(Summary: Digital design has brought us full circle: hand rendering is back as a cost effective way to expedite schematic design and as an important tool for art-directing 3rd party digital renderers.)
Against all odds, drawing by hand is back. Why against all odds? Because hand drawing was supposed to die. Hand sketching and rendering were supposed to be replaced by computers, and to some extent that did happen. But what has evolved is a bit of a surprise.
First, a quick overview of the state of digital architectural rendering...
The digital rendering revolution is now in its 3rd phase.
Phase One brought us a) new digital schools of design ("Blob", "Boolean", Columbia Graduate School or Architecture, etc) and b) computation-intensive enterprise work for 1980s corporate architects who could afford to pay for “fly-overs” generated by Silicon Graphics work stations (e.g. SOM, KPF, etc. I know, because my friend Sean Daly and I provided one such fly-over for KPF’s 1980s design of Samsung HQ.)
In Phase Two, advances in microprocessing and software made advanced modeling affordable and accessible, and every architecture student graduated with the same skills as the Phase One digital rendering pioneers. Their absorption into the workforce made digital rendering (as the natural extension of 2D CAD) the norm, and led to increased expectations for Hollywood quality renderings from developer clients. The democratization of powerful visualization software also led to an explosion of new opportunity for unknown but talented young architects.
These digital whiz kids could now win competitions with designs developed and presented using the same software as SOM, KPF and other elite firms competing for the same projects. (Since the work appeared the same, the firm must be just as accomplished, right?) This phase still endures, and the world is better for the explosion and visibility of talent made possible by this digital revolution, made possible by the historic confluence of powerful digital rendering platforms, social media and self-publishing techniques.
Phase Three brings us to the paradox of the present situation, and the ironic resurgence of architectural sketching by hand: Hollywood-quality rendering is now expected by developer clients at the earliest stages of concept design, but that expectation has collided with a new post-2009 recession business reality. Developer clients who were able to pressure desperate architects to lower fees and increase services after 9/11, and again after the credit default swap and Shearson Lehman crises of September 2008, became spoiled by that leverage and continue to place downward pressures on architects’ fees.
The result is an expectation that concept design deliverables will include photo realistic renderings, shortening project timelines by collapsing concept design and design development into a single phase, saving the developer money (no design development necessary, thank you) and expediting the construction process.
But of course, something has to give. No architect can responsibly design and render a complete project in the collapsed period allotted to concept design. Outsourcing the digital rendering can help, but digital rendering consultants are also caught between the pressure of post-Shearson fees and their own self-inflicted price wars.
As a result, they feel justifiably entitled to just render the plans, sections and elevations presented in the earliest concept phase CAD files the architects provide them with, often resulting in flat, soul-less and unconvincing presentations. Furthermore, because these concept designs were never supposed to include the precision and detail required to facilitate photo-realistic digital renderings, friction develops between digital rendering consultants needing information they can’t make up, and architects being asked for information they were traditionally never asked to provide at the concept design phase. This is not a shortcoming on the part of architects; conceptual thinking free of precise detail is the very definition of concept design.
And therein lies the surprise. Even in our digital age, it turns out that 1) hand drawing leveraged with new digital tools (Surface Pro/iPad Pro, Apple Pencil and tablet drawing apps) can make the design process more cost-effective, and 2) hand renderings can expedite client approvals and re-empower designers by suggesting possibilities rather than over-proscribing solutions, and that is the essence of concept design.
In conclusion, we’ve come full circle. Against all odds, hand drawing remains a cost effective way to design in the digital age, and has become an indispensable tool for art-directing third party digital renderers.
The sketches above and below show actual hand renderings used to save time and money designing a number of recent and prominent NYC projects, and managing the subsequent digital imaging process
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This article was revised March 2, 2017.