Although buildings are meant to be experienced, most of what we see – online and on paper – is purely visual. Visual renderings of architectural designs help to convey ideas and showcase projects long before they’re built.
These renderings serve as important visual tools for architects to communicate with clients, professionals, and the public. In this article, we dive into the details of architectural rendering to explain the principles, purpose, and techniques of this useful visual art form.
What is architectural rendering?
Architectural rendering refers to the process of creating images of proposed architectural designs. Unlike rendering for products or characters, architectural rendering usually involves a building that does not yet exist.
The process attempts to create an image that accurately represents the building, space, or project, providing visual context through things like color, scale, light, and textures.
Architectural rendering has been around for ages, with some of the earliest examples dating back to 2200 B.C. Before computers became mainstream, all rendering was done by hand in the form of pencil sketches, ink drawings, and paintings.
Now, architectural rendering is almost entirely done on computers, with some images nearly indistinguishable from real photos.
Architects use various forms of rendering to more effectively display their ideas and designs. The images help bridge the gap between technical and non-technical audiences, so that more people can understand the concepts and design intent.
Standard architectural plans use orthographic projections to represent the building with several different 2D views. However, these plans can be difficult to interpret, and are often not enough to fully express the overall design.
Architectural rendering gives viewers a more immersive look into how the project could turn out.
Exterior – An exterior rendering captures the outside of a building. It’s a way to showcase the façade, and can often include the surrounding landscape as well. Common views for exterior renderings are “man’s eye view” and “worm’s eye view”.
Man’s eye view – is a perspective from the typical eye-level, showing what the project would look like if you were standing in front of it.
Worm’s eye view – captures the building from a much lower angle, looking up from near the ground.
Interior – Interior renderings show the inside of a building. They are crucial for understanding the relationships of spaces, light, furniture, and finishes.
Ultimately the interior spaces of our buildings are where we primarily spend the majority of our time, and it’s important for people to see how the spaces come together to create comfortable atmospheres inside.
One major aspect of interior rendering is furniture. Although it’s not a requirement, furniture helps people imagine the size of the room, the height of the ceiling, and the flow of the layout. It also gives additional context for how the layout is intended to be.
Another important element in interiors is light. This includes natural light from windows and openings, as well as artificial light from lamps and light fixtures. With light and shadows, the viewer is able to see how the space is lit in different settings and times of the day.
Aerial – Also known as a “bird’s eye view”, aerial renderings capture the development from above. These overhead angles are often used to showcase the full features on site, and to show the relationship between buildings, landscape, roads, and pathways.
While the site development plan shows the features in a detailed 2D view, an aerial perspective adds depth and additional insight to the overall project with overlooking 3D views of the area.
Floor Plan – Unlike black and white plans used for construction, rendered floor plans offer a much more colorful and realistic look.
This kind of floor plan shows less annotated information, but more visual representation with things like textures, shadows, furniture, and fixtures.
Rendered floor plans are ideal for more mainstream consumption, where understanding the layout is more important than having a highly detailed technical plan.
The depth and color in rendered floor plans makes them more appropriate for marketing material and presentations.
Animation – Architectural animation is becoming more and more popular with the advancement of computers and various software capabilities. Animation refers to video renderings of projects, showcasing multiple different angles and spaces all in one fell swoop.
These videos often include landscape, cars, people, and weather effects. Architects use animation to create walkthrough and flythrough videos that show the exterior, interior, and special features, filled with life and motion.
VR – Architects are gradually finding new ways to integrate virtual reality into their workflows. This relatively new technology, when applied to architectural rendering, can produce immersive environments for a whole new viewing experience.
With VR platforms, professionals and clients alike can see omnidirectional views of their projects, and in some cases even walk around and explore the space.
VR adds an interactive element to rendering, and presents new opportunities for the future as the technology continues to improve.
The benefits of architectural rendering
See designs as they will be built – When looking at floor plans, elevations, and sections, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how the design will turn out. Architectural rendering solves this problem, giving you and your audience a far more tangible idea of the final product.
This helps to manage expectations and more accurately communicate the design to avoid misunderstandings further down the line.
