The tools of the trade have come a long way since drafting tables, triangles and scale rules. Now that nearly every office and household owns a computer, the work that we do as designers is largely digital.
Software tools play a significant role in the life of an architect, and one of the major benefits of these programs is the ability to create digital architectural renderings. In this article, we discuss the various software, benefits, and resources to get you started.
What is architectural rendering software?
Architectural rendering software is used to create images and environments that resemble the real world.
Architects, students and visualizers use this technology to create perspectives, videos, and immersive tours of their projects. This allows clients, stakeholders and peers to view and experience the buildings long before they are built.
The primary role of the software is to process model information to generate a rendered image. These programs use different kinds of rendering techniques to perform the task.
Some software uses ray tracing as the method of rendering, which is capable of producing more realistic images at the expense of much longer waiting times. Other program’s use rasterized rendering to create images, and these images can be generated in a matter of minutes.
Many programs also feature extensive asset libraries, which can include such elements as materials, plants, furniture, objects, and environments that can be used alongside your 3D model.
Ray tracing vs rasterized rendering
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.
What is real-time rendering?
Real-time rendering is used to move around and interact with a render environment. The term refers to the quick and constant updating of rendered imagery, such that it feels real-time and interactive.
This type of interface allows for high quality previews within the viewport before creating a final image. The preview makes it easier to adjust things like camera angles, textures, light, and shadow, and can also guide designers in making informed decisions about the spaces.
There are real-time rendering tools for both ray tracing and raster programs, and as computers continue to improve, real-time solutions will become more widely available.
Essentially, these programs make use of powerful computer hardware to create video game-like environments out of your 3D models. Images are updated with every movement and can be synchronized to update with every change to the 3D model as well.
Why is it important to have good rendering software?
Realistic renders, which were once an artform only achieved by the finest artistic hands, are now within arms reach with some of the latest software products.
A high quality rendering can be the difference between winning and losing a project, and in the increasingly competitive architecture industry, a stunning image can make a big difference.
In order to produce high quality visuals to showcase your projects, you or course need to using the right tools. Having good rendering software is vital to ensure that your designs are shown in the best way possible.
With fast, accurate, and visually pleasing renders, you can save time and resources by getting it right the first time around.
What is the best software for architectural rendering?
There are plenty of software programs available for architectural rendering, but choosing the right one can be a tricky task. Each has its own benefits, and you’ll want to find one that suits your needs while also being compatible with your other programs.
If the rendering software works well with your current 3D modeling workflow, it can be integrated more seamlessly into your overall production process.
…and so here’s a breakdown of some of the best software applications for architectural rendering:
V-Ray is one of the industry leaders for architectural rendering due to it being capable of achieving high level photorealism, but it has long been behind in terms of render speed, interface, and ease of use.
Their latest versions, however, have addressed these concerns with intuitive new features like real-time rendering, interactive modes, and a new look for the V-Ray panel.
Additional features include built-in materials, an online asset library, and compatibility with cloud rendering services. The asset library, Chaos Cosmos, allows you to add detailed, render-ready 3D content to your V-Ray projects in minutes.
The cloud service, Chaos Cloud, is a one-click cloud rendering solution. V-Ray is compatible with render farms and other cloud rendering solutions as well. These services take the load off of your computer by rendering your image on a much larger network of computers to save you time and resources.
Corona Renderer has been growing in popularity due to its simple settings and realistic results. It solely uses CPU power to render images, and it uses a lean ray tracing process to produce photorealism within reasonable rendering times.
At the moment, the only fully supported application is Autodesk 3ds Max. However, the developers have Cinema4D, SketchUp, Maya, and Blender versions in the works.
For 3ds Max users, Corona is available for both Windows and Mac.
Maxwell Render is an unbiased 3D render engine, developed by Next Limit Technologies in Madrid, Spain. This stand-alone software is used in the film, animation, and VFX industry, as well as in architectural and product design visualization.
It was developed to make realistic rendering a more simple and straightforward process.
Maxwell is one of the top rendering softwares for light simulation. It achieves this by cutting no corners and calculating each ray consistently. Previous versions of Maxwell were known to be slow in this process, but their latest update includes support for multi-GPU rendering.
The software supports all major 3D modeling programs.
Substance by Adobe
Substance by Adobe is a neat new set of tools for creating, texturing, and rendering 3D objects and scenes. Substance is widely used in game and movie production as well as in product design, fashion, and architecture.
It’s a go-to 3D ecosystem for all kinds of creative professionals.
