Pricing 3D Imagery

Calculating the price of 3D imagery is similar to estimating actual construction costs. Due to the flexible nature of digital technology, there are some notable exceptions.

The primary expense in creating 3D imagery is labor. Unlike an actual building, where material costs are substantial, a 3D model’s “material” costs are trivial and amount to amortizing the expenses of hardware, software and other assets. This gets back to why we do everything possible to define the project in such precise terms – to direct all of our efforts into creating only the parts of the design that will show up in the final deliverables.

After labor, here are the factors that affect the cost of a rendering, listed in order from most to least important:

  • Project Size – The amount of square feet to be shown in a rendering is generally proportional to the amount of labor required to create it. The world of computer modeling, with its ability to copy and paste, does alter this formula. For example, if your project is large but is based upon a repeating module, this will reduce the amount of time required to model it.
  • Project Complexity & Level of Architectural Detail – In the real world, construction cost estimating is a specialty unto itself. There are published guides and online sites specifying material, labor, per square foot costs for a huge array of building types. Estimating the cost of a 3D model relies on a similar, though far simpler, set of guidelines and assumptions. When we estimate a job, we use a baseline cost that assumes a standard level of finish using standard construction methods, and then adjust upwards or downwards from there. For most of our work, the baseline cost holds true, without adjustment, about 80% of the time. So the rule of thumb that we can offer our clients is that if their project can be built using median pricing methods, the 3D model can too. The reasons for this are twofold. Our production process is maximized around standard building components. We have an extensive library of pre-modeled architectural objects – doors, windows, columns, stairs, railing, etc. – and by dropping these into the model, we can save a lot on labor. The other reason is that typical building practices involve non-organic, by which I mean rectilinear, forms and shapes. It’s more difficult and time consuming to build a 3D model of objects with compound curves, like Frank Gehry’s Disney Symphony Hall, than one with straight edges.
  • Project Data Format – Most designers use some form of CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) to design and document their projects. By far the most common CAD format is AutoCAD, though more and more, designers are using 3D SketchUp models as a starting point. We still have an occasional job that comes in with hand drawings, and that’s usually because the project has not proceeded out of early design development into CAD documentation.A word here on the advantages of receiving project data in CAD format, as opposed to hand drawn. Here’s a cardinal rule we write in bold to emphasize its invariable nature, akin to the law of gravity:
    It’s always cheaper to build a 3D model from CAD.

    The main reason for this is that CAD can imported into a 3D program and used as an underlay, and a modeler can ‘snap’ (think paperclips to a magnet) to this underlay, which allows very fast, very precise creation of all the model parts. By contrast, hand-drawn renderings have to be scanned and brought into the modeling software as an image underlay, which cannot be snapped to. There are software programs that purportedly will turn a hand drawing into a CAD file, but I’ve never seen one that works well enough to use. To give a ballpark cost differential, our shop estimates an additional labor cost of 25% to create a model from hand-drawn data versus CAD, although we always have to review the documents to verify this. This figure is sometimes more, and almost never less.So back to digital file formats – here is a list of the most common file formats we see from most to least prevalent:
  • AutoCAD
  • SketchUp
  • ArchiCAD
  • Revit
  • Maya
  • FormZ
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • There are many, many more software programs and file formats than listed above. For a more comprehensive listing of 2D and 3D software packages, see our Software reference.

Our studio uses 3D Studio Max 2010 to build and render our 3D models. When we receive project data in one of the formats listed above, we must import them into 3DS Max. Importing data between two different software programs is a tricky business. It is very rare that a 3D model created in one program, and imported into another, will be without flaws. For example, in the early days of importing SketchUp models into 3DS Max (around 2007), the errors were often so substantial that it was more efficient to rebuild the model from scratch. Starting with 3DS Max 2010, the importing of SketchUp became much, much better, and now we see errors only in about 10% of the files. The other factor which affects the success of an imported model is how well it is built in the original modeling program. There is a correct way to build a 3D model and a wrong way. If the latter was the case, we often have to re-build from scratch.

Other Considerations

The price factors discussed above hold true regardless of whether the rendering shows an interior or exterior space. We have to now differentiate between these two types.

Factors Affecting Price for Exterior Renderings:

  • Is the site flat or sloped? Creating a flat site is substantially easier than creating one with sloping contours. To create the latter, specialized software must be used to create the topographic model. Even if the topographic model is provided by a civil engineer, several additional steps are required throughout the production process to accommodate the placement of the structure into the site. And the placement of other design components like roads, sidewalks, curbs and landscaping, is significantly more labor intensive on a sloped site.It is worth noting that as the entire planet is increasingly digitized, we are finding that large swathes of existing 3D topography are available for free download from services like the USGS (see our appendix for more info.) But we must still create new topography that reflects a proposed, and hence un-built, site.

Factors Affecting Price for Interior Renderings:

  • Will the project use stock or custom furnishings? Our studio has an extensive collection of pre-modeled interior furnishings that can be placed in interior scenes – it’s equivalent to a movie studio’s prop department. 3D models of furniture and other interior items tend to be complex and costly to create, thus the use of stock furnishings can keep rendering costs within a predictable range. When custom furnishings are required, the extra costs can be calculated and are added onto the cost of the project.

Once a price is calculated for a project, an estimate is presented to the client. This provides an opportunity to carefully review the project and make any adjustments to the scope. Once the client is satisfied with the scope and price, it’s time to generate a contract for the project.


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