The Anatomy of a 3D Building Rendering
The Anatomy of a 3D Building Rendering

Architecture and design communication are heading into brand new territory with the advent of real time rendering and virtual reality implementation. However, with this latest swing in how we showcase our building designs comes a few words of caution that should be heeded for those looking to take the leap into the next generation of experience driven design presentation.

This article aims to dissect exactly what goes into the production of a 3D building rendering from the standpoint of integral components and process. Better understanding how a building rendering comes together can help the next generation of architects, designers, and 3D rendering artists to avoid many common mistakes that are being made with these new avenues of design communication.

The biggest fear is that people will start using VR just to use VR. There are many advantages to scripting controlled digital experiences for clients and designers, but they can often have a distinct lack of focus that leaves people wondering what the hell it is they are looking at. Breaking down the anatomy of a 3D building rendering will reveal what is most important about the exercise, and what is most important to showcase to shine your designs in the most flattering light possible.

Let’s start with process.

It starts with the design. Architects work hard with clients and consultants to work through program, code analysis, conceptual vision, and a dearth of other flaming swords they must juggle to come up with something resembling a constructable building design. Review, rinse, and repeat.

In many cases, 3D rendering is introduced into the design process early in order to best utilize the feedback loop to move the design forward quickly and with the most accurate true-to-life information. In this sense, it’s almost impossible to do it the ‘wrong way.’ The design process should be something that is developed in a way that works for your specific design team and in general, the more information you have, the better the design will be moving forward.

However, the information you show clients or the public is another story entirely. It’s at this point in the process where 3D rendering artists should be under strict control to produce an image, an animation, or a digital VR experience that focuses on very specific aspects of the design. Especially at the early stages of the design, it is important to steer the conversation into the big picture, and reserve the finer grain details for later meetings.

And so the process continues in this way until the shovels hit the dirt. In most cases, design and rendering work doesn’t stop until the building is complete and occupied. The process is vital, and will determine the rigor and precision with which the initial idea will be executed.

Now, about the components that contribute to a successful building rendering.

The Building.

Duh! The object is the ultimate focal point of any building rendering, and should be modeled with as much detail as the point in the process allows. It might start as a series of adjoining rectangular boxes, but over time evolves into a highly detailed digital model that represents the things that will actually contribute to a finished structure.

The Lighting.

Depending on the mood or environmental circumstances the rendering artist is trying to convey, lighting is probably the most important building rendering component to get right. Especially when reaching for photorealism, the lighting can make all the difference from the scene or experience being believable or phoney. This is one of the most dubious and common rendering pitfalls, and can be especially jarring when shoehorned into a half-baked VR production.

The Textures.

Materiality becomes much more important to the rendering process towards the end. While architects and designers should have an idea of the materials and colors they will use from the onset, it tends to not reach the specification book until the big picture aspects of the design have been ironed out. However, this doesn’t make them any less important to the success of the final renderings.

The Entourage.

Not to be confused for the poorly acted show about an actor and his mooch friends, the entourage of a rendering are the contextual items and imagery that help support the conceptual message of the design. These are the people, trees, cars, street lamps, and sky conditions that give the building a proper place in the world.

These are the primary components of a rendering, or experiential scene that all become part of the feedback loop that results in a finished series of design images or experiences that tell the story of why the building is important. If these final images aren’t reinforcing the big ideas behind the initial design, they should be tossed. Only show that which makes your building worth spending millions of dollars realizing.

The next question is whether or not to take that showcase into the world of virtual reality. I would say absolutely, but only if you can create the same focused set of information for the viewer to easily digest. VR opens so many doors to experiential possibilities, but they should be opened with caution, and with the mindset that it should be used to assist the architecture, and not become bigger than the ideas it is supposed to be supporting.