For architects who render and model digitally, it’s not a matter of choosing a single software, but several. Like car engines enhanced with special carburetors or camshafts, rendering engines incorporate a host of plug-ins and other tools to generate more sophisticated, naturalistic presentations of light and materials. The following group has employed a variety of these tools, but as architect Mark Oldham, AIA, of Boston firm William Rawn Associates, Architects cautions—echoing a still-common refrain—“We’re a firm that really believes in the physical model, so our use of digital software is supplemental to that.”

Adam Amsel, Miller Hull Partnership
Peter Arkle Adam Amsel, Miller Hull Partnership

Adam Amsel, Miller Hull Partnership

Seattle’s Miller Hull Partnership explored creating renderings directly from Revit modeling software, only to up the ante. “We didn’t have great results with Revit’s internal engine, so we exported Revit models into Google SketchUp and use V-Ray for 3ds Max, or even started with SketchUp and then went into V-Ray and Adobe Photoshop,” says Miller Hull’s Adam Amsel.

Amsel believes that SketchUp gets unfairly criticized. “Any input coming straight from SketchUp, it’s obvious when renderings stop there,” he says. “But now with the ability to plug in different things like V-Ray to add realistic light conditions, you can get a lot of mood.”

Amsel recalls a Miller Hull project that recently broke ground, the Bullitt Center, which seeks to meet Living Building Challenge strictures. “The building has a very large photovoltaic canopy. We were always interested in the quality of light from street level looking up at that,” he says. “While we were exploring different types of solar panels, we’d use V-Ray to see if it was going to look like a big black hat or a dappled tree canopy.”

Eugene Kwak, Dattner Architects
Peter Arkle Eugene Kwak, Dattner Architects

Eugene Kwak, Dattner Architects

An adjunct professor at Parsons the New School for Design, Eugene Kwak helps faculty incorporate the latest software into their lesson plans, such as the free program Grasshopper. “It’s like Revit in how it has the parametric aspects built in for geometry, logic, vectors, curves. As a designer, I’m interested in seeing what the script looks like in physical form,” Kwak says. “Grasshopper is also very visual based, easy and intuitive to use.”

In the classroom, Kwak draws from his work in the field. But Kwak’s experience teaching Parsons’s Modeling for Urban Design seminar has influenced his work at New York’s Dattner Architects, too. “Our class needed to create layers of information. If you’re designing something and put it into Google Earth, somebody can add an image, a YouTube video, some time bars showing the history of that site,” he says. “You can just share a link, and anybody can open it up. It became a class archive. The principals in the office decided to pursue that idea in a project.”

Mark Oldham, William Rawn Associates, Architects
Peter Arkle Mark Oldham, William Rawn Associates, Architects

Mark Oldham, William Rawn Associates, Architects Although Boston firm William Rawn Associates, Architects still emphasizes physical models, “with a rendering you can focus or highlight or turn the camera any way you want,” says Mark Oldham.

Oldham favors a combination of Rhino, V-Ray, and Photoshop. “If it’s all about specifics of sun moving through the building, we’ll use Rhino and V-Ray more to show the client how it will work,” Oldham says. “It simulates how light bounces across multiple surfaces. If we’re doing an in-house study, we put it up on the wall and we’re in design-charrette mode. If we’re going to show it to the client, there’s a decent amount of Photoshop post-production. Rhino is really good at getting the iridescence of metal and glass, for example.”

The key, Oldham says, is flexibility. “With our physical models we have a no-glue policy. You can change it right there,” he says. “With a very finished rendering, obviously that isn’t the case.”

Matthew Kreilich, Julie Snow Architects
Peter Arkle Matthew Kreilich, Julie Snow Architects

Matthew Kreilich, Julie Snow Architects

“We use Flamingo all the time for diagrams and quick sketches in house and in some of our final renderings for client presentations,” says principal Matthew Kreilich, AIA, of Minneapolis’s Julie Snow Architects. “For us, it’s the ability to have a library of materials that we can edit, manipulate, and create within that, [which] Rhino doesn’t allow.”

Kreilich isn’t looking for photorealistic images. He aims for a level of abstraction that he associates with sketching by hand. “But that lighting aspect is critical,” Kreilich says. “Trying to render glass is challenging, and lighting is an important component to that effect. It’s something we can’t do otherwise.”

Kreilich also likes how Flamingo incorporates the look of different materials into renderings. “There’s the library of materials that it comes with, or you can also scan in different materials images and add them to those surfaces.”