Substance 3D Stager lets you build and assemble 3D scenes, set up assets, materials, lights, and camera for virtual photography.
Substance 3D Painter allows you to texture and paint surfaces on your 3D model in real time, using advanced materials and detailed lighting and shadows.
Substance 3D Designer is used to build dynamic geometry and 3D models of all shapes and sizes.
Together, high quality renderings can be made with intricate details and scenery.
KeyShot is an interactive ray tracing and global illumination program developed by Luxion. It is most commonly used for industrial design and product visuals, but in architectural rendering it is used to showcase interior scenes and furniture.
KeyShot’s specialized detail for soft surfaces, leather, and fabric make it a go-to choice for furniture designers. It includes native support for over 30 leading 3D file formats.
Free plugins are also available, offering one-click loading and LiveLinking to keep your design in-sync across applications.
Artlantis is one of the pioneers in architectural rendering, introducing some of the first examples of interactive preview tools and simplistic functions.
It is compatible with all the 3D modeling software on the market, and has recently added support for the universal IFC model type as well.
The tools and features in Artlantis are specifically geared towards architects and interior designers to deliver great renders in as little time as possible.
Twinmotion is developed by Epic Games and powered by Unreal Engine. The program combines advanced rendering tools with a game-like interface to offer an immersive rendering experience that is both easy to learn and powerful to use.
Twinmotion has quickly become one of the most popular rendering tools due to its icon-driven settings, high quality real-time previews, and multifunctional results. It is capable of making images, videos, panoramas, and virtual reality presentations.
It also features built-in support for OpenStreetMap to create accurate light and shadows using your project’s actual geographical location. Twinmotion has a sizable library of offline 3D assets, and additional models and 3D packs can be added to it.
OctaneRender uses some of the latest advancements in graphics technology to produce photorealistic, spectrally correct renders in record times.
It is favored for its speed and it leverages GPU power with AI-optimized processes to get the best results in the best times for animation scenes and architectural visualization.
Octane includes several complex tools to fine-tune models with scattered materials, intricate geometry, and volumetric lights.
D5 Render is a relatively new real-time raytracing engine. It boasts fast renders and a simple interface, with a quickly growing cloud-based asset library containing over 5000 different objects, PBR materials, and people.
Currently, D5 runs only on Windows v1809 or higher, and it is particularly optimized for Nvidia RTX graphics cards.
Blender is known as a public project, a free and open-source creation suite built by 3D artists, for 3D artists. It is a cross-platform software that supports the entire 3D pipeline, including modeling, rigging, animation, simulation, rendering composting, and motion tracking.
With its easy accessibility and global community, numerous tools are constantly being added and updated to improve the software. Many architects use Blender as an all-in-one substitute for 3D modeling, parametric geometry, rendering, and animation.
Enscape is popular for its seamlessly integrated real-time rendering and virtual reality functionalities.
Architects are able to load it straight from the 3D model window, and without any prior setup people can walk around and explore the spaces as if they were there.
It is becoming an essential tool for the design process to analyze space, light, and the relationship of forms. Interactive Enscape scenes can also be exported as standalone executable files for viewing on computers without the software installed, and these can be uploaded for online viewing as well.
The program comes with a small selection of pre-loaded 3D assets, along with a variety of different skies, surroundings, and lights.
Lumion is a very fast and easy to learn real-time rasterized rendering program with one of the largest built-in asset libraries available.
The Lumion library is full of materials, trees, people, objects, lights, and effects, with many of the 3D assets pre-rigged for motion and animation.
The program and its entire asset library are saved and installed locally on your computer, making it a versatile standalone product for in the office, at home, or on the go. It has widespread compatibility with 3D programs, and some powerful tools for shaping land topography, bodies of water, 3D materials, and animated vegetation.
Architectural rendering software resources and plugins
As touched on, there are many additional elements such as plugins and 3D model libraries that aid and add further functional capabilities to the above listed rendering software.
Some are directly linked to specific 3D modeling software, whilst others are more adaptive between programs.
3ds max plugins
FloorGenerator is a plugin that helps you generate floor objects consisting of individual boards which can easily be textured using MultiTexture. It creates actual 3D elements and can be used to make floor finishes that do not tile and do not pixelate with expansion.
FloorGenerator is the perfect tool for detailed, close-up views where floor detail can make a big difference.
RailClone is a popular parametric modelling and spline-cloning plugin for 3ds Max that’s fast, efficient, and easy-to-learn.
Unlike other tools on the market, in RailClone objects are created simply by assembling and repeating existing geometry using an easy-to-define set of rules.
