Aug 5, 2021

Photorealistic project renderings can be a potent arrow in the designer’s quiver

By Jon Brooks, Andi Walter and Steph Powell

We’ve all seen them. Our favorite home-renovation shows on HGTV that feature impressive and beautiful transformations of houses—from dingy, old, cluttered spaces into open, bright, updated dream homes for this week’s happy couple or hopeful family. Often, to aid in the visualization of the final product, a dynamic animation of a photorealistic rendering is included, panning around the entire space, and showing walls/appliances/furniture sliding into place, almost as if by magic.

Nowadays, photorealistic, animated renderings of a completed space, down to the place setting, are an expectation of viewers of HGTV and other mainstream design networks. This wide-reaching influence on residential and commercial construction and design will also become more of a necessity for lighting designers and architects to keep pace.

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If you are a part of the AEC industry, you are surely familiar with these creative visualizations, whether they be through realistic building walkthroughs or incredible renderings of a space that feel truly real. With the major strides in 3D modeling and technological advancements available to us now, it can be difficult to remember a time when this type of visualization wasn’t possible. This level of intricacy and attention-to-detail, however, was not attained overnight. In fact, the evolution of 3D rendering has taken place over the course of more than 50 years and is the result of countless hours of work by pioneers in the computer graphics industry. From the seemingly simple task of modeling a three-dimensional teapot in the 1970s, to creating realistic ray-traced lighting and mapping textures and environments dynamically today, this ever-changing technology doesn’t seem to be slowing down any time soon.

In the past, the most common application for photorealistic renderings in the AEC industry was one or two “money shots” of the most glamorous spaces in a project, and that was only if the project was considered highly designed, like a dazzling hotel lobby or an exciting exterior shot of a new downtown pavilion. However, due to the quickening pace of technological advancements, it has become ever more possible to provide a higher quantity of photorealistic renderings, regardless of the complexity of the project.

Many advancements in the world of renderings are largely due to the constantly changing and evolving CGI techniques common to the film and video game industry. Software used for Hollywood and video game development is primarily designed to develop very realistic looking spaces as quickly as possible. They do not have the inherent “real” behind-the-scenes characteristics of an AEC industry BIM model (i.e., mechanical ductwork, security cameras, structural connections) as this is not a priority for their use. This gives them much more flexibility in creating very realistic renderings with less background information to speed up the rendering/development process and use less computing power.

By contrast, rendering artists in the AEC industry will often utilize a realistically modeled 3D representation of a space created in either SketchUp or Revit, and then import it into a more customizable rendering software such as 3ds Max, in order to apply finishes/textures/colors to surfaces and create realistic light sources to make the space feel as tangible as possible. Renderers often utilize ray tracing or radiosity to map local illumination, which is not only time-intensive, but also takes a lot of computational power. Depending on time spent and software techniques applied, extremely realistic renderings in the AEC industry are achievable using this method.

In addition to realistic finishes, textures and lighting, it is important in design and construction to make sure that a rendering includes furniture, fixtures and appliances that exist in real life. Depending on the product, some manufacturers will include free and downloadable 3D models of their products for use in rendering software. This is not only a time-saver for the rendering artist, but also ensures that the product is modeled accurately and to-scale in any photorealistic output.

Along with constantly developing technology in the world of 3D renderings comes the ability to utilize virtual reality (VR) to walk through a designed environment before it is even constructed. VR is a relatively recent technology that is already used by many architectural firms to help sell clients on a design. While VR walk-throughs are not typically as detailed as a static photorealistic image, the technology is evolving quickly. Virtual reality can also be used by designers in some circumstances to modify a design while being physically immersed in it, rather than relying on 2D plans and sections on a computer screen.

Even with the myriad benefits of realistic visualization that come with 3D renderings, there are several risks. For example, the more realistic a rendering is, the more literally the client may take the design decisions. If a rendering shows a builtin bookshelf with stacks of books and decorative knick-knacks, the client could be distracted by details that were merely included to make the space feel more lived-in, rather than the actual overall design concept. Similarly, if a client gets attached to a design feature that is included in the rendering, they may be disappointed if that component doesn’t get included within the project’s final design.

Rendering artists can also sometimes “oversell” a space in a rendering, manipulating the software and often defying natural law to make it have a certain feel, when in reality, that is not how the final product may end up looking. It is advised that designers shy away from this tactic as much as possible in order to limit rendering outputs which cannot exist in reality. However, due to limitations in software, a little bit of manipulation is often required to make a rendering feel more realistic.

Additionally, designers should never rely solely on a rendering to guide their decisions and should actively utilize design mock-ups and material/fixture samples to affirm design direction for a project. Along with renderings and mock-ups, photographs of completed projects with similar spaces and design ideas are a fantastic method to share thoughts with a client. Designers will commonly create inspiration boards compiling installation photos of different applications, in order to best convey a concept early in the design process.

With these cautionary tales in mind, be sure to note that modeling very realistic renderings takes up a significant amount of time, and therefore money. Prior to the start of a project, take these costs and timeline into account. And if a potential client requests an extremely realistic rendering as part of the project deliverables, have a conversation early on to ensure that the time spent to create that rendering is properly built into the project proposal and fee.

Despite these potential obstacles, photorealistic rendering techniques—when used correctly— can provide major benefits to both the client and the designer. Since 3D realistic renderings require more modeling and attention-to-detail, they can often aid in creative solutions, sparking ideas that may not have been realized otherwise. These renderings can be used not only to sell the client on the design of the space, but also for marketing materials to entice future occupants and passersby even before construction starts.

As is often the case for design within the AEC industry, the key to creating photorealistic architectural renderings is collaboration among disciplines. Initial conceptual renderings of a space can be created by architects or interior designers and typically include some form of lighting effects as a part of their detailing. This makes it even more important for lighting designers to be involved in their creation as early as possible, to ensure that lighting is modeled realistically per the overall design (finishes, furniture, etc. all play a key role in the overall realism of the space). The true success of photorealistic rendering only comes when all visual components of the space are fully and accurately modeled. The methods by which this success is achieved through software and collaboration will continue to evolve and hopefully make it easier for more lighting designers to create a realistic presentation as quickly and effortlessly as it appears to the homeowners on HGTV.