Renderings, models and the real world. Case study: 508 Helmcken vs “ethics of visualization” standards

1111 Richards 508 Helmcken series compare

There is a lot of debate about the integrity of images presented by developers in the context of development proposals. Below we examine some of the tricks of the trade. The goal of “renderings” of proposed buildings should, we believe, be an accurate and truthful portrayal of what the human eye will see if the building is built. Truthful (and timely) visual portrayals facilitate truthful discussion about  the proposed projects. Read on… for a detailed current case study, some of the “tricks of the trade,” and what municipal governments could do to establish solid standards for the “ethics of visualization” (with references). We could provide other contemporary examples where this discussion applies, and may do so in the future.


Are architectural renderings always fair representations of scale? Should ultra wide-angle renderings be presented for public consumption? The main architectural rendering that proponents have used to show a 35-storey tower design for a controversial tower now approved to be built at 508 Helmcken is pictured above (middle). Below we show that what the human eye sees in the renderings is not what they eye  will see get once it’s built.

For comparison, we capture wide-angle camera photos of the physical model (presented to City Council and the public) and of the real world site. One of the points of reference is a building immediately north of the site at 540 Helmcken (note the relative size of this building on the photo comparison).

Average human vision is a little different; people don’t perceive the world as a wide-angle view. For purposes of illustration, the following photo is not a wide-angle view. Anyone can go and stand at the southeast corner of Richards and Helmcken and see how they perceive this space (note the 7-storey heritage building to the right).

1111 Richards 508 Helmcken

The use of ultra wide-angle renderings makes buildings appear smaller than they really are.
1111Richards compare model rendering508Helmcken_compare
Here is a comparison with the real world site (widest angle setting used on camera, approx. 28mm equivalent):
1111 Richards 508 Helmcken real world
Is the architectural rendering part of the “tricks of trade” of the field? Does the rendering follow ‘ethics of visualization’ standards?

Another good test is to see if the approximate lines of perspective converge. Here’s a comparison again between the rendering and a wide-angle photograph taken of the model:

1111 Richards 508 Helmcken compare perspective

Below is City’s public notification sign displayed on the site. Obviously, the City proactively chose to use the rendering provided by the applicant. The developer obviously wants to present their proposal in the best possible light. Our civil servants who process the applications should serve, in a sense, as “integrity filters” to ensure that the public and City Council are receiving an honest portrayal of what the development twill look like. Could Vancouver staff take photos of physical models and use these instead on information signs? Yes. Should they? We think so. The alternative is that the municipal government accepts being used as a pawn in the developer’s self promotion of the project.

508 Helmcken DP sign

Here’s another view of the 4-storey building at 508 Helmcken. How would a 35-storey tower look here instead, as viewed from this location? Read on…

508 Helmcken

The following image is a comparison of the rendering with wide-angle photographs of the model and site (notice the lines of perspective. Is the rendering a truthful ‘perspective’? (Hint: The answer is No.)

wide angle comparison 508 Helmcken

This gets technical, but architectural renderings sometimes use traditional isometric and axonometric projections. However, the rendering above (left) is clearly neither (otherwise the building floor lines would be parallel). Note that the vertical lines do not converge (in contrast to the photo of the model, in which they do). Is the rendering a true 3-point perspective? (Hint: The answer is No.)

By reproducing out of scale, ultra wide-angle renderings, is the City essentially cheating the public and elected officials of having truthful information on which to comment regarding development applications? Are members of the public misled by ultra wide-angle renderings that pretend that large buildings will have less of a visual impact on neighbours and the neighbourhood? Could the municipal government set guidelines or even enforceable standards for rendering submissions? (Hint: Yes.) What are best practices? Should the City refrain from reproducing renderings that fail to meet standards of ethics and integrity in visual rendering? What do you think?

Going beyond that, how about the role of professional associations, which certify professionals and are intended to protect the public? As you can see above, many of these topics get highly technical. Perhaps these associations should be proactive in monitoring the behaviour of certified professionals. And where questionable practices are used, perhaps certification should be reviewed, and revoked. Their role is to ensure that professionals continue to maintain the highest standards of integrity and ethics, with the ultimate goal of maintaining public trust in the profession.

The Ethics of Visualization

From an earlier article on CityHallWatch, we’ve reproduced a section on the ‘Ethics of Visualization’:

Expanding this topic further, we note that academic papers have been written on the ethics of visualization, including one that appears in Landscape & Urban Planning, authored by a UBC professor (see full citation at end). A Visioning Guidance Manual is also available for download from UBC, summarizing the findings of this paper (see p. 80).

Some of the general principles for landscape visualization (these principles also apply to urban planning) include:
Accuracy: Realistic visualizations should simulate the actual or expected appearance of the landscape as closely as possible (at least for those aspects of the landscape being considered).
Legitimacy: The visualization should be defensible through making the simulation process and assumptions transparent to the viewer, and by clearly describing the expected level of accuracy and uncertainty.

The code of ethical conduct has several key points, including:
* Estimate and disclose the expected degree of error and uncertainty.
* Avoid the use or the appearance of “sales” techniques or special effects.
* Avoid seeking a particular response from the audience.

Please consult the full Academic paper on Visualization Ethics for more details:
Sheppard, S.R.J. 2000. Guidance for crystal ball gazers: Developing a code of ethics for landscape visualization. Landscape & Urban Planning, Volume 54, 25 May 2001, Pages 183-199.

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