It comes pre-loaded with hundreds of built-in presets, you can adapt existing objects by adding your own geometry, or even create your own from scratch using RailClone’s easy-to-understand visual editor.
Forest Pack is the world’s most popular scattering plugin for 3ds Max. It provides a complete solution for creating vast areas of objects, from trees and plants to buildings, crowds, aggregates, ground-cover, rocks and more.
If you can model it, Forest Pack can scatter it.
Artisan is a SketchUp extension filled with powerful organic modeling tools. It is perfect for designers to create terrain, furniture, characters, abstract sculptures, fabric, curtains, plants, and more.
The tools allow for direct, free form manipulation, bringing a unique sculpting functionality to SketchUp.
With FredoScale you can orientate the selection box around a set of objects and interactively apply a number of geometric transformations, such as Scaling, Tapering, Stretching, Planar Shear, Twisting, Bending and Rotation.
By extension, some transformations can be performed without a selection box.
Tools On Surface
Tools On Surface, part of the Fredo6 Collection, is a suite of tools for drawing on curved surfaces, with lines, various shapes, offset and Freehand / Polyline. It provides an inference mechanism, a Contour Editor and a dedicated Eraser.
Landscaping / 3D vegetation
GrowFX is the most advanced plant generator plug-in for 3ds Max, allowing you to create and animate any plant procedurally. GrowFX creates broad-leaf, coniferous and palm trees, flowers, ivy and other kinds of foliage.
Featuring unique modeling tools, GrowFX lets you create creeping plants, winding themselves around objects of a scene, sheared plants of any shape.
The HQ Plants collection is a bundle of high-definition, carefully groomed 3D trees ready for 3ds Max and Cinema 4D supporting Mental Ray, V-Ray and Advanced Render.
It is put together by Konstantin Kim’s 3D Mentor, and the models are made parametrically.
Laubwerk offers easy-to-use software extensions for architects and CG artists looking for authentic 3D plants, and plant scattering tools.
With drag-and-drop simplicity, and easy-to-use tools that modify the shape, age, season and level of detail for each of Laubwerk’s stunning 3D plants, users can seamlessly add 3D trees to any CG project.
For Autodesk 3ds Max & Maya, MAXON Cinema 4D, Trimble SketchUp, and Python.
XfrogPlants is a professional library of handcrafted CG plants made by botanists using Xfrog procedural software.
Their plants have been featured in over 100 Films and they have recently been nominated for a Scientific Oscar for contribution to the development of digital plants in film.
Every plant is built from scratch for each and every age and season using photo references and real scans of actual leaves and bark.
For over 10 years Design Connected has been helping architects, designers, and visualization studios to produce high-end visualizations for demanding interior projects worldwide.
Model + Model
Model + Model is a popular 3D models store, featuring highly detailed assets and bundles for every category. They are a leading provider of iconic design objects for 3D visualization, with a wide selection of both commercial and free 3D models.
Evermotion is an all-in-one site for architectural visualizers. They have one of the largest collections of 3D models, as well as one of the largest communities for renderers around the world.
Their site features high definition 3D objects, exterior and interior models, HDRI skies, and various Archmodel bundles. They also host contests, surveys, and tutorials to help develop the architectural rendering community.
Renderpeople is one of the leading providers of high quality, lifelike 3D people. They have the world’s largest library of scanned 3D people, with over 4,000 to choose from offered in different file formats.
The people are diverse and in all kinds of settings and poses, and they’re made from actual photogrammetry scans capturing the fine details that bring people to life.
VizPeople provides diverse packages for both 3D and 2D use, including lighting, objects, cutout people, HDRI skies, and textures. These can be used in the 3D render or for post processing.
Their cutout people are particularly special as they’re created in-house, and come with multiple different lighting options and formats to suit any kind of editing workflow.
Peter Guthrie HDRi’s
PG Skies, by Peter Guthrie, is one of the most popular places to get high quality HDRi skies in different settings, weather, and times of the day.
The site is made even simpler by featuring specific tags, including different cloud types, resolutions, and sun angles.
PureLIGHT HDRi’s are a collection of virtually created High Dynamic Range skydome images saved to the .HDR format for use as a spherical environment in 3d scenes.
The high dynamic nature of these images will ensure great looking realistic shadows from the sun.
CGtextures, now known as Textures.com, is a trusted provider of premium texture images. They have high resolution digital pictures of all sorts of materials, and their textures have been used by some of the most well known names in the CG industry.
With a free sign up, you can download 15 free images every day.
