although you can change the followcam so it is coming from another place, the vast majority of people don’t bother. This means that your “size,” in terms of building a structure to “avatar scale” isn’t just the size of “you.”

The bubble around “you” must be large enough to include your camera position as well, lest you be inside a room while your camera is buried somewhere in a wall. This alters scale so that at a minimum, SL scale is 1.5 RL scale, though most people expand that even further, often to a point where it simply becomes silly.

nterior open to below

Although we don’t need to deal with issues of physics and engineering, Second Life has its own concerns — chief among them, prim limitations. For those who just got confused — on every (full) sim in SL you’re allotted 15,000 “parts” with which to create objects, called primitives.

These primitives can be manipulated in an enormous variety of ways. Yet quickly you find as a designer, that they are still tragically limited in terms of what they can do, particularly when it comes to creating things that aren’t based on strict geometry.


To do really complex organic shapes, you need to import “sculpties,” created in an external 3D modeling program and uploaded into Second Life. Sculpties take longer for computers to generate, and so you try to strike a balance between low prim, detail and speed of rezzing (how fast objects appear on your screen.)

paradise tree castle

But none of this explains how people psychologically view houses. With the ability to build quite literally, anything that comes to mind within prim limits, why is it that the most popular type of house sold in Second Life are castles (which, I might add, I refuse to design)? That has to do with the psychology of both houses and that of virtual worlds.


When given the freedom to live in anything, although it’s tempting to say that “one’s home is one’s castle,” in reality it’s more along more ordinary social conditioning — what we have been taught that a castle means, and what kind of people live in it: rich, powerful, mysterious, influential. A great many people fashion their fantasy selves along those lines, which is hardly surprising.


I mentioned earlier that I don’t design castles, despite how well they sell. I design houses, and for the most part, fairly small- to medium-sized houses. Due to prim limitations, people often buy a castle only to learn they can’t actually furnish it, and so they sit empty — warehouses devoid of character or charm.

impossible kitchen

What I find much more interesting are smaller homes that people can then furnish and give an individual style. I’ve found that some things don’t translate well, yet people usually want them anyway — kitchens, for example.

Food translates poorly in Second Life because eating simply doesn’t work well in a virtual environment. Yet people often want kitchens anyway, useless as they are, because it makes their virtual house feel more like a real house.

The only reason to have a bathroom is to put a bathtub or shower in it (as those can be scripted into sex furniture). You don’t need a toilet, but a lot of people put them in anyway, for the same reason. No one, thankfully, asks for closets (as your inventory holds everything for you), but they still want display space and furniture.


You can’t feel the heat of a virtual fire, yet people insist on houses with fireplaces. And what sells well are houses that look like… well, houses. They are recognizable instantly for what they are, because people are trying to create the psychology of “house,” even with the ability to live in anything equally well.

That says something about people, and that they stay pretty much the same whether they’re in real or virtual space.

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