Architecture Property Market Insights

Seeing is Believing: The Rise and Rise of CGI

Advances in CGI rendering technology are changing the face of architecture, giving designers and homebuyers the chance to see their property long before a single brick is laid

Against a clear sky, gleaming towers, with a smoky glass finish, reach upwards. Around the structure, its inhabitants are pictured strolling on partially shaded lawns, connected by two curved multistory bridges. And yet, Tower C, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, who won a competition to build a statement piece of architecture in Shenzhen, China, is not built. Instead, the design is showcased via a series of computer-generated images (CGI)—known as renders—created using sophisticated software.

During recent years, the use of such CGI renders—“the visualization of architecture,” as some call it—has increased. They enable complex architectural ideas to be brought to life far more effectively than flat, linear drawings or pictures, and this has allowed architects to push the boundaries of design.

The most creative mind cannot visualize the complexity and geometrical relations that we are now able to create with CGI—without it, we would struggle to communicate to clients the vision and uniqueness of our projects—Paulo Flores, Zaha Hadid Architects

CGI render of campus building
iCampus in Munich, design and render by White Arkitekter, is designed to address the human need for belonging. The timber hybrid construction features co-working spaces, indoor gardens, a food court, and a café in the spacious atrium.

“Over the past decade, visual communication has become part of the process of commissioning a design; budgets have increased, especially with big-name architecture firms,” says András Káldos, CEO of Brick Visual, the specialist visualization studio that created the Tower C images. “In architecture competitions, 80 percent of the submitted proposals were once two-dimensional drawings; now the priority has shifted to presenting colorful, more engaging visual content.”

“The most creative mind cannot visualize the complexity and geometrical relations that we are now able to create with CGI—without it, we would struggle to communicate to clients the vision and uniqueness of our projects. CGI renders allow the complexity of a project to be understood, giving it a better chance of success,” says Paulo Flores, Zaha Hadid Architects and project director on Tower C.

We build the image, showing different angles. We can be accurate in determining how the light will fall at noon compared with the evening, as the software calculates and applies this when we input the location co-ordinates—Igor Kulbych, client manager, ArchiCGI

CGI technology dates back to 1968 when a computer graphics student created a color image of a cube, the first complex object to be rendered in this way. This was followed by a teapot, whose three-dimensional form simulated shadows and reflective textures; a more advanced version of this technology was used in Pixar Animation Studios’ Toy Story films of the 1990s.

That same decade, London-based Alan Davidson, a pioneer in architectural visualization, took this software and applied it to create realistic digital images of buildings. His team’s renders of The Shard—a glass-clad 72-story pyramidal tower—and the elliptical 39 St Mary Axe, better known as The Gherkin, are said to have been crucial in getting the go-ahead for the now-iconic buildings on the London city skyline.

Restaurant with wooden tables, green plants and chandelier lights
CGI rendering allows a glimpse into the future of Aba restaurant in Bal Harbour, Miami, which opens its doors to diners in the summer. The image was created by ArchiCGI, whose aim is to create and deliver pieces of art to their clients.

In the years since, software has become more sophisticated. Today’s technology is remarkable in its scope, making it valuable for interior design, too. “CGI has changed the whole market,” says Igor Kulbych, client manager of ArchiCGI, which is based in Ukraine but has offices in the United States and the U.K. “A project takes less time to visualize, and mistakes that would get missed in 2D can be seen in 3D and fixed.”

In ArchiCGI’s interior renders of the Aba restaurant in Bal Harbour, Miami—due to open in early summer 2022—shadows caused by light flowing through Crittall windows caress brick walls, and glossy pots filled with olive trees reflect the tables nearby.

“The brief comes in the form of a two-dimensional drawing with references for details such as style, lighting, the weather. We build the image, showing different angles. We can be accurate in determining how the light will fall at noon compared with the evening, as the software calculates and applies this when we input the location co-ordinate,” says Igor Kulbych, client manager, ArchiCGI.

The Work of an Artist

Members of this workforce see themselves as artists. “For us, the challenge is always striking a balance between an emotive image versus photorealism,” says André Mathurin, director at Tale London, whose work includes rendered images of the Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland.

Outdoor restaurant at night lit by a string of bulb lights
River Film photographs actors in a studio, positioning them as they will be in the final render. "We give little stories to each image so that our people are not mannequins but proper characters," says David Groundwater, managing partner, River Film.

