Industry Spotlight: All Hail Imagery!

August 15th, 2013

In the communication world, image is king.  If one finds difficulty in expressing an idea or concept, a sketch or image is usually produced to clarify the intended idea.  Some forms of communication are even being completely displaced by imagery which conveys the same message and leaves little or no room for misinterpretation.  For example, the Disney Pixar movie “Up” contains a touching storyline sequence which expresses an entire series of events about the lives of the main characters.  The sequence tells of falling in love, some of life’s greatest struggles and joys, and the heartache of losing a loved one.  This sequence is done purely through imagery without a single word being spoken.  Another example closer to the AEC world would be the Swedish company IKEA which swapped out the traditional word-riddled assembly instructions for their furniture with instructions containing only images of the steps needed for assembly.  This method allows IKEA to demonstrate the steps required for assembly without the need for any text, much less text in multiple languages as is usually required.

The old adage of “a picture is worth a thousand words” finds daily meaning in the work of architects, engineers and other AEC professionals through venues such as sketches, designs, and models.  Even traditional construction plans are simply, at their core, images which are combined with dimensions and text to describe a space, object or design.  As the tools and software to create these images improve, the way in which imagery is created and the quality of the images become more advanced and impressive.

The Transition from CAD to BIM

The phrase “Computer Aided Drafting,” or “CAD,” has been used for the past several decades to identify any design process which utilizes a computer to generate designs and images.  Traditionally, the software used to produce those designs and images were limited to the two-dimensional realm with programs like AutoCAD leading the charge.  As computers became more advanced and software more sophisticated, computer programs began to incorporate the three-dimensionality once reserved for physical models and allowed the designer to develop images which more clearly and artistically reflected the design intent.  However, for the majority of the AEC industry, the software to develop fantastic imagery remained separate from the software used to develop construction documents.  Programs such as Google SketchUp, Autodesk 3d Studio Max and Rhinoceros have long provided designers venues for modeling increasingly sophisticated forms to produce artistic and realistic renderings.  Unfortunately, as modeling is the forte of those programs, development of construction documents and shop drawings through use of that software is tedious and time consuming, usually driving the user to resort to reconstructing 2D drawings of the forms in AutoCAD, Microstation or other production-based programs.

Rendered in Autodesk Revit, The "City-Scape" Office Building, Mark Gibbons & Joseph Palmer

Within the last decade or so, a strong shift has been occurring whereas the two-dimensionally based drafting software (CAD) is being replaced with three-dimensionally based programs such as Autodesk Revit and GraphiSoft ArchiCAD to produce the world of Building Information Modeling (BIM).  These programs combine 3D design-based and 2D production-based software to allow the user the ability to better express their designs from a schematic sketch
through physical construction without the need for multiple programs.  As the software is refined and expanded, tools to render and produce graphics to display design intent are added.  Productivity and workflow increase when the “design” file simply becomes the “production” file without the need to recreate the geometry.

Using 3D Modeling Software to Produce Kingly Images

Prior to 3D modeling, if one wished to detail something in 3D one would produce an isometric or axonometric drawing to display the pertinent information.  Often times, this process was time-consuming and error-prone, and the drawing itself was a stand-alone image incapable of being used to generate further views (such as if a detail was needed from the reverse side).  When 3D modeling was introduced, a world of views, renders, sketches and details opened up.  A plethora of options became available.  Do I make my detail perspective or axonometric?  Do I make a quick view from the right versus a view from the left?  Transparencies, lighting, shadows, materials, linework; so many options and combinations!    And, because everything is modeled in 3D, if one is not content with the view they have chosen, they simply spin the model or orbit the view to obtain the perfect angle for displaying the information.

Vertical Transportation Hub, The "City-Scape" Office Building, Mark Gibbons & Joseph Palmer

As the programs evolve, more features are added to generate better graphics.  One can quite quickly add various graphic enhancements to a view to accomplish desired results.  For example, certain elements can be colorized in an otherwise grayscale image to emphasize a particular focus point.  Ambient shadows can be applied to generate a sense of depth to the model.  Lighting can be used to provide a sense of time; daylight for bright renderings, and artificial lighting for the less-common, but equally splendid, night-time renders.

More artistic images can also be produced by playing with a variety and combination of the effects.  Setting your model elements to be somewhat transparent can give the elements an almost ethereal look.  Add a splash of color and thicker lineweights in certain areas and an image can be produced quickly which would have taken hours upon hours to create on a 2D platform.

Keep in mind that if the graphical output from these programs is not quite up to your expectations, one can also finish some post-processing in image enhancement software such as Photoshop and CorelDraw.

Redefining the Construction Document

Traditionally, construction documents are flat, 2D representations of a 3D form or space.  The project, whether architecture, object or other design, is bludgeoned, filleted and broken down to be laid out flat into plans, elevations, sections and details.  For a long time, this practice has perhaps been the norm out of necessity.  Producing 2D plans is what utilizing 2D software is about, right?  However, with the advent and ever increasingly wide-spread use of 3D modeling software, I would argue that the look and feel of traditional design and construction documents should be updated accordingly. 

Tomukun Restaurant Ann Arbor, MI O-X Studio, Inc

When elements are already modeled and available, why not generate three-dimensional views and details to better showcase the design intent?  Doing so may help eliminate some questions before they are raised, and detailing in 3D may also save time and paper.  What may have traditionally required a plan, two elevations and a section to thoroughly describe a condition, a single 3D detail can be used which includes all the information necessary for construction.

Study of the Loblolly House by Kieran & Timberlake

Shop Drawing for Finish Concrete Counter Top

DWV Isometrics

The Next Phase

For a long time, architects and designers built physical models to express the design in 3D form.  With the rise of 3D modeling software, physical models have, for the most part, gone the way of the teenage toilet-paperer; silently while leaving a huge mess behind.  Frankly, accurate and detailed physical models are too expensive and time consuming to create in our ever quickening, ever under-budgeted universe.  Fortunately, a solution may be slowly building its way back (pun intended).

3D printers, a fairly recent technology, have arisen and use 3D models to slowly print physical forms.  Currently somewhat restrictive in size and material, the 3D printers are rapidly making advances which will allow designers to print physical models of the digitally-created forms.  One can now purchase a 3D printer with many fantastic features for less than a commercial grade laser printer.  As the printers become more sophisticated and more capable of increasingly fantastic models, I suspect more and more models will arise in our professional work.  Personally, a return to physical architectural models is something this author would definitely like to see.

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About the Author

Mark Gibbons

Mark Gibbons works and consults as a BIM Manager for architectural and engineering firms.  He has over a decade of experience in the field of architecture and serves on the Program Advisory Committee at the ITT Technical School of Drafting & Design.  Mark also has a passion for object design and has developed furniture and marketable inventions for a variety of everyday life.

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