ENGINEERS ON SGI WORKSTATIONS in the 90’s could never have imagined this day. More than two decades ago the bleeding edge of computer 3D graphics was soundly in the hands of the engineering and scientific elite. Lockheed Martin aerospace engineers—the majority at least—would have laughed if you told them in 1990 that in the future kids in bedrooms would be propelling the state-of-the-art in 3D computerized graphics. But that’s where we are today.
It should come as no surprise then that technologies, known as “game engines,” are beginning to penetrate the professional AEC visualization market. One such company on that bleeding edge workflow is Los Angeles-based, SPACIALISTS, a small boutique visualization studio solely focused on serving architects and related professionals.
It Seems Unreal
“All of the work now coming out of SPACIALISTS is done with the Unreal Engine and ARCHICAD,” says Jen Oloo, head of marketing at SPACIALISTS. Started a little over five years ago, SPACIALISTS is led by Jen’s husband, Philip Oloo, who has degrees in interior design and construction management. “Clients appreciate that Philip has a robust background in construction and buildings. It allows us to provide added value that most visualization firms can’t.”
We can bake the scene once and then go into the model and go, “click, click, click.” This is a process that is more affordable for clients who want several images.
SPACIALISTS has gone through a big technology shift in just the past year, changing their pipeline from ARCHICAD plus typical high-end renderers, to ARCHICAD plus Unreal Engine. “Four months ago we started to ditch all the regular rendering software,” says Philip. The journey began when he started to explore and teach himself the Unreal Engine, one of the world’s leading computer game engines and development platforms.
The gaming engines have risen to the technology fore because game makers have sought to deliver their creative titles to as many people as possible and that means releasing games for many competing gaming platforms. To help game development studios achieve this, the big game engines have created comprehensive development environments that simplify the efforts involved in coding for multiple types of operating systems and computer hardware types. Suddenly the game engines themselves have looked rather attractive to software developers writing applications for professional markets like the architectural visualization market.
Every architectural professional doesn’t want wait so long to get quality visuals. Time is of the essence. Rather than create scenes in 3D and then send them to a traditional renderer application, Philip creates more complete environments and then bakes the lighting and atmospherical conditions into the environment just once. “We can bake the scene once and then go into the model and go, ‘click, click, click,’ ” says Philip. “This is a process that is more affordable for clients who want several images,” he adds.
Philip explains that the industry standard for creating animations is charging by-the-second. “We don’t have to render each image within the animation anymore. Once the scene is baked in Unreal you go into the model and move around, all the while recording it to the computer like you would record a movie on your iPhone,” he says. From Philip’s perspective, it’s far more flexible and powerful because you have the capacity to adjust quickly to what your client may need, especially when they want more views or difference flows in an animation.
Why ARCHICAD As Modeler
SPACIALISTS‘ work in the modeling domain is all based on the BIM software ARCHICAD. Philip explained that a few years ago when he was looking at modelers on which to establish his visualization practice, he considered tools like 3ds Max, formZ and Rhino. “ARCHICAD just made a lot of sense for architectural visualization,” says Philip, “in terms of library, window editing, quickly generating the various types of windows and doors and also the details.” He says getting the true connection details between elements was also very important to him, and something BIM software like ARCHICAD has an advantage over pure general modelers.
Being aware that a lot of architectural visualization pros utilize Autodesk 3ds max, Philip pointed out that “3ds max was fantastic, but it didn’t come with the degree of smart objects for architecture as ARCHICAD does.” He also noted that he has been able to model complex shapes easily in ARCHICAD as well and the morph tool makes simple work of organic shapes. “I have friends who use 3ds max, and it’s excellent, but it’s a program meant for many other things other than architecture, like 3D character design, animations…for me, ARCHICAD just made the most sense.”
ARCHICAD just made a lot of sense for architectural visualization, in terms of library, window editing, quickly generating the various types of windows and doors and also the details.
Regarding workflow, Philip says that when SPACIALISTS got started, they were getting a lot of AutoCAD files from their clients. “But now companies are sending us more Revit files,” he says. As the industry continues to move further towards a true BIM workflow more offices are able to send him complete 3D models. Philip says that bringing in Revit files to ARCHICAD isn’t an issue. The company uses the Revit to ARCHICAD export plugin in Revit and Philip says it works great to identify what doors are, what windows are, and rooms are.”
Details Behind the Work
In one example render SPACIALISTS created a waffle bar rendering for a client. It is filled with intricate details in the scene, like loafs of bread and waffle machines, for example. But Spacialists doesn’t model everything in a scene. Jen Oloo explains: “Before we do anything we look at what is in the object marketplace…and buy it if it makes sense financially.”
In the case of waffle bar image, they modeled the waffle makers in ARCHICAD. Philip explains that the state of available quality models in the market is changing. “I would say that six to eight years ago getting models out on the web was quite expensive, and companies did not share anything,” he says. “Now I can call any company, like a juicer company for example. I’ve called Hamilton for example and said I need an object and they just give it to you.”
“Now sharing those 3D objects is seen as a kind of marketing tool for those big companies,” he adds, “but years ago that just didn’t happen often.” Another aspect that ties into this is that manufacturers today are designing their products in a 3D CAD environment straight to production whereas in the past they were not. So now the companies have these 3D models to share.
SPACIALISTS is still within the first year of this transition to the Unreal Engine, and Philip admits some clients are still warming up to it. When I asked him what could improve the workflow, he said that GRAPHISOFT could work with Unreal to help address the UV maps issues that can exist in the process. “And the roofing tool is not as strong as it could be,” he added, reflecting back on modeling aspects within the BIM program.
Video 1 – This is an example of SPACIALISTS’ ARCHICAD to Unreal Engine final visualization product. Architecture by (their client) ESALiving.com.
“Our workflow is very different than what their focus is at Unreal because they are not working with many architects,” adds Jen, “they are working with visualization companies and the few companies that are using Unreal are modeling everything in 3ds max, and that is where the focus has been for Unreal because those are their early adopters.”
Yet things are changing for Unreal. Abvent’s popular Twinmotion AEC visualization program is based on the Unreal Engine, and other game engines are penetrating other professional 3D market segments outside gaming. Phil and Jen feel there is ample opportunity for Unreal to better serve the AEC market through ongoing improvements in software integrations. For now, architects interested in this type of workflow—a workflow that incorporates both the time-saving aspects discussed earlier as well as other opportunities that also come from Unreal, such as VR—SPACIALISTS is developing a seminar to teach this methodology. Those interested should definitely jump onboard.