Analyze size and scale – A rendered perspective allows you to see how spacious and large the design really is. This ability to analyze size and scale helps architects rectify problems early on in the process.
Size and scale play an integral part in how a building is experienced, and rendering provides the closest thing to actually being there.
View buildings with context – It’s important to understand how the project will fit in with its surroundings, and some render artists are able to blend the site in with actual context seamlessly.
This can include the neighboring buildings, the surrounding trees and landscape, the city skyline, streets and signs, and more. These context renderings are crucial for seeing exactly how the design could look in its true setting.
Appeal to clients and the public – A nice rendering is one of the most effective ways to get people excited about a new project. Whether it’s clients or the community, a rendered photo of the proposed design can have a big impact on approval and general enthusiasm.
Likewise, when the client is impressed by a render, their potential customers and buyers can be impressed as well.
Explore different schemes – When designers and clients see rendered photos, they’re able to explore different schemes to choose the best design, materials, and decor for their project.
Multiple different design schemes of the same view can be generated to get on-the-spot comparisons and immediate decisions by the project team.
This allows them to iron out the details and hone in on design preferences to more efficiently complete the project.
Maintain a connection with the end product – The end product of architecture is a complete building design. Although architects spend a lot of time planning, conceptualizing, and drawing, they don’t often see the final product until it’s done.
Renderings keep both the clients and professionals updated, which helps the design team stay aligned with project goals. Maintaining this connection with the end product ensures that all requirements and design intents are being met.
The challenges of architectural rendering
Learning the right skills – Whether it’s hand-drawing or computer generated imagery, you’ll need to develop the necessary skills to create architectural renderings. For manual rendering, you may want to invest time into learning how to draw, shade, or paint.
For digital rendering, you will likely need to look into different 3D modeling programs, rendering software, and editing. Building the right skills for architectural rendering will make you more prepared to create images in the future.
Having the right tools – Alongside the skills and knowledge, you’ll need to have access to the right tools for rendering. These include art supplies, computers, software, and other learning resources to keep you up to date on the latest techniques and trends.
Some skills can be learned to a certain extent simply by listening and observing, but nothing compares to actually trying and practicing on your own.
Having the right tools for architectural rendering is essential in both your growth, and your actual application of the skills for projects and for work.
Time – As with any major undertaking, time plays a large part in the rendering process. If you want to get into architectural rendering, you will need to devote time to learn, practice, and perfect the craft.
You will also develop more skills over long periods of time simply from experience. And of course in the actual rendering of an image, you’ll need enough time to achieve the overall look that you’re going for.
The actual rendering time should be worked into the project timeline to ensure deadlines are met without delays.
How is it used?
In an architectural design project, the first few renders are typically made during the design process. These renders, used primarily for internal discussion and comparison, are often rough draft images and early schemes intended to help develop and refine the design.
Architects rely on these previews to get a better idea of how things are shaping up. As the design phase progresses, updated images are created until all stakeholders are satisfied with the design.
This process of rendering throughout the design phase aids in the collaboration of everyone involved. Some programs utilize real-time rendering to create live imagery that updates whenever changes are made to the model.
The timeliness of real-time rendering allows for immediate previews and feedback until more polished renders are ready to be made.
Once a design is ready to be presented, architecture firms create final renderings to show to the client. These renderings are done to convey the best features and qualities of the project, with the hopes of getting full approval and positive feedback from the clients.
With architectural plans being very technical in nature, it is often the main images that make or break the presentation. A high quality rendering can grab the attention of the audience and improve the overall sentiment of the presentation.
Marketing & Sales
Developers and advertising agencies use architectural renderings to market projects to potential customers.
They’re able to use the rendered images to show prospective buyers how the building and amenities will look when it’s done, and in doing so they can generate early sales and interest in the project.
Renderings are becoming increasingly powerful sales tools for the real estate industry, and they work hand in hand with architects and visualizers to create the best images for their projects.
Through the use of VR, virtual tours, animation, and imagery, architectural rendering can be used to simulate a wide variety of scenes.
Simulations can be useful for things like event planning, urban design, traffic analysis, and construction methods, to demonstrate how things might work in particular situations.
