Architectural Visualization Today

Architectural illustration may have its origins in the earliest cave drawings, and documented throughout history in artists’ paintings, but it wasn’t until the 19th century when Hugh Ferriss, the American delineator and architect, defined  architectural illustration as a profession. Though trained as an architect, he focused on graphic representation of other architects building designs starting around 1912. The artistic practice of graphically representing building designs continues to this day as an integral part of the design process. Since the mid 1990’s the realm of architectural illustration has become mostly digital. There are many hand sketched and painted perspectives of buildings still being developed today, and will always be a part of the architect’s tool set, though the majority of imagery developed for public presentation is now digital 3D visualization. 

The business of “arch viz” as it’s termed in most publications, has struggled to define itself since the changeover from hand to digital representation in the late 90’s. Architectural illustration by an artist, has given way to digital architectural visualization developed by a CAD technologist, and through this transition we have seen the artistic practice of illustration give way to technical CAD models and photomontages. There are many caveats to today’s digital process, artistry has been lost, complexity has increased, timelines extended, and the service deemed a necessary evil in the world of architecture, some times devalued to a crude service offering.

“Today the digital process is necessary with the advent of integrated project deliveries, the ongoing iterative design process, and a visually saturated audience now expecting not only photo real depictions, but animations of proposed designs.”

Today the digital process is necessary with the advent of integrated project deliveries, the ongoing iterative design process, and a visually saturated audience now expecting not only photo real depictions, but animations of proposed designs. With this expected deliverable comes much pressure on the architectural practice to not only develop visualization services but to integrate this imagery with the new development of building information modeling. This combination is proving beneficial to integrated architectural, engineering and construction firms (AEC) as it allows design changes throughout the new process while providing visual imagery, construction drawings, and even animations. This new approach to achieve success in the complex requirements of today’s deliverable is a real challenge.

Now AEC firms are looking for efficiencies in the design process, extraction of cost information from BIM, and provision of high impact visuals and interactive presentations for the client – all at the same time. There is an expectation for many firms to develop the ability to provide visuals in-house, as this allows immediate imagery for review during the design process and fast turnaround visuals to convey design concepts to clients for that 9am meeting. While the skills of today’s architectural graduates can provide this, the challenge becomes availability of staff resources and consistency of imagery across multiple teams. Large AEC firms may develop their in-house visualization teams to handle their multitude of projects, but funneling enough consistent work through these teams, maintaining staff with specific skill sets, the modern practice of decentralization, and the creation of digital assets becomes both a managerial and financial challenge.

Most firms maintain a relationship with a few outside artists to assist in big presentations or demanding timelines, and recently with the impact of globalization some have adopted the practice of outsourcing visuals offshore to countries like China or India. This practice is very common throughout the AEC sector and considered a natural progression to supply goods and reduce costs. In fact, the actual process of engaging offshore work can prove very frustrating and comes not without risk for stakeholders with problems arising from language barriers, repeated design change misunderstandings, lengthy back and forth review processes and possible illegal distribution of intellectual property. This engagement of offshore studios most often results in a break in the newly formed BIM process and works against the goal of an an integrated design process. 

Whether the modern AEC firm decides to adopt in-house development of visual services, outsource to individuals or agencies, or look offshore for solutions, clients and management will continue to expect beautiful images and animations on a tight timeline with that elusive push of a button, but the process is considerably more complex and requires proper planning and understanding to deliver successfully. This is the challenge for today’s architectural visualization industry, albeit in reality closer to five thousand button clicks away and much artistic development beyond the technical aspects. The key to successful architectural visualization is to have a comprehensive understanding of the design process, to take advantage of the modern technology at hand, integrate seamlessly with design teams, and strive to achieve a level of artistic merit in all imagery produced.