Rendering vs. Reality

Rendering vs. Reality

If you follow the A/E/C industry, you may have noticed that the term “rendering” is thrown around casually these days. It can be hard to distinguish the inspiration for a project from the plans for the real thing. It’s no secret that the design process varies heavily from client to client, project to project, but there are some key differences in the visual tools we use to depict a project from conception to construction. I sat down with Adam Warner, Photographer & Architectural Illustrator and Project Designer, Kara Berteotti, to discuss their unique roles in depicting the built environment from hand sketches on a napkin to the near-cinematic experience of an animation. Both Adam and Kara lead internal initiatives on IKM’s BIM and Emerging Technologies Cohort for advancing the use of BIM technologies and virtual reality to improve workflows through better modeling and documentation techniques. Hint: They are different, but they can’t do their jobs without each other!


What tools are most pertinent to your role in communicating design? Have you seen any changes over the course of your career so far?

Adam: It might be obvious, but I work almost entirely in a digital setting. I use more standard tools like Photoshop and other Adobe products, but V-Ray and Lumion are my favorite tools for rendering and animation. With the advent of cloud-based software and lowered CPU wait-times, the efficiency with which I work has changed drastically. I’m able to do more in less time. Back in the day, I would have needed a render farm to accomplish what I do today in minutes. Despite the evolution in my work in just the past five years, I’m most excited about integrating more virtual and augmented reality into the mix and create a more vivid experience that helps clients feel their interactions with a space first-hand.

Kara: While Adam focuses on storytelling with photo-realistic depictions, the design team is tasked with a more iterative series of designs for documentation purposes. The process really depends on the client, but we typically start with hand sketches in more of a “rough and tumble” form of design. I’ve found that people respond best to sketches in early stages because they are engaged in the process and are more likely to ask questions and use their imagination. Once we get past the initial phases of exploration, we translate that feedback in Autodesk Revit to both 3D model and create 2-D construction document sets. Revit is where we do the bulk of our work, but we also use Sketchup as needed for quick 3D forms. Looking back on my five years as a designer, I’ve seen the greatest evolution in how I approach drawings. I used to think anything I presented to the client needed to be perfect, now I see the value in keeping things open-ended and “sketchy” during the design phase for a better final result.


Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s Benedum Center for Dance: 2016


Describe the ideal design team – client relationship in accomplishing your goals on a project.

A: I depend on communication from the architects. I think a successful relationship depends on how the designers manage client expectations through a strong engagement process early on.  It’s my job to insert the human-elements into design, and understanding what’s important to the client allows me to convey the details that matter to the users of the building. The more information I have, the stronger the rendering will be. On top of that, it’s beneficial when everyone on the design team is versed in the software I use. When basic technical skills are shared by everyone, we can be more empathetic to what the other party needs.

K: Client engagement early on is so important. Going to a meeting is not all about the floor plan, so if I can get Adam involved, we can work with a 3D model and catch mistakes before it’s too late. In addition to developing visual resources with the input of the client, creating a set of project goals, or guiding principles, helps keep conversations focused on how design impacts the big picture. It’s very easy for people to get in the weeds, so having a foundation to return to when things go off course has made a huge different for our teams at IKM. When those goals are established, we can create an appropriate rendering that meets them.


UPMC Hampton Outpatient Center, Opened Summer 2017


You spend a lot of time collaborating, what have you learned from the “other side” to improve your process?

A: Well, I’m at an advantage because I have an Interior Design degree, but I continue to learn from the design teams I work with on every new project. Through my experience on a diverse body of projects, I can approach a facility from a different angle and compliment the expertise of the design team. The Chartiers Valley Projects stick out to me as a powerful learning experience because it was one of my first major K-12 illustrations. The renderings were the result of taking in the feedback of not just a company, but an entire community. Just like the designers, I’m always trying to put myself in the user’s shoes to create a product that looks as cool as possible (and functions, of course.).

K: I admire Adam’s ability to use artistic license but also keep his work grounded in reality. When I first teamed with him on the new UPMC Outpatient Center in Hampton Township, I had a front-row seat to the entire strategy behind developing a rendering that accommodates all of the client’s requests. As the project designer, I was worried I had to have all the answers for Adam, but what we really needed to be was a team. Through that experience, I learned how important it is to maintain transparency within our team using better modeling and ongoing communication. “We didn’t finish this” is never a good answer, so having Adam to provide honest feedback ensures that we will fill in the gaps together.


What factors influence the differences between renderings and construction documents?

A: It’s important to remember that no one builds a building from my work. My design intent is to evoke emotion and get users as excited as possible about their product. Budget-constraints aside, renderings serve a different purpose from construction documents, and how much it evolves is a matter of timing. It’s up to the client to determine how precise my work should be. For some, a rendering or animation is needed at the start to communicate an idea to gain support from fundraising and marketing purposes. Other times, the design team is expected to get a head start before bringing me on. In addition to timing, the software I use to create an experience have their limitations. I may choose interior finishes from a library in Sketchup knowing it won’t be part of the scope. I try not to “over-design” for this reason and focus on getting the massing, or shape, of the building in a good place.

K: When UPMC Hampton was finished, I walked around taking photos and noticed how some spaces turned out exactly how it was illustrated and how others just felt different. Despite these adjustments, the client was happy because as they identified changes using the rendering, we explained the trade-offs required, ultimately managing their expectations from beginning to end.  Every building has strict programming goals depending on its purpose, and it’s our job as designers to honor that. Renderings aren’t just for presentations, they are tools in themselves that help identify the aspects of design that will make a difference and what will not.


St. Francis University Fundraising Video: 2017 (Not Designed)


To view more of IKM’s rendered animations, please visit our video gallery on YouTube.


Guest author: Adam Warner, Photographer & Architectural Illustrator

Photographer, Dog Father, DIY Landscaper

Quote: “Creativity is ‘undiscovered plagiarism,’ use the art that exists in the world as a shared tool to educate, inspire, and leave the places we touch better than we left them.”

Guest author: Kara Berteotti, Project Designer

Outdoor & Gardening Enthusiast, Construction Detail Connoisseur, Multi-tasking Mother of 2

Mantra: “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all” – Helen Keller