MicroStation Manager - January 1997

Presenting CAD Projects in the 90s
by Sheldon Liebman

The growth in computer based drawing and rendering tools is having a profound effect on how designers present their project information to clients. Originally, all renderings were created by hand. For the most part, this type of drawing is no longer used in client presentations.

The next phase was to combine computer-based images with artists. For many firms, this is still the method being used. The computer is used to create hidden line removal drawings which are then given to artists for coloring. Before good rendering software was available, this was the best we could offer. Today, due to advances in both hardware and software, there are many alternatives.

Jumping into Digital Water
According to Andrew Amor, an architect and designer at Cooper Carry & Associate, Inc. Architects in Atlanta, one way you can use a computer today is to create watercolors. "A lot of people in our profession like the hand crafted look of watercolor sketches," says Amor. What he has discovered is that you can take a photorealistic rendering and run it through a "watercolor filter" in a package like Adobe PhotoShop to get a similar result. Why create a watercolor effect when you already have a photorealistic rendering? "Sometimes, when you are selling a concept," comments Amor, "it’s better to hold back some of the details."

Even if you want to show the details, there are some people who just prefer to color in the images themselves. Products like PhotoShop provide the tools to digitally create virtually anything you can do by hand, with the added benefit of having the ability to undo your changes and to change colors and materials easily. An entire industry is built around creating PhotoShop filters, so it’s likely that whatever effect you are trying to achieve, there is a way to do it within the package.

The Fix is In
A computer imaging package like PhotoShop can also be used to adjust for inaccuracies in rendering or modeling. Chuck Homuth has a freelance business providing modeling and rendering services in Palatine, IL (outside of Chicago). He also works for the Village of Arlington Heights. Mostly, Homuth is involved in visualization rather than engineering, so it’s more important for him to get the right look than to be absolutely accurate.

"I get the overall dimensions correct and then I’ll eyeball everything," explains Homuth. "This really accelerates the process" of creating the models and the images. "In a picture, you’re not worried about an inch, which is one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn coming from an engineering background." For Homuth, PhotoShop provides a correcting tool "if you run into something like the corners don’t match up." He also uses it "to chop little chunks of pictures out and use them as patterns or change the colors if they aren’t quite right."

Another area where PhotoShop helps Homuth is with shadows and lights. "Getting the lighting correct is one of the hardest parts of rendering. Sometimes, you don’t get it exactly right and you can fix it with PhotoShop." Trying to do this from the modeling and rendering sides of the process would take too much time and add too much expense to the projects. "People want results in three days," adds Homuth, "so you’ve got to find a happy medium."

Is it Real or is it Rendered?
One fast growing presentation area today is merging photorealistic renderings with actual photographs. If the rendering is created properly, it might not even be possible for many people to tell there is a computer generated image in the final result.

At ModelVision in Madison, AL, Bill Hanson has been getting a lot of experience with this type of result. "We do a lot of photo matched renderings," says Hanson. When you work this way, "you don’t have to model anything that already exists." What is even more important is that clients trust these types of images more than other types of renderings. According to Hanson, "Ninety percent of what’s shown is exactly the way it is. You can’t cheat on the spacing of the building and how it fits with the trees like you can do with hand renderings or completely computer generated images.

In the NYC office of Gensler, the largest architectural firm in the country, Project Architect Michael Kennedy sometimes takes extraordinary steps to ensure that the renderings they create accurately reflect reality. "For clients with major renovations, we’ll do photorealistic renderings of specific areas," says Kennedy. In order to get the best results possible, "we’ll scan in the materials and hold them up to the screen to make sure they match."

Another company that scans in a lot of materials is Harley Ellington Design in Southfield, MI. Chris Schmidt, one of the firm’s designers, remembers one particular project they did for a hospital. "We scanned in all the materials, the wallpapers, the fabrics for the chairs and created a series of 8 or 9 renderings." More recently, Schmidt did "an employee lounge and training room where we scanned in the fabric and the carpet." Going to all this effort not only results in better looking images, but can also have the benefit of really impressing the clients.

Amor sees rendering as a means to an end, which is to create an architecture that gets built. "Photorealism is a snapshot of future reality," he says. In order to make sure that he can capture that vision, Amor makes sure his renderings have "reflections in the glass, or if you look at polished granite or marble, you’ve got to render it with bump maps and/or reflection maps that let you look at the texture."

Presenting Digital Images
Once you’ve created your images, whether photorealistic or not, the next step is to put them into the form that your clients (or potential clients) will see. Since they start on the computer, there are a significant number of options at this point.

First, you can print them out so they can be viewed in the most traditional way. For some people, there is a strong need to be able to touch the pictures in order to make a connection to the concept. For images up to 11"x17", Amor uses a continuous tone printer in the Cooper Carry office. For larger, mounted plots, they use a service bureau that prints from the digital file. At ModelVision, they stay in house for up to 24"x36" images. Homuth doesn’t have any color printing capability in his office, but he uses a local print shop with good results.

