February 25, 2011 by: Eric Mac Inerney


During the summer of my third year in architecture school, I started work as an intern at Heimsath Architects.  One day, when we were working on a small residential addition, the client came to the office for an update, and due to a number of unfortunate circumstances (a dead car among them), I was the only one in the office when they arrived.  I had pinned all of the freshly plotted plans and elevations on the wall, so I ushered the couple into the conference room, apologized for the lateness of my employers, and then gave them my best graduate school presentation explaining the in and outs of what we had designed and why.  Once I was finished, I turned (as best I can recall this was the first time I looked at them during the presentation) and looked at the couple for what was sure to be excitement, glee, and extreme gratitude.  Instead, I was met with somewhat blank stares.  And then it dawned on me: they did not read plans.  In the end, I ripped the plans off the wall and with some coaxing (and the eventual arrival of Ben), we were able to get them to understand.  Then came the excitement and gratitude.

The ability (or lack thereof) to make the mental dimensional leap from what is drawn on a 2D piece of paper to what a building will look like in 3D is something that has always been a barrier between architects and most of their clients.  We are trained, practiced, and often have a natural gift for this method of thinking, which is in part why we chose to become architects.  But since we are building for our clients, we need to make sure they understand the plans.  


In the past this has meant doing presentation graphics or models (I have seen architectural models that date back to the Renaissance).  I have always disliked the expense and time involved with stopping design to produce a presentation graphic or physical model.  I can think of many instances where, by the time the physical model was complete and out for viewing, some new constraint had changed the design, and the model which costs thousands of dollars was no longer an accurate representation.


When we switched our drafting software to a 'BIM' (Building Information Modeling) based system, we looked forward to using its real-time 2D/3D capabilities to streamline and improve our work, as well as a host of advantages and future possibilities.  I never imagined one of the most important advantages of the change was to really break down the wall between architect and client.


We have found that we can take our models to client meetings and show the spaces we are envisioning to our clients.  Throughout the phases of design, we can walk through the model and discuss what would work best and in some cases make changes on the fly during meetings.  At the dedication of the Family Life Hall at First United Methodist Church in Temple, one of the building committee members came up to me and happily said the building was exactly what they had in mind, because they had been seeing it in the computer model for a year.


Whether it is a residence, a church, or office space, the ability for our clients to see in 3D what a building will look like is invaluable.  My wife and I have been designing a house, and she is a real word person (she is a novelist, so that is good) who does not read plans and who at the beginning of the five year process (cobbler's shoes) did not have a clear understanding of what she liked except when she saw it.   Slowly, through looking at homes tours and the 3D model (and going through a whole lot of revisions), we were able to create a space that she loves. Now, periodically, I catch her navigating through the model.


Real Time Vs. Animation

Real-time walkthroughs are when we take our model and simply walk through the environment (much akin to the way we navigate through video games these days).  This process is simple, quick, and effective.  The picture quality is not as high as a ‘still’ image, but that is balanced by the ability to quickly move wherever you want.  Animation is a process of setting up a path for a camera to move through the model and then recording the images.  This process takes a lot more time and has a fixed path, but the rendering quality and effects can be much more realistic and the videos can be saved.  What we do for our clients as part of our basic services is the real-time walk through.  Animations, which can be quite useful in promoting a project, may or may not be an extra service depending on what is required and the complexity.


Material and Color

One of the interesting aspects of these new software programs is that decisions such as color and materials are being made earlier in the process.  When we 3D model, everything has a default color or material that shows up in the model.  This can cause troubles if you look at an early massing model and get fixated on the material of the roof when that decision is still a long way off.  Similarly, we have found that the colors of the model have a habit of becoming the actual colors of the project.  Recently, we had a project committee choose an incredibly sophisticated scheme of grey and brown for a Fellowship Hall.  The model that we had been looking at during design had white walls (which come out grey in the renderings) and brown trim (wood) as a default, and because the committee got used to seeing those colors and liked them, the actual building is colored similarly.  The fine line to run is how much energy in early design to put into materials when the focus should be on bigger picture items.


Computer technology has been a tremendous help to architects, not just in designing, but in sharing their vision with clients.  Although many architecture firms use 3D software, though, some still draft by hand, which can make it difficult for clients to envision what their architect has in mind.  If you have a knack for extrapolating 3D structures from 2D drawings, this may not be an issue, but for many people, it can make a huge difference in the design phase – and is something to keep in mind when selecting an architect.


Here are two Animation Clips from a Residnetial Model and from a Church Model.  Note that bothe of these were taken from the actual model that we are designing with.  The Church model is from the Master Plan so it is a very early version of what this building may look like.  The Residential model is from a house that is well under construction.  I will also post a video from the house showing the actual construction.

Church Design & Construction/ Residential Design & Construction/ Design Process