Quixel houses the world’s largest and fastest growing scan library for high definition textures with unparalleled depth. Quixel Megascans has quickly become the number one choice for architectural visualization, games, VFX, and more.
These scans feature optimized topology, UVs, and real-world PBR.
Photoshop is the go-to choice for architects and rendering professionals to finish off an image.
Post-processing is known as the final step in the rendering process, and Photoshop is capable of bringing life to the image with people, additional trees, skies, surroundings, and light.
It is a powerful all-around tool for editing and altering pictures, and an ideal skill for architects to have in their toolbox.
Lightroom is a branch off of Adobe Photoshop, specifically geared towards color correction.
It is a handy, non-destructive adjustment program that can completely change the look of a photo with detailed settings for color grading.
Architecture professionals go through Lightroom for the final pass of adjustments before publishing a rendering, to make sure the colors and shades are fine-tuned to the optimal look.
Free architectural rendering software
Rendering software can and will be expensive especially for students, and so the below highlighted programs provide a series of free options for those on a tight budget.
Kerkythea is a freeware software that can produce high quality renders without spending a cent on software licensing. Now available for Windows, Linux and MacOSX, it accepts 3ds Max and OBJ models, with a free exporter for SketchUp.
Kerkythea uses physically accurate materials and lights, aiming for the best quality rendering in the most efficient timeframe.
Freestyle is an edge/line-based non-photorealistic (NPR) rendering engine. It relies on mesh data and Z-depth information to draw lines on selected edge types.
Various line styles can be added to produce artistic hand-drawn, painted, or technical hard line looks. It is primarily used with 3D models in Blender to produce stylized or graphical representations.
RenderMan by Pixar
Pixar’s RenderMan, the in-house rendering program behind some of the most intricately animated films to date, is available completely free for non-commercial use.
It is capable of creating photorealistic 3D imagery, with versatility for things like motion and effects.
Many 3D modeling programs contain a built-in rendering software for basic image creation.
If you’re worried about venturing out to a new program altogether, check if your current software has a built-in renderer and it could be sufficient for your present rendering needs.
There are a growing number of open-source programs available, wherein users take development matters into their own hands. These communities create some of the most useful plugins and add-ons, and they often do it for free.
In architectural rendering, programs like Blender 3D and LuxCoreRender are powerful and completely free.
Many of the leading render softwares offer great opportunities for students to learn and practice.
Educational licenses for Lumion and Enscape allow students to experience the programs for free, with a smaller asset library but all of the essential tools and functions.
Other programs have school partnerships for institutional educational licenses and discount prices. If you’re an architecture student hoping to get your hands on some of these programs, educational licenses are definitely worth exploring.
Which is the easiest rendering software?
Everyone has different needs, making it difficult to determine which software is truly the best for rendering. Some people will favor only the most realistic options, while others will favor the most practical applications to use.
Final output can be largely debated, but user experience is a much more concrete aspect to draw comparisons from.
Known for having one of the most simplistic interfaces, Twinmotion is regarded as the easiest to learn rendering program in the industry. Its settings and functions are built around icons, and the navigation controls are similar to gameplay.
Now that it’s powered by Unreal Engine, users get the best of both worlds for realism and ease of use.
Do architects use Lumion?
Many programs have Lumion beat in photorealism, control of settings, and interoperability, but architects continue to use the program on a regular basis thanks to its impressive speed and user-friendliness.
Its massive library of built-in trees, people, and vehicles make it fast and easy to populate a scene, set up an image, and render. Power users are capable of creating huge city scenes in Lumion for professional render work, and the straightforward video tools make it simple to create video animations.
This versatility and the ability to effortlessly visualize a space for presentations keeps Lumion around as a mainstay in architecture offices around the world.
Which architectural rendering software is best for a mac?
Unfortunately, many architectural rendering programs do not run on MacOS. Popular software such as Enscape, Lumion, and Vray, are limited to Windows PC users.
However, Epic Games has recently added Mac support for Twinmotion, making it the most ideal solution for rendering on an Apple computer.
3ds Max users can also use Corona Renderer for photorealistic rendering on a Mac. For other 3D modeling and rendering needs, there are a few alternatives available as well, including Blender, Cinema 4D, and Modo.
Technology has drastically changed the way architecture is practiced. Software tools have quickly become the primary instruments of architects around the world to document buildings and communicate ideas.
Rendering programs are becoming more powerful and easy to use, and it’s important to keep up as to not be left behind. High quality renders are no longer out of reach, and there is software available for all workflows and price points.
Find what works best for you and start learning today.