Another way to show the images to your clients is to display them on the computer. Depending upon how many people will view the images at once, you can either all gather around the screen or it may be more appropriate to send the output to a large data monitor or data projector.

Pat McMillan, an architect with Barge, Waggoner, Canon and Sumner in Nashville, TN, thinks "the computer screen looks better than anything else. If I’m showing renderings, we’ll use image display software on the computer."

Since Homuth provides services to other design firms, he doesn’t always get involved in presenting the renderings to the ultimate client. In at least one case, though, his client "incorporated my images into their (Microsoft) PowerPoint demonstration."

Making Your Images Come Alive
Even the best still image can only convey a limited amount of information. To really make an impact, many firms are discovering the benefits of animated presentations. With animation, you can take your client on a "tour" of a building or site that doesn’t necessarily exist. Rather than showing one view, you can show many. Although it takes a lot more work (and sometimes a lot more equipment), the results can be very impressive.

"Animation is something that’s new to our profession and it’s exciting," says Amor. If you want to deal with time and movement through space, he adds, "it can best be communicated through animation. We do a lot of urban design and (office) complexes. One of our fortes is dealing with the spaces between buildings. Animation lets us see the progression of those spaces as you drive up a boulevard. As you turn a corner, it shows you a courtyard or a fountain. These are difficult to convey in a scale model."

Another advantage to using animation is that is shows the client how the project will look from a realistic vantage point. "We do walk by and drive by animation instead of fly by as most people don’t have access to helicopters," says Amor. "We also go into lobbies" for a nice effect.

The animation that Amor creates is saved to disk as an AVI format movie and then played back on the computer. Within the next few months, he hopes to get equipment that will allow him to create full resolution animation to videotape. "We really like playing back on the computer because it’s fresh and dynamic," comments Amor, but people can take (videotape) home with them."

At ModelVision, they have the ability to do animation either on the computer or to videotape. "We’ve got a traditional system of single frame recording to tape to get the highest quality," says Hanson. "We also play back computer screen animation, although you take a real hit in quality when you go to AVI." For some projects, they create both versions and give the client a video to take home and an AVI movie on CD-ROM. By having a choice, his clients are more likely to succeed. "It depends on who’s going to see the presentation," he adds. "Some people are very impressed by seeing a movie on a laptop even if the resolution is lower."

Sometimes the project you’re creating just screams for animation. This past summer, McMillan designed a stadium for NTSU (Northern Tennessee State University) that fit this description. "They wanted to see us fly through the stadium," he says, so they made a video. Barge, Waggoner, Canon and Sumner doesn’t have the equipment to create video animation in-house, so McMillan "generated the frames and used an off site service to lay it down on video."

A Different Kind of Animation
Although Amor uses traditional animation, he wants to move beyond that into a virtual reality approach. "Saving 300-1000 frames driving into a project is worthwhile, but if you want to stop and pan around, it won’t work." Although Amor acknowledges that the idea of virtual reality is unrealistic with the technology we have today, he thinks a technology like Apple’s QuickTime VR could be very useful. With QTVR, "you save a hemispherical image and you can move around it interactively. That can give the client a real sense of freedom."

Let Me Show You How It’s Done
For the ultimate in freedom, however, you can take your client on a guided tour of your technology. In "The Wizard of Oz," we were all told to ignore "the man behind the curtain." The effect being created was much more significant than the technology behind it. A few years ago, when modeling and rendering tools were slow and cumbersome, this was also true of CAD projects. How we created the models and the renderings was irrelevant compared to the end result.

Today, computers are significantly faster and software tools have been improved to the point where many operations can be performed in real time or very close to it. So, why not take the client into your world and give him or her a real up close look not only at the result, but the process? At some companies, they are doing just that.

Last year, Harley Ellington’s Schmidt used this approach to pitch a potential new client on using the firm for an apartment project. "We brought the system to their conference room and set it up," he explains. "We started with a wire frame view of the sight, did some quick shadings and then did a couple of material attachments to the building from brick to a wood siding. We also worked with a mock floor plan of a typical studio and showed how we can manipulate the walls and change the layout quickly. The client said we were the best presentation they had." Since then, Schmidt has used the same approach with some other clients and continues to get very positive reactions.

McMillan also takes his clients into the software on a regular basis. After they see the renderings on the computer, they go inside and look around. Recently, McMillan was working with some clients from Canada. "They were really interested in how their building was going to sit on a particular site," he says, so they just fired up the software and did it live.

Using the Right Tool for the Job
How you decide to present information to your clients depends on a lot of factors. These include your preferences as well as those of your clients. However, today’s hardware and software tools give you a wide variety of choices. Whether you use all, some or none of these is a decision that only you can make. However, it’s nice to know that should you wish to expand into new areas, there are other companies that have been there already and have been willing to share their results with us. Using their examples, you can determine what’s best for you.

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