Currently Reading

Architectural Visualization Rendering the Future

Architectural Visualization Rendering the Future

While its detailed design abilities are highly proclaimed, 3D software's widest application is its ability to beautifully render conceptual designs.

By By Jeffrey Yoders, Senior Associate Editor | August 11, 2010
This article first appeared in the Issue Title - April 2010 issue of BD+C.


SketchUp: Conceptual design standardThree-dimensional design tools have revolutionized the way architects and engineers design buildings; in recent years, parametric modeling has enabled Building Teams to impart weight tolerances and other intelligent information to a finished design. Yet many designers say they use 3D most in the conceptual design stage, when detailed building information is not necessary and can actually encumber fluid iterations of a design.

Tools such as Google SketchUp, Z Corporation's 3D printing solutions, Luxology's Modo 401, and Autodesk's 3ds MAX allow architects to create renderings and models that dynamically demonstrate how designs will look and perform and display them to prospective clients, regulatory agencies, and other members of the Building Team. They also allow designers to use their talents for painting, sculpting, and drawing in a 3D environment more naturally than ever before.

“We've always wanted to make it a simple and horizontally appealing tool,” said John Bacus, product manager for SketchUp. “It's always a difficult balancing act between widely appealing and built-out with more capabilities.”

SketchUp: Conceptual design standard

SketchUp was originally developed, in 2000, by @Last Software as a general-purpose 3D content creation tool. Its creators, Brad Schell and Joe Esch, wanted to give design professionals the ability to draw on their computer screens with the same fluidity and freedom that they enjoyed working with pen and paper.

3D printing from A to Z
 3D printing from A to Z
 3D printed models allow clients such as Crate & Barrel (top)
 and TME Engineering (above) to show clients exact design
 models with color andmaterial choices taken directly from
 BIM files.
SketchUp's simple interface allows designers to play with their work in a way that is not possible with traditional design software. Its patented push/pull technology lets you draw in a 2D style and have that information automatically transferred to 3D. Google acquired @Last and SketchUp in 2006 and has since added features such as integration with Google Earth to visualize designs in complete environments with geospatial data.

“I learned architectural design by a process of creating 2D representations of three-dimensional spatial concepts,” said Steve Cavanaugh, principal and lead designer in DLR Group's Chicago office. “Using SketchUp allows those 3D ideas to flow a bit more easily into something representational for my collaborators and clients.”

Architects and construction professionals alike say they enjoy the freedom of being able to try out designs and mock-up drawings using a mouse as a pen. McCarthy Building Companies has given the free version of Google SketchUp to all of its project managers and project engineers and the
advanced Google SketchUp Pro version (at $495 per license)

to about 5% of it
s PMs and PEs.

“On many of our projects, design details are limited,” said Chad Dorgan, vice president of quality at McCarthy. “SketchUp allows us to show how we're actually going to build it. For complex projects, such as hospitals, we are able to take barely 2D sketches and make them into full 3D models that don't have coordination issues, and are able to be constructed.”

While the free version of Google SketchUp can export 3D to the .skp, .dae, and the .kmz file formats, the Pro version extends exporting support to include the .3ds, .dae, .dwg, .dxf, .fbx, .obj, .xsi, and .wrl file formats. The latest version, Google SketchUp 7, which debuted in 2008, includes new features such as integration of SketchUp's Component Browser with Google 3D Warehouse (a repository of models created by SketchUp users), dynamic components that respond appropriately to scaling, phototextures that allow you to extract views from photographs and use them as textures in models, and an enhanced Ruby application program interface. The Ruby programming language allows you to write your own tools and import them using the API.

3D printing from A to Z

Since BIM delivers 3D representations of a conceptual design, it has taken away the need for physical shop-built models and created an entirely different workflow for designers. Yet clients and authorities with jurisdiction—some of whom aren't all that computer-savvy—still ask for physical models to exhibit at planning and zoning board meetings to show design intent to interested parties. Enter Burlington, Mass.-based Z Corporation, whose products can take 3D files and “print” multilayer powder and resin models that are as detailed as the 3D design they're based on, and can do so in a matter of hours instead of days.

