A finished building is something more than simply the sum of its parts. Sure, there’s concrete, wood, steel, some light fixtures, mechanical systems, and sliding glass doors, but the final product is the result of more than the tangible pieces that give it physical weight. The process of designing, revising, permitting, value-engineering, revising again, and finally, constructing, is what manifests a building - and it’s within this process where the visualization of the end game is so vitally important.
Visualizing architecture is making architecture.
So, what exactly goes into the visualization of architecture? Why is understanding how a building is going to look, feel, function, and operate, so important to the process of making it a reality? This article aims to outline how visualizing architecture fits into the design work-flow, and why being a better visualizer means being a better architect.
It all starts with a sketch - the first true visualization of any design project and the jumping off point for future iterations, conceptual shifts, or program changes. Architects are visual learners and explainers, and rely on their spatial knowledge of how functional and aesthetic components fit together to culminate in a finished building. The sketching phase is the foundational work done to establish the visual rules for which the rest of the design process will be built upon.
From there, with input from clients, consultants, engineers, and colleagues, the architect begins a process of refinement that requires more than squiggly lines and charcoal swipes. The design enters a more advanced realm of visualization where light, materiality, and scale become as important as the bigger picture issues ironed out in the concept phase.
This is where 3D visualization, rendering, and animation play a pivotal role in the design process, allowing the architect to better understand the design in real-world terms, allowing them to make decisions based on a more accurate set of visual data. This is where the design information lives until the paint dries and the last screw is fastened, in a place where it can be easily communicated to those who know nothing about why the building should be important.
So, beyond helping the architect and their team of consultants better understand the design direction, visualizing architecture is also about communicating the design to people who might not understand the first thing about the merits of good architecture. This could be the client. This could be prospective home buyers. Or, this could be the general public whose hard earned tax dollars might be funding a project they know nothing about.
This is where architectural visualization works as a communication tool between the architect and...well...everybody else. If you can’t explain, via a series of renderings, diagrams, and/or animations, what the big, important ideas behind your design are, then you aren’t doing a good enough job as an architect. The images you show people should be a detailed set of visual instructions that let them into the thinking behind why decisions were made and what impact they might have on the structure once it’s actually built.
If your grandma can’t understand your design process, then you haven’t done a good enough job.
This is something that is hammered home in young designers and architects from the moment they step into academia. Visualization doesn’t have to be overly complicated. In fact, it should be as plainly simple to understand as a toaster or a couch. A single look and you know exactly what it’s for and how you should use it. If people have to ask too many questions, there is probably a disconnect with how the thing was designed and how it is presented.
These days, the most common form of visual communication is through the use of 3D renderings and diagrams. As technology advances and architects and architectural designers become better versed in areas like virtual reality and digital animation, we could see a shift in how they present their ideas.
Specifically, VR could have the most lasting impact on visualizing architecture. Imagine digitally inserting a client into a virtual space where they can inhabit and experience the architecture before a single foundation is poured. It has the potential to take the guesswork out of presenting an idea, and could streamline the design process in a way we haven’t seen since the introduction of computer aided design almost thirty decades ago.
One thing is certain: architects will always be looking for the most effective, efficient way to showcase their designs. Their practices and their businesses depend on it.