“An architectural photographer considers light and shadow, and what areas to emphasize to create a more powerful image,” Mathurin continues. “The same is true with a CGI artist. Sometimes that means increasing the light levels around the bar area to draw your eye to it, or redirecting the sunlight so it washes over a tree in the foreground, casting shadows of the leaves on to the floor. This is the difference between creating something that looks real and accurate yet bland, and producing something emotive with a more artistic touch,” he says.

For Water Street Tampa, a mixed development of residential, office, retail, and hospitality spaces in Florida, award-winning production company River Film created more than 40 interior and exterior CGI renders. In one, on a terrace set for dinner, a couple laughs as they tweak lights strung across the space (see above).

“We’re all about visualizing experiences, not just architecture—what it feels like to be in the space rather than just what it looks like,” says David Groundwater, managing partner, River Film.

The integral role renders now play has led many architectural and design companies to set up in-house CGI departments. “Many clients don’t read 3D drawings very well, so in the past a lot of trust between client and architect was required—people wouldn’t visualize their home until it was in the process of being built,” says Brian Korte F.A.I.A., principal at architectural and interior design firm Clayton Korte.

“With renders, people can see what their project will look like in real life and we can show different finishes, call attention to issues, and show tricky detail ideas. We incorporate photographs of the project site into the render so there are familiar landmarks and views, which give clients a real sense of what it will be like to live there,” he says.

CGI image of wooden cabin from the outside
One of a selection of private two- and three-bedroom cabins nestled in the countryside of Nantes, France. Imagery created by Tale London, a firm specializing in the visualization of architecture, interior design, and the built environment.

Virtual Viewings 

Tara Bernerd & Partners was responsible for the full interior architecture and design of the new Four Seasons Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and its renders showcase the elegance of the building with its light-filled public spaces, plush bedrooms, and marble baths.

“We find ourselves producing more and more vignettes for projects,” says Tara Bernerd. “Where once you would only produce a wide shot of a lobby, or hotel room, now we will also produce smaller vignettes as well, which can sum up a detail of the project and really give a flavor of the design. We have become so accustomed to seeing ‘Instagram moments,’ these have filtered down into the way we view projects.”

Having impacted architecture and design, CGI renders are now key in luxury real estate. “Many of my high-end listings are in various stages of construction, and it is difficult to market them without giving potential buyers the ability to see what they are getting,” says Fouad Talout of Long & Foster. “CGI images are so beautiful that they serve as a source of leads, even if those leads do not end up buying that exact property.”

CGI video of a how a residential building in Dubai will look when finished
This is a sample of the type of video rendering makes possible using today’s technology. Courtesy: Dubai Premier Estates.

New Ways of Seeing 

However, still images are just part of the story—increasingly, videos are being used to show a property. The marketing of DaVinci Tower by Pagani in Dubai includes a short video that shows views from the property before exploring the interiors, and the swimming pool and sun loungers.

“CGI videos and high-resolution renders have been essential to marketing properties with transparency and precision during the pandemic,” says Jackie Johns, managing partner of Dubai Premier Estates. “Digitalisation has allowed us to prioritise our clientele’s safety, while simultaneously offering increased options and opportunities to sellers and buyers. We’re grateful to operate in a market where this technology is so advanced, and we look forward to normalising these processes, along with 360 virtual tours,” she says.

There are exciting times ahead. “The technology has challenged us as designers to expand our creativity and this is only the beginning,” says Flores. “As it evolves, technology will continue to open up new challenges, allowing architecture to expand and create more sustainable and spectacular buildings.”

On the Market 

Exterior view of DaVinci Tower in Dubai
DaVinci Tower provides easy access to many popular city landmarks including the retail destination, The Dubai Mall. Dubai International Airport is a 15-minutes by car, while Al Maktoum Airport is a 40-minute journey.

This new residential building with interiors designed exclusively by Italian sports car brand Pagani, has views of Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, and is located next to Dubai Canal. The expansive two to four bedroom marble homes are designed with private outdoor spaces, open light-filled interiors, and panoramic views. Currently under construction, the estimated date of completion is the fourth quarter of 2023 and residences will be available through Dubai Premier Estates.

CGI image of a lounge
Designed by Custom Design Concepts Architecture & Interiors, this estate will provide more than 20,000 square feet (1,858 sq m) of living space including seven bedrooms, a domed reception hall, and garages for 10 vehicles.

Situated in the heart of a prestigious neighborhood, this new home is on the market with Long & Foster Real Estate, Inc. Introduced by a gated circular drive, guests are welcomed into the property via the sensational reception hall with a sweeping staircase. Living and family rooms are complemented by a games room and a home theater with a bar. Outside, a pool presides over the beautiful gardens, with a covered seating area to take in the surrounding splendor.