“You have this beautiful 3D electronic model, you can print that the way you intended it instead of how someone in the model shop sees it,” said Olimpio DeMarco, director of business development at Z Corp. “We're seeing it used more with smaller firms as a way to differentiate themselves. It's a complement to BIM and 3D tools.”

Impact 3D Models, a start-up rapid-prototyping business in Chicago, uses a single Z Corporation 650 3D printer to create models for clients such as Lucien Lagrange Architects, Crate & Barrel, and BIM engineering firm TME, Little Rock, Ark. Architecture firms that have their own 3D printers include Robert A.M. Stern Architects and Cannon Design's Yazdani Studio (which owns a Z Corp 510 3D printer).

“Our average client purchases four models for a project,” said Matthew Mondo, vice president of Impact 3D Models. “The relative cost of the model material has gotten cheaper, about $3-5 per cubic inch of material, and with the ability to use CMYK color we can express more of what a designer would like to show.”

Z Corp's Z editpro color and texture-matching software ships with every printer. Most 3D design programs can automatically export their files to Z Corp's .stl file format for 3D printing.


 Realistic rendering: modo 401
 Realistic rendering: modo 401
 Brent Chamberlain uses modo 401 to create renderings
of casino andshopping center projects for architectural
 clients. Chamberlain likes having the ability to render
realistic light and fabric with simple tools.

“We have to have a physical model to analyze our designs,” said Philip Ra, senior associate at Yazdani Studio. “Some of the things we create have to be felt and tested to be validated. In a typical day we can have five to eight models of a design created by midday using our 3D printer and narrow it down from there using our iterative process.”

Realistic rendering: modo 401

Three-dimensional animation and rendering is known popularly for what it can accomplish in video gaming and films such as “Avatar,” but the technology has also matured into a powerful platform for photorealistic architectural renderings. One such rendering tool is modo, the most recent version of which, modo 401, was released last June by its developer, Luxology, Mountain View, Calif. Modo 401 incorporates advanced features such as n-gons, 3D painting, and edge weighting for realistic imaging of advanced polygons, subdivision surfaces, modeling, sculpting, 3D painting, animation, and rendering.

While other 3D rendering programs utilize a large number of tools, each specific to a certain task, modo 401 uses a much smaller number of basic tools and allows designers to combine them (using the program's Tool Pipe). Any tool can be modified.

“We felt that workflow had not been addressed in high-end 3D graphics,” said Brad Peebler, founder and CEO of Luxology. “The real cost of high-end 3D is the human cost in training and usage, the man-hours it takes to create something. We wanted modo to be both intuitive and scalable to create faster, and not just better, rendering.”

Modo lets you paint directly onto a 3D model as well as to paint existing meshes onto the surface of an object. The paint system allows you to use a combination of tools, brushes, and inks to achieve many different effects and styles; for example, there are “airbrush” and “clone” tools, each of which is paired with a digital “brush” (such as “hard” or “soft”). The program's ability to perform micropolygon tesselation at render-time means it can create highly detailed surface textures like stucco, concrete, or asphalt.

Realistic rendering: modo 401“It feels like an extension of how my brain thinks,” said Brent Chamberlain, principal of Brent Chamberlain & Associates, Park City, Utah, an architecture and interior design rendering service. “Working with forms has an artistic side to it that allows you to control the quality of light and use it as you would in a painting. It has a simple toolset, there aren't stacks of tools they've had and used for years. It's simple to learn, yet powerful.”

Luxology technology is fully integrated into both Solidworks and Bentley Microstation and files from either of these systems can be easily imported into modo. Material assignment is done in modo 401 using a shader tree that is layer-based. Modo's renderer is a physically based ray-tracer that includes features such as dispersion and stereoscopic rendering.

The human hand: Your best design tool

At Yazdani Studio, a studio within Cannon Design's Los Angeles office, designers are taught that the most critical part of the design industry is the human hand. Led by design principal Mehrdad Yazdani, the studio requires its designers to make extensive use of Autodesk's 3ds Max and Maya digital animation, rendering, and compositing tools.

