But virtual reality turns their plight into a benefit for university property students.

A leading property expert driven out of his family home by a leaky-home disaster has, ironically, created a silver lining from his misfortune.

Although frustrated at not knowing when he can move back in, Dr Michael Rehm, a senior lecturer in property at the University of Auckland Business School, has turned the setback to his advantage – at least as far as his work is concerned.

Rehm has filmed repair work being undertaken at Parnell Terraces - the 81-unit townhouse complex where he owns an apartment - to use as part of revolutionary virtual reality (VR) field trips for students in his second year property course.

The townhouses are in a prime block in the CBD near the Spark Arena. The project has been beset with problems including the departure of the original contractor while the repair bill shot from $12m two years ago to $30m today.

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All 81 units have been uninhabitable since last year. Residents have been told they should be able to move back in before Christmas.

"We are doing the best we can to get owners back into their units as soon as possible," says Rehm. "They are under immense financial pressure and stress."

Rehm, who is also the body corporate chairman of the complex, saw an opportunity to use problems at the development as a teaching tool to help his students.

"It is impractical to take them on to a site like that because of health and safety regulations," he says. "But this way we can emulate what they are learning without going on-site, they can see something real in their own time.

"It also gives them an understanding of what causes leaky homes and an appreciation that a remediation project like this can rapidly blow out to include structural defects, inadequate fire walls and other original shoddy building work that must be rectified," he says.
"I got permission from the contractor to do the filming and was able to get a lot of 360 degree footage," he says. "It is cool for the students to be able to see things while they are ripped apart and is an exciting initiative that will allow them to explore places too dangerous or difficult to visit in real life."

The students have been given Google Cardboard headsets – low-cost virtual reality headsets with a place to insert a smartphone and which resemble a cardboard viewfinder from the 1980s.

Photos and video captured on a special 360 degree camera appear in 3D when played on a smartphone and create an immersive experience.

Rehm says virtual reality will enable students to virtually experience field trips to construction sites and other high-risk complex environments that would be impractical to visit in person: "VR is the next best thing to being there," he says. "The students can do it from wherever – at home or in a café."

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Although skeptical about VR when he first heard about it, Rehm says he quickly became sold on the concept when he tried it for himself. "It blew me away. It really gives you an immersive experience and it's like being hypnotised, you forget where you are."

As well as a virtual tour of Parnell Terraces Rehm's students will also explore the hidden workings of the home of the business school, the Sir Owen G Glenn building including the heating and cooling equipment on the roof and plant rooms in the basement.

"These emerging methods of visualising the built environment are revolutionising the property industry," says Rehm.

Beyond using VR as a teaching tool, Rehm is also keen to use it to produce virtual tours of student accommodation - and believes it could be adapted for marketing by the property industry where virtual tours can help prospective buyers see what they're getting from a distance or when buying off plans.

He says VR may be useful in visualising and managing the complex information in 'smart' buildings where hi-tech systems monitor and optimise temperature, humidity, pressure and other variables.

"As well as being a compelling teaching tool, VR is something tomorrow's property professionals will increasingly need to know how to use."