The difference between architectural rendering and architectural visualization
Generally speaking, the term architectural visualization is often used to describe rendering and the rendering process.
Although architectural rendering is a component of the broader field of visualization, the terms refer to different tasks with slightly different goals in mind.
Architecture is all about ideas, but what good are ideas if nobody else can see them? Both seek to bring ideas to life in visual form. The difference is that visualization goes beyond rendering to express complex ideas in a multitude of ways.
Architectural visualization, commonly referred to as ArchViz, includes modeling, rendering, graphics, diagrams, layouts, and other illustrations that help explain the design more effectively.
Rendering, on the other hand, focuses on the process of creating images that represent actual views of the building.
Many architecture practices rely on seasoned 3D artists and visualization studios to create stunning visuals of their projects, especially for competitions or high-profile designs.
These specialists have devoted their careers to master not only software but composition, atmospheres, and entourage. The growing popularity of these studios, famous for their captivating renders, has made rendering nearly synonymous with visualization.
Architectural rendering styles, examples and techniques
In architectural rendering, a collage is a way to represent a space using an abstract combination of textures, trees, and cutout people.
Similar to an analog collage containing many different images, an architectural collage seeks not to have realistic light and shadows, but to embody the general energy of the space in an artful way.
The base image is typically pulled from a 3D model, and the other elements are added on like a mood board of ideas and activities.
A sketch can mean many things, from a scribble on a napkin to a detailed freehand drawing of a church. Architects use sketching to render quick drawings of new ideas and explanations.
These can be on paper or on screen, and can be used for conceptualizing or communicating.
In recent years, touchscreens and stylus pens have found a new place in the architecture industry, with many architects adopting digital drawing into their brainstorming workflow.
The most life-like style of rendering is photorealistic. Photorealistic renders are made to look as real as possible, with accurate light, shadows, reflections, and materials.
This style of rendering is highly sought after for its realism and appeal. It is also one of the most difficult styles to achieve due to hardware, software, and time constraints.
Scenes with captivating scenery and dramatic weather are often described as atmospheric renderings. This style of rendering sacrifices some photorealism for additional depth and aura, with things like thick fog and rain-soaked streets.
These images are often used for conceptual work, where evoking emotions is more important than hyper-realism. The emphasis of these renders is more on visual storytelling, to allure and fascinate the audience.
In architecture, illustrations are normally used to make diagrams and explanatory figures, but they can be used to make renderings as well.
This style of rendering has no intention of achieving realism, and instead opts for a more expressive, illustrative representation made of solid colors and less detailed objects.
The artistic qualities of an illustration offer unique opportunities for certain ideas and visuals that wouldn’t be appropriate in other styles of rendering.
Illustration renderings are ideal for communicating a particular narrative or the underlying concept of a project.
A mixed media rendering combines several different styles and techniques to create a unified image, using elements such as hand drawings, photo textures, 3D underlay images, and entourage to create appealing visuals that maintain a natural look.
For manual rendering, an example of mixed media would be a perspective done with pen, marker, and watercolor paint. In digital rendering, an example would be a realistic rendering populated with hand-sketched people and trees.
A painterly rendering is an image that appears both subtle and attractive, with entrancing beauty similar to a painting. This style uses simplicity, light, and powerful composition techniques to draw viewers in to admire the fine details.
It combines the principles of photorealism with atmospheric rendering to achieve a unique and riveting aesthetic that grabs attention like a fine piece of art.
What is the architectural rendering process?
All projects have endless angles to explore, and depending on the particular features you want to highlight, you’ll want to think about the best angles in advance.
The first step, much like in architectural design, is to jot down some sketches and drafts of angles or views you might want to try rendering. The sketches will later serve as your guide for potential scenes and important spaces to show.
During this stage you can start planning for things like composition, sun direction for the desired shadows, and entourage elements. Having a kind of a storyboard to guide your rendering process can save you time and energy with a more focused approach.
Next, you’ll need to prepare your scenes for rendering. This can mean manually plotting the vanishing points for hand-drawn renderings, or setting the cameras in a 3D model.