“In our iterative design process we will regularly go through 20 to 40 iterations of a single design,” said Yazdani Studio senior associate Philip Ra. “You can see what works and what doesn't.”

Using Autodesk's 3ds Max modeling, animation, and rendering package, Ra and his team were able to create more than 200 bridge designs in a period of one month for a government client in Chengdu (population: 10.44 million), the capital of China's Sichuan province. Using 3ds Max and the digital compositing tools in Maya, Ra and his team were able to illustrate design intent and show multiple environments to the client. 3ds Max's MAXScript scripting language can be used to automate repetitive tasks, combine existing functionality in new ways, and develop new tools and user interfaces to allow faster design turnaround times. The eventual designs for the bridges were all iterations of a pattern based on Dan Dan Mian noodles, a celebrated Sichuan cuisine.

“Using 3ds Max, you can visualize what you're building in its own 3D environment and try materials out early in the process,” Ra said. “I've been using it since 1993, and we're finally at the point where available computing power has not only caught up to the design tools, but maybe also surpassed them.”


Related Stories

Digital Twin | Jul 31, 2023

Creating the foundation for a Digital Twin

Aligning the BIM model with the owner’s asset management system is the crucial first step in creating a Digital Twin. By following these guidelines, organizations can harness the power of Digital Twins to optimize facility management, maintenance planning, and decision-making throughout the building’s lifecycle.

Digital Twin | Jul 17, 2023

Unlocking the power of digital twins: Maximizing success with OKRs

To effectively capitalize on digital twin technology, owners can align their efforts using objectives and key results (OKRs).

Office Buildings | Jun 5, 2023

Office design in the era of Gen Z, AI, and the metaverse

HOK workplace and interior design experts Kay Sargent and Tom Polucci share how the hybrid office is evolving in the era of artificial intelligence, Gen Z, and the metaverse.

AEC Tech | May 9, 2023

4 insights on building product manufacturers getting ‘smart’

Overall, half of building product manufacturers plan to invest in one or more areas of technology in the next three years.

BIM and Information Technology | May 8, 2023

BIM Council seeks public comments on BIM Standard-US Version 4

The Building Information Management (BIM) Council is seeking public comment on an updated national BIM standard. NBIMS-US V4 has been three years in the making and is scheduled to be released this fall.

Digital Twin | May 8, 2023

What AEC professionals should know about digital twins

A growing number of AEC firms and building owners are finding value in implementing digital twins to unify design, construction, and operational data.

BIM and Information Technology | May 8, 2023

3 ways computational tools empower better decision-making

NBBJ explores three opportunities for the use of computational tools in urban planning projects.

Sustainability | May 1, 2023

Increased focus on sustainability is good for business and attracting employees

A recent study, 2023 State of Design & Make by software developer Autodesk, contains some interesting takeaways for the design and construction industry. Respondents to a survey of industry leaders from the architecture, engineering, construction, product design, manufacturing, and entertainment spheres strongly support the idea that improving their organization’s sustainability practices is good for business.

Sustainability | Apr 20, 2023

13 trends, technologies, and strategies to expect in 2023

Biophilic design, microgrids, and decarbonization—these are three of the trends, technologies, and strategies IMEG’s market and service leaders believe are poised to have a growing impact on the built environment.

Urban Planning | Apr 17, 2023

The future of the 20-minute city

Gensler's Stacey Olson breaks down the pros and cons of the "20-minute city," from equity concerns to data-driven design.


More In Category

Digital Twin

Creating the foundation for a Digital Twin

Aligning the BIM model with the owner’s asset management system is the crucial first step in creating a Digital Twin. By following these guidelines, organizations can harness the power of Digital Twins to optimize facility management, maintenance planning, and decision-making throughout the building’s lifecycle.


Most Popular Content

  1. 2021 Giants 400 Report
  2. Top 150 Architecture Firms for 2019
  3. 13 projects that represent the future of affordable housing
  4. Sagrada Familia completion date pushed back due to coronavirus
  5. Top 160 Architecture Firms 2021