Some advice on outsourcing architectural renderings

By Kathleen Moore, CastleView 3D | Like CastleView 3D on Facebook
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“Just say NO to architectural rendering sweatshops!”

Architects, developers, and builders need high-quality photorealistic renderings to help illustrate and sell their projects and ideas.  Some have the expertise to do this work themselves, or have staff members in-house who handle it, but most choose to outsource their renderings, at least occasionally, for a variety of reasons.  We live in a global world and outsourcing is becoming increasingly popular in all fields, including the world of architectural rendering.

But how do you decide when it’s time to outsource?  And who should you hire to do the work?

photo - Is this an "architectural rendering sweatshop"?I’ve been interested in recent discussions on the architectural illustration lists I subscribe to about outsourcing 3D architectural renderings.  I was surprised by the consistent levels of anger and frustration in the comments from these professionals about the so-called “rendering sweatshops,” particularly those in China, India, and Korea.  Below are a few comments I collected as examples of the prevailing sentiments:*

“CAD and the internet have made it possible to draft anywhere in the world with all the communication and transferring of plans done by email. The overseas rendering sweatshops are more trouble than they are worth to me. To do anything more complex than a simple box is beyond their capability from what I and quite a few others have seen from first hand experience. As a result of focusing only on the bottom line instead of the value they receive for the money, the company that I used to work for is in a world of hurt now, and they have no one capable of getting them out of it.”

“I called a couple of these last year that showed some pretty impressive work on their $195 per illustration advertisements. I even thought about farming out some work to them if they could do that kind of work at that price. Turns out the images they show on those pages are really $2500+ when they are done. When I asked what they could do for $195 it was as expected. Total crap.”

“I have used Indian based drafting services and even though the cost was much cheaper I was not happy with the service or the finished product and I wouldn’t try it again.”

“The advent of the 3D sweatshops in China, India, and Korea are wreaking havoc on the US market.  They are probably the worst offenders for depleting jobs.”

“The strange (and most predictable) thing about outsourcing to Korea and 3D sweatshops is that they do the bare minimum and get away with it. At first, something looks very good, but the longer you look, the more you realize it’s made by an uncoordinated flock of Koreans profiting on our laziness.  I see too much of it in the arch visualization business.”

“I had a couple conversations over the past year or so with potential clients who have used the sweatshop outfits. They said the initial contact about the job was a great experience but then it all went to mud from there. They couldn’t get call backs, there was a language barrier, they couldn’t get the landscape switched from desert geography to tropical like it was supposed to be according to the landscape plan. They said it was just a miserable experience from the second call on. I was encouraged after hearing that different people from different markets were having the same problems. You get what you pay for, including personalized service.”

It’s true that these comments are from professionals who perhaps feel the pinch of a slow economy and want to place blame somewhere for their lighter workload.  But I have also heard similar stories first-hand from several of my own clients about their experiences of getting burned when outsourcing.

Many of these architectural rendering companies (I’m really not comfortable labeling them “sweatshops”) look professional, have attractive web portfolios, and quote amazingly low prices.  But sometimes the perception of “cheap” prices overseas may be inaccurate.  The diminishing value of the US dollar and a gradual move toward a more comparable cost of living are contributing to an equalization in pricing over the last 3-4 years or so.

One of my builder clients told me about his previous difficulties with outsourcing:

“My architect creates plans using Autodesk CAD and he is very good at it, but he does not do any 3D views. So we used to outsource to a Singapore company that was using 3Ds Max. The problem is that their timeframe is always way too long for us and they are really expensive.  For this new villa, we have used their service again for external views and I am not really satisfied by what they have done.  Each change takes them forever. When I want a simple thing to be changed and when it is only done after 4 requests, then I am dissatisfied.”

And my virtual colleague Patricia Abood recently shared this story:

I ran into a guy on a plane who is an architect, working in Sketchup. We talked about renderings and he sheepishly said his firm sends their renderings to China because the cost is so cheap. I asked him “how cheap?” He showed me a simple building he designed in Sketchup that he sent over to China. China put in the landscape and did the rendering. He said this “only” cost him $600. I said, “I’m moving to CHINA!”

The architect said the only downfall of using China is that communication can sometimes be cumbersome, but once they get the idea across, they can put together a render pretty quick. I asked how long is the communication and he said sometimes it takes a couple of weeks to get exactly what he wants:  “Tree here?” “No…. tree there.”

