Design Visualization

Shortest Route to a 3D Throw Pillow

1 Sep, 2010 By: Michele Bousquet

As use of Autodesk Revit increases, so does the demand for stock imagery, called entourage, to add detail to architectural presentations.

When Autodesk released Revit Architecture as a BIM solution for the masses, no one would have guessed that its throw pillows would get so much attention. Thanks to the inclusion of the mental ray renderer in Autodesk Revit 2010, what's rocking the worlds of architects and designers these days is the ability to add items such as chairs, lamps, pillows, and vases to their presentations.

Called "entourage," these elements, which include everything from people and cars to flowers and furniture, can be used to "place a building in the context of its environment and relate it to human scale." So says author and digital visualization expert Scott Onstott, who reports that the term originally was used in relation to traditional architectural illustration.

"Entourage adds realism and scale to a scene," says Strachan Forgan, an award-winning San Francisco architect and director of digital design at Sasaki Associates. "Entourage can transform a space into a place, and a house into a home."

Although such visual enhancements have been long been used in architectural renderings, the ease of adding entourage content to Revit designs is taking the process to a new level.

Flex Time

What's changed to make it easier to include entourage in renderings? First, think flexibility. Although Revit Architecture was intended as a tool for designing and documenting buildings — not for showcasing appliances and throw rugs — the extraordinary flexibility of Revit families can easily multiply one parametric window into many, so why not furniture and decorative items too? Build or download a parameterized sofa for your Revit model, and you get a matching loveseat and chair in the bargain. A vase can do double-duty as a planter, a fruit bowl, or even a fountain.

There's also the time element. Parameterization brings its own time savings, but with the addition of mental ray rendering to Revit, the most time-consuming and costly steps of the visualization pipeline — exporting the design, buying a separate application, and figuring out how to use it — have been eliminated. Gone are the days when an architect or designer had to buy and learn 3ds Max or Maya just to do a single full-color rendering.

Being able to render right in Revit has resulted in an explosion of Revit entourage for more sophisticated architectural presentations, even for architects and designers who skip the fancy renderings and present with hidden line drawings.  Designers find that these props add not only dimension, but a sense of dynamic reality. They also generate results.

"We use entourage to give a sense of scale to a space," says Kathleen Scanlon at A4 Architecture & Planning in Rhode Island. "It also helps to enliven the design and get clients excited about being in it themselves." It's simple math: excited clients equal more sales.

Finding and Adding Entourage

Some Revit designers create their own libraries of entourage. However, many find their need for these items has outpaced what they can produce themselves, spurring them to turn to other sources.

"Three years ago, we were just starting to experiment with 3D modeling programs," says Scanlon. "Two years ago, we really started to see the potential of the new BIM software and began using Entourage in our client renderings. Now we keep pushing ourselves to create more and more realistic renderings, but we find ourselves limited in the content we've collected."

Revit models of doors, windows, and structural elements are often available free from the manufacturer's web site or from sites such as Autodesk Seek, but most furniture is not. And what about pillows, planters, lamps, curtains, cars — even trees and people? You won't find these types of families offered by manufacturers.

TurboSquid member RVT Custom Content built this indoor pool scene using Revit families published to the company's 3D marketplace, including the decorative arch door at right.

Fortunately, several web sites have sprung up to fill this need, including our site, TurboSquid, as well as RevitCity, ArchVision, and even Google 3D Warehouse for Sketchup files that can be imported into Revit. Content at TurboSquid, RevitCity, and Google is created and uploaded by the user community, while ArchVision generates its own content.

Find what you need.
Web sites vary as to categories and search method. TurboSquid's 4,000-plus Revit families can be searched by keyword or category, such as furniture, plants, lamps, and decor. RevitCity's 9,800 models are organized by master format. ArchVision's catalog is broken into major categories such as people and automobiles, while the free Google 3D Warehouse organizes its huge SketchUp database by keyword only. All the sites except Google require you to create a free account before you can download, and all let you browse thumbnails to visually find the right model.

Add it to your Revit model. You can download the family instantly (after paying, if necessary). Sometimes the Revit family is contained in a ZIP file, in which case you'll need to unzip it with a utility such as WinZip before proceeding. Then drag and drop the RFA file into a Revit project, or insert it with the File menu > Load from Library > Load Family command.

A bonus is that once you find a model that fills a certain need, you can reuse it in project after project.

Free vs. Paid Content

Once you download a model to incorporate in your visualization, you'll probably need to do some tweaking to get it to suit your needs. Highly parameterized entourage, which is typically the most expensive, can be resized quickly and easily. Entourage with little or no parameterization is typically low-cost or free, but will usually require some level of manual resizing to suit your needs.

The only way to determine the level of parameterization on a Revit family before you download it is to check the item's product description, if it carries one. If the item has no description at all — which is often the case with free content — you won’t know what you’re getting until you load it into Revit.

As the designer, it's up to you to weigh the model's cost against the time required to make that model usable. When time is tight, designers often turn to paid content to save themselves trouble. "Spending $5 for a good-quality chair which flexes properly and has materials preassigned speeds up the design process a great deal," says Roger Cusson, BIM (building information modeling) consultant at RK Studios.

Jackie Stephens, founder and director of Europe-based Incognito Studio, notes, "It's better for me to invest in a well-built model than to try and build it myself. For a little money I can save a lot of time, and I know I'll reuse [the models]." Paid content usually also comes with customer support. TurboSquid, with most families in the $5–20 range, offers 24-hour live chat support and a flex-test guarantee on every purchase. ArchVision, with annual subscription plans at $349 and $499 tiers as well as individual collections in the $99–399 range, offers a variety of ways to contact customer support.

More Entourage, Please

It's a safe bet that as the desire grows for entourage and Revit families, so too will the creativity involved, as well as the variety and quality. And with the improvements in BIM and advances such as parametric Revit families, building design has become more personal, cooperative, and fun for everyone involved. As fashion maven Donna Karan once said, "I love building spaces: architecture, furniture, all of it, probably more than fashion. It's about space and form and it's something you can share with other people."

About the Author: Michele Bousquet

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