Communities and developers alike benefit from the chance to understand the implications of a proposed project’s design. There is nothing like being able to visualize a development and all its elements, such as site planning, height, massing, and even color palettes before it’s approved or built through visual simulations.
What are visual simulations? In short, a visual simulation is an image that depicts, or “simulates”, how a project would realistically look from a person standing on a street, driving from a car, or another world-based view.
While a seasoned eye can interpret site plans and grasp an architect’s design intent from the start, most people don’t have the experience or ability to visualize what a project would really look like. This is why visual simulations are so useful. They help bridge the gap where traditional technical drawings fall short of painting the whole picture. For a city agency that must assess a project based partially on questions of aesthetics, accurate and unbiased visual simulations can mean the difference between a project approval or denial.
There is no official requirement or threshold that necessitates the preparation or use of visual simulations – other than a NEPA-level Visual Impact Assessment, which is prepared for major infrastructure projects within proximity to highways or federal land. Although CEQA requires the analysis of aesthetic impacts, there are no requirements for how an aesthetics analysis is prepared. Outside of official mandates, when would a project need the creation of visual simulations? Here are some of the most common scenarios where they can be most effective and useful:
1. A municipality or agency requests it in the project’s RFP.
A straightforward scenario! When a project has been proposed and an environmental review is requested through a formal Request for Proposal, CEQA consultants will prepare visual simulations when it has explicitly been requested by the reviewing agency. This is usually because the agency foresees potential issues related to aesthetics, or for any of the other reasons below.
2. A project is within proximity to a treasured community or regional amenity such as a hillside, trail, open space, coastlines, or historic neighborhood.
This is the reason why visual simulations are so valuable in the first place! While architect’s renderings and site plans focus on the development itself, they provide very little information as to what visual impacts a project might have on surrounding environments. For instance, a site plan may show a project and its great design features. Chances are, though, plans wouldn’t show what shadows the project might cast on the public trail adjacent to the site, or if it’s tall enough that it blocks views of an important ridgeline of nearby hills. When reviewing aesthetic impacts, it’s important to focus on the project’s surroundings as much as it is on the project itself. This is where visual simulations stand out from architectural renderings or site plans.
The Kelsey Ayer project in San Jose, as simulated from a view in a historic neighborhood.
3. A project has the potential to create substantial light and glare during the night.
Whenever a project with a lot of lighting is proposed, for example, a ballfield with stadium lights or a parking lot, decision-makers and the public will want to know how it will impact nighttime conditions. Visual simulations can confirm or allay concerns about nighttime lighting. If a project has a lighting program specifically designed to curtail impacts, such as dark sky compliant design, these can and should be demonstrated through visual simulations.
Nighttime visual simulations can demonstrate potential lighting impacts at night.
4. A project falls within specific circumstances or community areas that trigger required visuals.
While the need for visual simulations is typically determined on a project-by-project basis, there are instances when the location or size of a project triggers required visual analysis. For instance, required shadow studies for certain buildings to determine shading impacts on open spaces and parks. The County of Sonoma, similarly, requires visual simulations to be created as part of a comprehensive aesthetics analysis for large or complex projects. Each municipality has its own rules and thresholds, while some do not, which leads to my next point.
5. A project has a considerable public interest, or an agency has a particularly active design reviewing board or approval body.
Although a project may be able to get through the review process without visual simulations, the design review board or planning commission may request visual simulations if they believe there to be exceptionally high public interest or that the nature of the project would merit their preparation. For example, if a large apartment complex is proposed on an infill site near Transit-Oriented Development, it is likely exempt from aesthetics requirements. However, if it’s much larger in size than its surroundings and in a highly public location, the reviewing agency may want to assess potential impacts as part of the best practices and full-disclosure gesture.
A simulation of an apartment complex from a very public BART platform in Pleasant Hill.
6. A project could benefit from an internal design iteration and cost-benefit analysis.
While some projects are important for City revenue, they may not necessitate the expertise of an architect to perform costly design iterations. For example, billboards can be a controversial topic depending on their location, but they can be an easy and effective way to generate revenue. Although billboards are fairly standard in design, and their visibility to drivers is crucial to their viability, the difference between a 40-foot tall sign and a 60-foot tall sign can affect the visibility of thousands of cars every day. Visual simulations, both static and animated, are an invaluable tool for City’s and advertisers to understand the cost and benefits of important design decisions such as placement and height of the billboards.
Visual simulations, 3D renderings, animated videos, and shadow studies are all tools that can help city agencies and developers alike understand the potential aesthetic benefits and potential adverse effects of a project. These tools can be used to express in an accessible and effective way what an architect may be trying to convey bringing his or her contextual design ideas to life. For decision-makers grappling with questions of community character, protecting vistas and ridgelines, and other aesthetic impacts, the aid provided by visual simulations can be invaluable; more and more frequently these tools are becoming an integral part of the project review process.
FirstCarbon Solutions (FCS), an ADEC Innovation, comprises over 100 individuals offering due diligence, technical analysis, planning, environmental compliance, permitting, and mitigation/monitoring services for public and private projects. FCS has more than 30 years of experience navigating the complexities of CEQA and securing project approvals. Our technical and legal teams are ready to provide assistance and guidance in moving your project forward. Contact us for a free consultation to learn more about how we can help with your specific project requirements.