In recent years, we've reached a point where visualizations have become all-prevalent in the architectural profession. Whether we like it or not, stylized imagery is seen as a commodity, and ultimately, renderings win competitions and commissions. Architects have become enamored with beautiful renderings because clients understand pictures better than plans, and yet, the tools used to produce these glitzy images are changing faster than our industry can keep up. But with technology constantly evolving, we may face a new wave of visualization techniques, as the same render engines used to produce the tantalizingly realistic visuals in movies and video games are, for the first time, easily within our reach.
The lines across industries are blurring and companies behind the rendering engines for the most popular video games are now marketing their software directly to architects. This year, the original developers of the game Gears of War have made their proprietary rendering software Unreal Engine 4 free to architects, and many other video game render engines are available for less than the cost of those used by architects. Founder Tim Sweeney believes that the world of visualization is changing, telling The Verge "We’re realizing now that Unreal Engine 4 is a common language between all these common fields." Creating a common language between the presently disparate fields of architecture, film, and video games, for example, suggests that the industries themselves may begin to hybridize and learn from one another. For instance, video game developers may look to architects to understand how to construct 3D buildings, while architects may learn from the navigable virtual environment of video games in order to discover new means of representation. Add to this the fact that these software packages are capable of producing lifelike animated walkthroughs and we are left wondering, why is this not an industry standard? Read on after the break for the pros and cons of being an early adopter.
1. Video Game Engines Offer Entirely New Presentation Possibilities
Until recently, it was extremely time consuming to produce animated walkthroughs with standard architectural software packages that, in the end, still appeared crude and lifeless, and professionals rarely employ this means of representation unless it is requested simply due to these difficulties. Drawings and static renderings often fail to capture the experiential and spatial qualities of a building, but imagine being able to walk through a design to explain its circulation, for example. Or, if the client is choosing between options for interior finishes, they may instantly see multiple options in real time and in varying lighting conditions to make a decision. This is where video game render engines can exhibit their strengths.
2. Your Competitors Are Naturally Slow Adopters
When compared to our younger counterparts in the technology sector, architects have always been somewhat resistant to change. Many offices were slow to adopt computer drafting in its infancy, and the analogue process of producing models and drawings is still an important tool in most workplaces and universities. Architects are forced to work in the physical world of structure and materials, as well as the theoretical realm of drawings and ideas, with the intermediary between these zones being computer modeling. Building Information Modeling in particular has had wide-reaching effects, allowing us to digitally catalog, analyze, and price every single component of buildings long before construction begins.But despite the availability of these incredible tools, many firms have been slow to adopt them and still rely primarily on 2D drawings. Thus, firms that take advantage of video game engines may have an edge on their competitors when it comes to producing convincing renderings. As evidenced by works produced by 3D visual artists in Unreal Engine 4, video game render engines are capable of revealing incredibly nuanced details of light and movement that elevate the experience of an architectural walkthrough. Additionally, these three-dimensional spatial experiences provide opportunities to comprehensively explain projects and understand the experience of a building before it is built.
3. Architects Can Now Use Video Game Engines for Free
Perhaps the most compelling reason to give video game rendering engines a try is that Unreal Engine 4 is absolutely free for architects. Previously requiring a $19.99 a month subscription fee, prices for Unreal Engine 4 were already significantly more affordable than many of the software packages used by architects, and since architects do not produce a commercial product by definition, this also means that the 5 percent royalty fee assessed to video game makers does not apply. Unreal Engine 4 makes it even easier for architects to embrace their software by incorporating training guides and a showcase of architectural visualizations on their website. As more architects begin using video game engines in their practices, it is likely that we will uncover additional resources and tips that are uniquely suited for creating compelling virtual spaces. Clearly, Unreal Engine 4 has assured that cost is no longer a prohibitive factor in obtaining the tools to produce high-end visuals, but the way these software packages become an integral part of our workflow could indeed be an obstacle.
1. A Steep Learning Curve
As some professionals have struggled to adopt even the most basic digital 3D tools, it is easy to see why few have jumped at the opportunity to innovate across industry lines. Though perhaps we cannot be too harsh on firms for their technological illiteracy, as it requires a great deal of additional time and money to adjust to an entirely new workflow. Some forms of 3D rendering software will have a very steep learning curve for those who are used to working in 2D environments and it is not always viable to sacrifice billable hours to computer training.
2. Video Game Engines Complicate Your Workflow
Architecture visualization is still a multi-step process that often requires the use of more than one software package, exporting and importing various elements. This is also the case with Unreal Engine 4 and other render engines, which require one to import a finished 3D model from another program such as 3DS Max. Because architects can already produce visually stunning renderings through 3DS Max plug-ins like V-Ray, some may be hesitant to add more time to the rendering process by complicating it with a video game render engine.
3. Video Game Engines Were Not Made for Architecture
Others question the very intent of using software originally intended for video games because without the proper skillset, they could potentially produce very clear stylistic differences from architectural visualizations. Not surprisingly, some examples of architectural walkthroughs produced with these engines remind us of playing a video game. Determining whether or not this is a problem comes down to the much broader question of stylistic preferences and one’s motivations for creating a rendering. These tools are potentially a danger to architects because they allow us to produce awe-inspiring visuals that lack any real substance in terms of their architectonic, spatial or programmatic functions. In this way, the goals of architects are inherently different than those of video game designers who care primarily about creating a compelling experience as it exists on-screen.
At best, rendering offers us an opportunity to communicate the underlying phenomenological ideas behind a building and present the ideal qualities we aspire to evoke. However, as technology enables us to produces exceedingly realistic scenes, there is also the danger of getting lost in the image of a project rather than its reality. As beautiful as some of these visualizations can be, we have to question what draws us to particular images and evaluate them for the architectural narratives and design decisions they ought to convey.
Representation is only a very small fraction of the effort that must go into designing a finished building, and oftentimes renderings are only one tool in an iterative design process that allows architects to evaluate spatial qualities and their impact. Larger firms have the resources to outsource presentation renderings to professionals, resulting in a higher quality product and freeing up time to spend on design rather than mere representation. For this reason, some firms may not desire to spend additional time or money on creating high-end visuals in-house and the question of what software to use becomes irrelevant. However, when one remembers that architectural walkthroughs could be used as a design tool to help clients visualize and make decisions about interior spaces, the question of whether or not to take advantage of them becomes more complicated.
As these software packages continue to advance, users can expect the interface to become increasingly intuitive, potentially reducing set-up time and making architectural walkthroughs a viable means of representation. However, for architects to gain from advancements in visualization technology and the eventual blurring of industry lines in these areas, we must first learn to approach rendering as a tool rather than an end in itself. The decision of whether not to explore these tools will depend on one’s individual needs and circumstances. By initially sacrificing time to learn and navigate these new ways of producing renderings, the quality of the final images could be substantially elevated and one may discover new benefits to using 3D environments throughout the design process. Ultimately, it is likely that future architecture software packages will allow us to take advantage of video game quality engines in an environment specifically tailored for the clear representation of architectural spaces. The question is, which architects will take the first steps?