During this step you will adjust things like the view height, horizon line, field of view, and additional tweaks to the model. As you prepare your scene, you will likely reference your sketches to achieve the desired composition that you’re after.
Once the views are set, you can proceed to fine-tuning the visible elements.
Texture and material adjustments
Adjusting the textures and material attributes in a scene is one of the most important steps in the process.
Materials can transform a space to give it an entirely different look, and you’ll want to pay close attention to how each texture is being represented to avoid mistakes in the final output.
These adjustments include settings such as reflection, refraction, transparency, bump, displacement, and more. The settings can make your textures seem more realistic and three-dimensional.
Once the materials are set, the lighting in the scene can be adjusted to affect shadows and dimness. Most of the light comes from the sun, and you can adjust its location to get the appropriate direction, height, and intensity for your project.
Apart from the natural sunlight, light can be emitted from cars, streetlights, signs, and interior lighting. When the scene is illuminated to your liking, you can move on to the actual rendering phase.
The actual rendering part of the process refers to the time it takes to generate the final image. In manual rendering, this is the time spent coloring and inking in all of the details.
For digital rendering, this is the period when the program finally processes the settings to produce your image.
Some softwares use ray tracing as the method of rendering, which is capable of producing more realistic images at the expense of much longer waiting times.
Other programs use rasterized rendering to create images, and these images can be generated in a matter of minutes.
Ray tracing and raster based rendering are both widely used in the architecture industry. The main difference, and the main reason for the massive gap in rendering times between the two, lies in the way they perform the rendering computations.
Ray tracing uses a large amount of computing power to simulate the actual behavior of light within the scene, accounting for every single ray spreading out onto surfaces, reflecting and refracting off of materials and objects.
Meanwhile, rasterized rendering takes shortcut approaches to achieve similar results. Raster based rendering programs use graphics power to estimate things like reflection and light, causing the final image to be less accurate, but often still satisfactory for many architects’ needs.
The last step is known as post-processing. This step involves additional color correction, photo editing, and overlays on the rendered images to reach the final desired result.
While many people use post-processing solely for finishing touches, visualization studios spend a great deal of their time in this phase.
Professional render artists typically use a generous amount of Photoshop to alter their images beyond what render engines are capable of achieving.
The base renders are made to be as good as possible, but final renders regularly go through several passes of post-processing to enhance and complete the image.
Useful architectural rendering resources
CGarchitect is a well-known visualization blog and community for architectural visualizers and design professionals. On their platform you can gain exposure, find inspiration, and browse through jobs.
It’s one of the largest communities in the ArchViz industry and serves as an excellent place to discuss trends, problems, tips and tricks for all of your rendering concerns.
Ronen Bekerman is one of the top architecture visualization and presentation blogs out there.
The site started off as a way to connect with other visualizers, and has quickly evolved into a full-blown outlet for news updates, digital assets, tutorials, and blog posts.
CGArena is an animation portal for digital artists where you can read tutorials, share your portfolio, shop for digital products, find animation jobs and more.
The site is full of helpful tips for 3ds Max, Maya, Photoshop, and ZBrush. They cater to architectural visualizers, VFX specialists, and 3D artists.
Already one of the largest providers of high quality 3D assets, Evermotion has also created one of the best online visualization communities. They offer textures, tutorials, and thousands of 3D models and scenes for download.
The site is a daily source of the latest news from the 3D graphics world, and artists can upload their work with a chance of being featured on their primary page.
Our favorite architectural visualization websites
In addition to the resources listed in this article, there are plenty of other great blogs and websites to learn from. We’ve curated a few of the finest sites out there to assist in your rendering journey. Find out more about these websites here.
In the architecture industry, a rendering can be the difference between winning and losing a project.
A lot of work is put into an architectural design, and renderings are expected to embody all of the efforts and ideas that went into making it. This can sound like a daunting task for beginners, but once you understand the principles and techniques you’ll be able to start making renderings of your own.
With emerging technologies constantly pushing the boundaries of graphics and visuals, architectural rendering is evolving at record pace.
It can be tough to keep up, but with enough practice and an ongoing desire to learn new things, your architectural rendering experience can be easy and enjoyable.