MARK HOLIDAY KNEW HE was going to have a tough time getting his project approved. Another developer had already tried and failed to get the local government to agree to a site plan that would have put 16 two-family units on the 6.3-acre site in Wisconsin, and subsequently had to let the option on the property go. Holiday, the senior manager of acquisition and development for Waukesha, Wisc.-based Harmony Homes, knew the site had value if it could be re-zoned to allow condos. The town, however, already had turned down a similar zoning request from the other developer.

“I was working on a site that had been previously denied, and I was going for the same zoning,” Holiday says. “I [had] heard about 3-D visualization and thought it had a good use in the right situation.”

He was right. Holiday worked with Jon Chapman at Brookfield, Wisc.-based National Survey and Engineering to create a three-dimensional movie showing the development at build-out. It even showed people walking down the sidewalks, traffic on the streets, and mature landscaping. The planning board members could see more easily how the buildings related to the open space and the trees than with traditional renderings.

SEEING IS BELIEVING: Using 3-D animation, Harmony Homes gained approval for its Seven Pines condo development in Germantown, Wisc., where other similar proposals had been denied.

“They loved it,” he says. “Artists' renderings have their place; we use them all the time, but [3-D visualization] is a very powerful tool. The other project had been denied on 32 units; we were approved for 36. It's not a big project, but it was a nice win for all of us.”

Holiday used 3-D visualization again for a project that included 85 acres of single-family units on one side of a road and another 20 acres that backed up to a golf course. “From the beginning, we told the community we thought that should be a condominium project,” Holiday says. “They agreed, but the questions were, What's it going to look like? What kind of density can we get here? Since condo projects are all design-specific, the approving authorities need to know what you're proposing and what architectural materials you're going to use. We created a video so we could adequately convey our vision for this site.”

Once again, the results surpassed his expectations. He hoped to get approval for about 100 units; he ended up with 136.

Holiday says he wouldn't use 3-D visualization for every project approval; it costs $6,000 to $10,000 to produce one of the videos, which typically don't run longer than two minutes. But it proves its worth on controversial sites and unique sites that make it difficult to convey the vision of the site plan just with renderings.

“When you can drive by and through the development and see from the perspective of it being there, it's really powerful,” says Holiday. “You spend more money early on and go in with guns blazing and knock their socks off. … The money is such a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of development. If it helps us get one more unit approved, it's paid for itself.”

PROMOTE DISCUSSION Creating the 3-D visualization requires a bit more upfront engineering work than a developer would typically do, Holiday says, because the foundation for the computer animation is a finished grading plan that shows how all the roads and elevations of buildings are placed. The animators also need the floor plans of the units to show the elevations, because they'll represent the exterior view of the finished community.

Jon Chapman, the visualization division manager for National Survey and Engineering, says he works with developers, builders, and architects to create renderings and computer-generated animations for everything from government approvals to pre-sales marketing and up-selling options. Builders often come to him for help with visuals early in the entitlement process, he notes, because they know that any money they spend at that stage could be a total loss.