Computer Renderings: Perfection & Peril

Computer renderings give us a real clear view of what our building will look like.  Or do they?

For centuries, architects have created hand-drawn rendered perspectives and elevations with exquisite detail.  The renderings could be highly realistic or vague and sketchy, depending on the intended purpose and project phase. Clients and users could experience a general feel for the outcome, while filling in details in their collective mind’s eye. Never like photos, hand-drawn renderings were clear conceptualizations—one architect’s interpretation of the future.

Enter the computer and its ability to create realities that don’t yet exist.  We’ve come so far since the early days of computer conceptualization, when architects created cut-ins to insert a rendering into a photo of the site and its context.  You could change the viewpoint and embellish with greater detail, step-by-step and stage-by-stage.  But clearly, the image was still a rendering.

Hand vs Computer Renderings

Hand vs Computer Renderings

With today’s computers, we can create entire worlds with light and shadow, scale and movement.  These realistic renderings are lifelike in detail and essential to a modern architect’s toolbox.  But a little caution should be exercised.  Although clients, commercial real estate brokers, and tenants have come to expect—and demand—these finely detailed, photorealistic images, the building isn’t built yet.  Three-D, computer-assisted renderings can play tricks on both the architect and the client, and seduce us into leap-frogging the thoughtful design process that enhances excellence and satisfaction in the built environment.

In the early days of a project, or even at midpoint, no one can predict with 100 percent accuracy exactly what a building will or should be.  But computer renderings are more photographic than hand drawings.  And in the schematic design process, when details aren’t yet defined or approved, the computer-assisted renderer fills them in so that the unschooled viewer thinks, “This is it.”

Southlake Town Hall: Schematic Rendering vs. Completed Project

Southlake Town Hall: Schematic Rendering vs. Completed Project

The biggest disconnect comes with modern glass and steel buildings. Glass window walls are easier to render than, say, a brick façade with intricate detailing and colors, but we must be mindful of the fact that the appearance of a real glass building changes based on surroundings and time of day.  How does the light reflect?  Is the interior lit?  Could the structures around it block natural light, and even void our vision for a transparent, luminous jewel box?

Computer renderings are an important tool.  No architect would want to forgo today’s technology and limit themselves to the hand-drawn renderings that were our only recourse just a few decades ago. But let’s not be seduced by a computer that may steal away the thought and process that yields our greatest design success. While computer renderings can offer a highly detailed and photo-like impression of the future, it is not the actual future, and we need to help our clients and ourselves to see the difference.

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