For renderings, the sky is fake, so what’s real?

<i>How condo renderings differ from what gets built</i>

In a long, narrow white room on West Broadway, 12 young artists are rearranging the furniture for New York’s next luxury penthouse. They are moving Barcelona chairs around rooms, lining up stools at granite kitchen counters and putting up wallpaper. They are laying carpet and hanging artwork. They are even changing sunrise to midnight with the click of a mouse and a little help from 3D Studio Max and other computer modeling software.

The artists work for the 7th Art, one of the city’s top architectural rendering firms, and they are among a growing community of renderers toiling in support of the city’s real estate marketing bonanza. But widening use of image artists like them to promote new condo projects begs a question: In what ways does the reality of a finished building differ from what is presented in the artistic rendering?

It turns out the variations can be myriad. Of course the weather will always be pretty in a rendering and any persons pictured will be affluent, happy and attractive. But differences can also include cosmetic elements like the color of the façde of the building or shade of a marble countertop, which may change as the project progresses.

In the old days — meaning two decades ago — renderings used to market yet-to-exist apartments were mostly watercolors or sketches. If potential buyers couldn’t quite picture themselves actually living in blurry pastels of interior spaces, developers could at least count on the images to sell the dream. But in today’s market, although hand-drawn renderings are still used by some developers, leaving anything up to the buyer’s imagination presents a certain risk. If future buyers can’t see actual corners of the crown molding and the toilet paper roll on the wall of the powder room months or even years ahead of time, they might just walk away.

“A good rendering really looks like a photograph,” said Brown Harris Stevens broker Wendy Maitland, who is also managing director of the firm’s I.D. Marketing Group, which markets new developments. “There’s a lot of very minute and precise attention that needs to be paid to light and shadow; otherwise, it just looks like a cartoon. Whether you’re going to make it sunrise or midday has a lot to do with the image you’re trying to project. Is it glamorous and sexy, or high-powered and busy?”

Of course, taking image creation too far can backfire. Andr Balazs’ cartoonish beaver and scantily-clad figures used in renderings for the William Beaver House downtown generated a lot of publicity for the building, but much of it was less than favorable. (The sexed-up images were sent packing this summer.)

Now, as photorealistic renderings become the standard for residential marketing campaigns, the pressure is on to unveil them sooner and with more detail than ever.

“Marketing will start earlier and earlier in a project these days. If a detail like landscaping hasn’t been designed yet, and you want to show it, you make it up. But you play it a little more conservative” when it comes to the building, said Ian Kinman, owner of the firm Animation + Images and president of the New York Society of Renderers.

Kinman has a degree in architecture, which helps him fill in the blanks when working with a rendering early on. “If the design of a building is still in the cocktail napkin stage, most of us can read that into a full-scale building,” he said.

But unveiling a rendering with too much early detail, like a certain shade of marble countertop, can back a developer into a corner. If the particular color of stone isn’t available at the time of construction, only a fool would delay a project to wait for the shade to come in. Materials change, and renderings can be adjusted during the marketing phase to match new designs.

“Changes happen a lot. That’s a good source of income for us,” said Kinman. “It’s easier to pay renderers to change a faucet than to delay opening a few months.”

Once renderings have been made public, major alterations, like interior room angles or dimensions, are extremely rare even if common cosmetic changes, like switching the façde color, occur. Architectural plans submitted for necessary building permits can’t change on a dime.

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But a disconnect between marketing materials and reality occurs for another basic reason: price.

Ad campaigns typically depict the best that a building has to offer, and that means showing the apartment with the best views, perfect weather and perfect people. A developer uses these images — with sun-drenched views of Central Park, for example — to entice buyers. When potential buyers get actual floorplans, they quickly realize that what they saw was a $10 million apartment and their budget of $3 million will only get them a view of Sixth Avenue.

Renderers said they’re not fudging significant structural details, and that in fact, because of the reliance on computer software today, their work has become more accurate. It’s harder to lie now, because one would have to enter incorrect dimensions into a computer program or significantly alter a view used in a rendering. When renderers were drawing spaces totally from scratch — watercolor, for example — there was more room to play around, said Dan Southgate, a partner at the 7th Art, which has done renderings for 995 Fifth Avenue (formerly the Stanhope), Artisan Lofts at 157 Chambers Street and V33 at 33 Vestry Street.

But there is some artistic license being used, even in computer-generated images. Sometimes, views are drawn from pre-construction photos taken from a blimp or camera sent up by balloon. “Sometimes we get photography on a cloudy day, so we add sky in later,” said Southgate.

“A renderer is always going to try to show an apartment in the best light. You’re not going to show a pizza box on the floor and someone screaming into the phone on an overcast day. You’re going to show one of those sunsets that happens five times a year that looks perfect and makes you gasp,” said Kinman.

But not every third-floor studio apartment has a view that could make you gasp, no matter what the sunset looks like. For cases like this, renderers will emphasize a space’s interior, rather than windows that may overlook a busy avenue or views that are obstructed by other buildings.

Of course, a spacious penthouse with park views can sell itself, while one facing a brick wall may have more trouble. “For an apartment with a bad view, we’ll emphasize the materials inside the apartment,” said Southgate.

A renderer has many methods at his disposal to take a potential buyer’s focus away from a bad view, such as making furniture and beds look cushy and inviting or using photographs of real people within a rendering to focus a viewer’s eye to a particular place in a room. These “lifestyle shots” are as ubiquitous in today’s real estate ad campaigns as kitchen renderings. Plus, it’s possible to show a viewer much more in a rendering than could be seen in a still photograph. With animation and points of view far beyond what a wide-angle lens could capture, it’s possible to create a virtual experience of being inside an apartment that does not exist.

As long as New York real estate sales continue to set new records, demand for talented artists with experience in high-end architectural rendering will outpace supply. To fill this void and to save money, some developers are outsourcing rendering work to firms outside New York and even as far away as China and India, according to Kinman.

Maitland says renderings typically go through 15 to 50 “tweaks” before they’re made public. But even then, there are no guarantees.

Renderings of planned developments along the Brooklyn waterfront, like One Brooklyn Bridge Park, are enticing, in part, for their abundant green space, which in reality doesn’t exist yet, and because other view-obstructing buildings haven’t been built yet. But that may be out of the hands of a developer. While contracts for apartments often have provisions that protect buyers from changes to a space, there still are a myriad of unforeseen circumstances that could get in the way of an exact match between a computer-generated living room and the real thing.

Said Maitland, “That’s why there’s a legal disclaimer on every rendering.”