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Cutting-Edge Rendering Technology Brings Architects’ and Developers’ Visions to Life

In the classic mid-1990s rom-com One Fine Day, Michelle Pfeiffer plays an architect and single mother trying to juggle (literally) these two roles on a day when she has to deliver a very important presentation to clients with her seven-year-old son in tow. In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Pfeiffer’s character is running late to the presentation, holding her 3D model of a project in one hand and trying to corral her young son, who is playing with toy cars with the other in the lobby of her office building. You can probably predict what happens next. Long story short, her 3D model shatters, jeopardizing the future of both her project and her job. Thankfully, nearly 30 years later, technology has taken massive leaps in the architectural world. With the advancement of digital modeling and architectural renderings, all isn’t lost if a 3D model is damaged (unfortunately, lack of childcare is still a big issue).

These days, architectural renderings are increasingly commonplace. After being delivered from the architect to their client, developers and architects frequently include them with press releases and updates on projects as part of their PR strategy. Renderings can make a lot of waves when they hit the public realm, but there’s even more that goes on behind the scenes that most people don’t know about. For investors, the images play a role in helping build interest and act as a form of assurance. To developers, renderings represent their vision brought to life in a two-dimensional form. 

Christian Fraser, an architect at the global architecture and design firm Perkins&Will with eight years of experience under his belt, told me that rendering and visualization had been a part of his DNA since starting architecture school. “It’s kind of the status quo,” Fraser told me. “We just think in three dimensions all the time, and it’s how we design. Technology has been one of these fantastic tools that progresses and enhances design.” 

That wasn’t the case for David Rogers, a colleague of Fraser’s in Perkins&Will’s Atlanta office. Rogers, Associate Principal at the firm, has been working in the industry for more than 20 years and has seen how the use of technology and renderings has changed significantly. When he first came out of college, rendering and even modeling buildings wasn’t part of the process for him and other architects. “It was just done off in a corner, and just a few people knew how to do it,” Rogers said. Historically, project renderings were separate processes that the architects did not create. In many cases, architects would start drawing a project in 2D and then drafting it into CAD, a common program used by engineers and architects. The rendering would come later as a separate item on the side.

Over time, technology has become much more integrated into an architect’s skill set and process. Now, architects can constantly visualize a building from the beginning. “As a designer, it’s something that’s very rewarding because you can see and explore places as you’re creating the idea,” Rogers said. As 3D modeling and rendering technology has become more advanced in areas like the $220 billion video gaming industry, architects are able to use similar tools in their process. Often, 3D modeling for a project can start before the design starts. For example, Rogers explained that an architect might start a rough visualization right at the beginning of a project to explore a site and space and think about ideas. Keeping an ongoing 3D visualization throughout a project allows architects and designers to be more in touch with the project rather than stopping what they’re doing and creating a visualization on the side.  

Until somewhat recently, the software used to create renderings were often programs that were originally intended to be used by professionals in other industries. David Baird, Professor of Architecture at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, has been in the architectural world for over 30 years. Baird remembers the time when architects had to get creative in making software built for other kinds of useful work for them. “I call them hackers,” Baird told me. “AutoCAD was engineering software designed for others to use, and we kinda hijacked it and started to try and use it.” Other than Archicad, which isn’t that widely used, Baird said he doesn’t know of any other program that was designed specifically for architects because the market for architectural software wasn’t large enough for people to pay attention to. There are programs like Revit, which he said is designed more for the building industry, that has also been co-opted and used by architects, as well as animation software like Rhino. “We’re used to jumping on tech innovations and trying to see how we can twist it and use it for our purposes,” Baird said. 

Recently, there have been more software developed with architects in mind. Architects have described Lumion as the first real-time render program designed for architects with much less of a learning curve than others. Another program, Enscape, can work within many firms’ leading CAD software. The programs are designed for architects and architectural visualization and have a lot of features that make them easier to use, like going straight from modelings to visualization. While creating a rendering is still a tedious process, these user-friendly programs make it so that just about anyone can create one. 

But it’s what comes after making the visualization that promises to be the next evolution of renderings, according to Fraser. “Getting the picture is easy. It’s the next level of what are you trying to communicate with this,” he said. “The next layer starts getting into storytelling; what are these images, spaces, and places really about?” At Perkins&Will, architects do animation in-house for clients, which enables them to literally go into a project with a client and walk through spaces in a real-time way, helping them understand more what exactly is going on and how the spaces will actually work together. “It changes the way we do presentations,” he said. “A lot of times, we’re directly showing them what we’re working on now and letting them get into the process and what we’re doing.” 

No conversation about technological advances is complete without mentioning Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools like ChatGPT and Bard. Architects and designers have been toying with the generative AI programs to see what’s possible, and it’s made quite a splash in the industry. Aside from the seemingly limitless possibilities in what kinds of structures a user can create using an AI program, there are also worries over how the program could replace humans or be misused. As one LinkedIn commenter summed it up in response to a post about AI in architecture: “It’s important to view AI as a tool to assist our creative process rather than a replacement for human ingenuity.” 

Fraser has been exploring the tools’ capabilities using AI tools as more of an idea generator in his free time. He compares the emergence of AI to the birth of the Internet. “When the internet started, it was like going on and goofing off and seeing what it could do; 20 years later, it’s now how the world functions,” Fraser said. “I think we’re in a phase where we have access to it, we can play with it, create cool, fun things and interesting things, but usefulness is still a bit away.”

Advances in technology, especially software designed specifically for architects, are helping to progress the speed, quality, and ease of making renderings during real estate development. For a lot of architects, renderings are now a part of the process from the beginning and can help generate more ideas and help both architects and their clients see and envision spaces and concepts better than ever before. Animation is poised to be a bigger part of the process as the tech progresses. That will further help architects and developers align their vision and determine how they can create what they want in real-time and build a narrative around a project. The next big evolution involves AI tools, which are still being experimented with and tested. We don’t know yet how much of a role they will play in the design process going forward, but if current technological advances tell us anything, it will go beyond the renderings themselves. 

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