So how do you decide when to outsource your architectural renderings? 

Sometimes people are uncomfortable spending money on something they think they should do themselves.  But a good rule of thumb is that if someone can do it in half the time that you can… or twice as good… then it’s time to hand it off.  Most people’s time is simply too valuable.  Less frustration, quicker turnaround, and higher quality results are all worth spending money on.

Below are a few tips to help decide when outsourcing can work for you:

  • If the project requires something you don’t do well or which is not part of your core skill set, and it would take valuable time to become proficient at it.
  • If you need to deliver projects to clients quickly and at a quality level equivalent to or better than your competitors – or risk losing the clients.
  • If you have too many projects in the pipeline.
  • If the opportunity cost of spending your own time producing renderings is greater than the cost of outsourcing.

Once the decision to outsource has been made, the difficult step remains of choosing between local quality (which typically involves greater control, fewer communication issues, and fewer cultural differences) versus the often more competitive rates abroad.

To avoid problems, it’s critical to get your research done early and build established and trusted relationships before the need for outsourcing arises. For the most part, those who get burned by outsourcing have not done their homework and get stuck trying to set up a job with a new resource while under time pressure.

Ultimately, you will need to assess your requirements and how you would like your client to perceive your vision. A good architectural rendering professional will be able to understand, work with, and develop the ‘story’ you’re trying to tell. They can intelligently translate your ideas and convey them in a way that will be true to your design intent.

A few points to evaluate when trying to decide who to outsource to:

  • Ratio of price to quality is the primary thing to consider when outsourcing. First look for the quality level that suits your needs, then try to establish a good collaboration.
  • Remember that in most cases, you get what you pay for.
  • A lot of good designers use a lot of different software.  High-end software requires a big financial investment but doesn’t always guarantee superior results; a skilled renderer can produce excellent work no matter what platform they use.
  • Many people feel that it’s best to work locally and build a long-term creative partnership.
  • Be aware that you may encounter a language barrier if outsourcing to a distant country.
  • Working across different time zones can make revisions or follow-up challenging.
  • A reliable firm or freelancer should be willing to update you on the progress of your project whenever you want.
  • When using a new company for outsourcing, make sure to build in time for corrections.

And here’s one final comment from the discussion list:

“After 18 years of doing this, I would recommend choosing someone close to you, wherever you are, someone you can build a relationship with and come to trust their vision and decision process. Otherwise you are going to be baby-sitting the process and waiting for the renderings the morning before your presentation, praying for a good result. Believe me, I’ve been there myself too many times.”

I really like the following very sensible quote from Penelope Trunk’s blog:

“If your project is important, find someone who has done it before, with someone who was great. And hire that person. You could get another bid, but the work would be different, right? And you should hire someone who does good work. And if everyone does the same work, then pricing can’t be that varied.”

In other words, if quick, low-quality renderings are sufficient for your project, then it probably makes sense to go with the cheapest price you can find.  But when quality and attention to detail matter (which they almost always do, even when you think they don’t), you should hire an architectural rendering artist based on the quality of similar work they have done – particularly if you can get a recommendation from someone else they’ve worked for – and then pay them what they’re worth.

Why try to shortchange such an important aspect of a project?

If you have stories or comments about your outsourcing experiences, I’d be very interested in hearing about them — good or bad. 


* The comments used here are unattributed to protect privacy, but these are all actual remarks from renderers and graphic artists on a number of different 3D design and architectural rendering discussion lists.  [Back….]

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3 responses to “Some advice on outsourcing architectural renderings

  1. Although I don’t really market my renderings as much as I do kitchen design and drafting, global competition is not something I’ve ever given much thought to. I did run into someone who offered an online business similar to mine that was in South America advertised in the back of KBDN, but that was a long time ago. Thanks for this very insightful article Kathy. One more example of “you get what you pay for”. When it comes to rendering and drafting… you’re paying for communication as much as you are pretty pictures. The devil is in the details.

  2. Thanks, Pam — that’s exactly the point. No matter how much you talk about and explain a project, renderings are the primary communication tool. And is “cheap” what someone wants their renderings to communicate about them? 🙂

  3. I love that suggestion to include time for corrections when you’re using a new architectural rendering firm. So many people advice to stick to choosing from people with experience. However, I’ve heard that even though it’s a gamble to try something new, it can turn into a delightful surprise.

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