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Rendering takes a leap towards real life

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A bit of arm-twisting from good clients persuaded Hanson to extend its visualisation skills way beyond brick details alone

Architects regularly make use of manufacturers' and suppliers' expertise. In the best circumstances it is a two-way process: the architect gets the benefit of the specialist's knowledge and experience; and specialists, even when they subsequently have to enter a tender beauty contest, have the advantage of knowing what lies behind the bald and cautious wording of the specification.

In an ideal Eganised construction world, this is what partnering is about: everybody in the team working for the common goal. It can also happen in real life.

When Montague Architects designed an infill housing scheme for North Street, Derby, a few years ago, the planners were particularly interested because it was an early brownfield development and would set precedents - not least in terms of what brick was appropriate.

For the architects, this was an attempt to get people living in the city centre again.For the developer, Birch Homes, the little mews court of terraced houses with garages and front doors on the ground floor and living accommodation on the two upper floors turned out to be a wild success among the target audience of young professionals. Birch is a Derby-based, medium-size volume housebuilder with an annual output of about 400 homes. It is now branching out into more specialist areas and is looking around nationally as well.

But first its scheme had to get through planning. At the time Montague Architects was in the early stages of installing Autocad.To create presentation images it required expensive 3D and rendering software, which Montague did not have. . . but Hanson Brick was beginning to promote its development of the idea of producing photo-realistic renderings of buildings with specific bricks pasted on to architects'own elevations.

Graham Boyd is senior specification manager with Hanson Brick.He says: 'When North Street came up Montague had come along and said that they were comfortable with our brick - and that they had heard about us developing our 3DCADapplications and virtual-reality software.'

Architect Dave Swan adds: 'We had chosen a Hanson Mandarin Mixture, an orangey-red brick which comes from a unique clay. It's a lightly textured brick and, because the arrises are fairly rounded, we specified finely recessed pointing in a natural colour achieved by using a yellow sand. Below the damp-proof course we used a mixture of blue facings. So we said to Hanson: 'See what you can do.'They produced these renderings which gave the planners a quite realistic idea of what they were going to get.'

It wasn't as simple as that of course.Hanson was in an early stage of its software development. Boyd explains: 'Montague and Birch were well-established customers and we have a good local relationship.We had the problem that we didn't want to over-sell the idea before it had been properly developed. So it was a baptism of fire for us when we said we would do our best with a street scene of the North Street development.

'After we had sent it off to Birch and Montague, the planners reckoned that although the brickwork was fine, the rendering had all the wrong roof tiles, the wrong reconstituted-stone terraces and the wrong stucco rendering on some of the houses plus some first-floor balustrades.

'Naturally the software was designed and tailored towards the representation of brickwork. In recreating the North Street image all non-brick elements had been rendered using standard substitutions of building materials and components within the software package. However, the planners thought that in doing this we had lost some of the authentic style, which the brickwork had given to the image.We acknowledged their comments and, working with the design team, revised the image to produce a render both suitable for the planners but also authentic to the majority of all building materials used within its construction.'

Cutting down on samples This and other early renderings were not, Boyd admits, '100 per cent photo-realistic'. But the current software is now pretty close.That's important because use of this software helps to cut down on the endless production of brick sample panels which are expensive for the brickmaker and tedious for the architect to lug around.

Montague's Dave Swan recalls that 'the final Hanson rendering went, I guess, between 50 and 60 per cent of the way in persuading the planners and the rest was down to the actual brick sample panel rigged up in Hanson's brick yard as part of a wall with a sash panel.'

As Hanson has developed the software further - and with planning committees gaining confidence in computer images - the importance of CAD images has grown.

Hanson uses the standard combination of AutoCAD with 3D Studio Max and 3Dstudio Viz.But it has been tweaked.Following a useful threeyear development period with consultants, Hanson moved over to RIBA Information Services.'We've commissioned them to further develop the software and our intention is to continue with them year on year, ' Boyd says. 'It's nice to be among the first when everything is leaning towards manufacturers providing a better computer-generated graphic representation of building materials.'

The Hanson customisation involves a graphic database of bricks and mortars which is stored electronically as a virtual panel about 6m long, 2.5m high and in a variety of bonds. But an increasing use is pasting the chosen brickwork on to an architect's 3D model of the building.

'The clever bit we have developed is randomisation, ' says Boyd. 'Normally when you are pasting details like tiles, you select the tile and multiply it on the chosen surface. But no brick is ever exactly the same and our software can randomly scramble the bricks just as they are in real life.'

Hanson works closely with architects to produce a 3D rendered image in a variety of selected brick and mortar combinations. To reduce lead times, Hanson would prefer the architect to provide a 3D AutoCAD file of the particular proposed development, though this is not essential.

For architects not yet geared to CAD, Hanson will recreate their hand-drawn drawings in AutoCAD and, where time restrictions reduce architects to two-dimensional modelling, they will create their own 3D images.This is also beneficial to architects who are using other versions of CAD software where file compatibility may have created potential problems.

For architects who are computer literate, there is a facility by which Hanson can provide digital brickwork panels with a selection of mortar colours, which can be e-mailed to the client as JPEG files.The architect can then paste these images onto their own model. This form of tiled rendering cannot yet offer randomisation, although Hanson believes it will be available in the future.

An unexpected outcome of providing this kind of service is that customers almost immediately get used to what a few years before would have been inconceivable. It is fast becoming the least that customers expect: now they are asking when Hanson will produce fly-throughs.

Boyd is, naturally, interested in fly-throughs too, but they require far more preliminary information than a drawing or a CAD file can provide - plus enormous amounts of time and more powerful PCs than the 233MHz and 500MHz Pentium machines on which the current software runs.After all, Hanson is a brickmaker, not a rival to computer-rendering maestro Hayes Davidson.

The memory of those standard representations of tiles and balustrades which threw the Derby planners a few years ago has persuaded Boyd of the long-term need to work with other manufacturers - roof tile makers, window and door manufacturers and even balustrade suppliers - in producing graphics which can be assembled for use by architects.'We think we can gain commercial benefit from this, even if it is not uniquely to do with brick, 'he says confidently.

'In any case, in this Egan era we no longer need to see ourselves as just the manufacturer but as part of the construction team to which we can bring our input about how brick can be used and how it can best be designed. After all, we believe we know more about our material than anybody else does.'

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