We see them everywhere: advertised on websites, presented at public consultations, plastered on billboards, and of course, posted in your favourite UrbanToronto articles. Indeed, over the past two decades, architectural renderings have completely transformed the way in which the architectural community presents its ideas to the public. These days, a flashy rendering is almost a necessity in order for a project to succeed. But where do these images come from, who makes them, and how?

We recently had the pleasure of touring the offices of Norm Li, Toronto's largest architectural rendering studio, to gather some insight into the hidden profession of architectural illustrations. The company recently relocated into a bright new office space in the Discovery District, a move that happens to coincide with their unofficial tenth anniversary. The studio actually began in 2003, when founder Norm Li broke off on his own to start a solo rendering career, but Norm's first employees were hired in 2005. The company has now ballooned to nearly 40 employees, and is still growing.

Norm Li, Toronto, architectural renderingsA view of Norm Li's new open-concept office, image by Julian Mirabelli

Norm Li's client list reads like a nearly complete roster of Toronto's prominent developers, architects, and interior designers. And their work doesn't stop there; the firm also has international experience, completing jobs abroad in the States and in Asia. Their fingerprints are all over images of prominent developments across the city; recent projects include the winning Jack Layton Ferry Terminal proposal, Pier 27 Condos, and 158 Front in Toronto, as well as proposals for the Singapore Rail Corridor for MKPL Architects in Singapore. The office outputs renderings at an impressive pace: with six studio directors working with teams of two to four people, they average somewhere around 40-50 projects each month.

Norm Li, Toronto, KPMB Architects, West8, Greenberg, Jack Layton Ferry TerminalA rendering of KPMB, West8, and Greenberg's winning proposal for the Jack Layton Ferry Terminal, image courtesy of Norm Li

Typically, clients will contact Norm Li with a request to produce images or videos for their project, and after discussing the scope of work, as well as lighting, viewpoints, and general atmosphere of the images, they will receive a set of drawings (two-dimensional and/or three-dimensional models) to get started on production. But according to Norm, this is where his practice differs from most. "We're a far more collaborative shop," Li states, "most of the people here are either architects, interior designers, or industrial designers."

Norm Li, Toronto, 158 Front, Cityzen, architectsAllianceA rendering of Cityzen's 158 Front, image courtesy of Norm Li

Most often, the firm is involved at the front end of the work, involved in the schematic design, conceptual design, and Design Review Panel stages, and their architectural renderings play a key role in the development of a project. In the process of translating the client's designs into workable models, some design decisions need to made along the way, which can often transform the original architecture itself if the client approves. For example, the font for the signage of the Festival Tower was chosen by Norm because at the time it was his favourite font, and since it repeatedly appeared in most of the renderings, it stuck.

"One of the funny things that happens," Li explains, "is sometimes the drawings aren't fully developed and, because our people are designers, we have to interpret the drawings to the best of our abilities." It may not be what the client intended, but if they like it, they'll go with it. "That's what really sets us apart from the other shops," Li says, "it's not a transactional relationship, as in here's our drawings, here's your renderings. We really enjoy being part of the process."

Norm Li, Toronto, Pier 27 Condos, architectsAlliance, CityzenA rendering of Cityzen's Pier 27 Condos, image courtesy of Norm Li

Flexibility is also key in Norm Li's rendering process. Often times, renderings begin with a photograph of the site into which the building is dropped. But this is problematic, Li explains, as many times the client will want different views, or will want something in the image changed, and then it no longer fits into the photo. That is why the office spends a good amount of time 3-D modelling the site and context, as well as the building, to give greater flexibility with lighting and viewpoints.

Sound Academy, Studio Munge, Norm Li, TorontoAn interior rendering of Studio Munge's Sound Academy, image courtesy of Norm Li

Once the 3-D model is set up, the materials are applied to the objects, lighting and viewpoints are chosen, and cars, people, and accessories are added into the scene. The computers do the rest, translating the data into a raw image that is then touched up or adjusted as necessary to produce the final picture. The majority of their work is done through rendering software, rather than with Photoshop, to more easily accommodate any modifications that need to be made to the image after it's completed.

Norm Li, Toronto, CASA Condominiums, Cresford, architectsAllianceAn interior rendering of Cresford's CASA Condominiums, image courtesy of Norm Li

The firm can produce animations when requested, but they are more interested in pursuing what could become the future of architectural imagery: real-time interactive settings, much like in first-person video games. They are currently working with Cadillac Fairview to develop an interactive virtual model of their Quad Windsor proposal in Montreal, a development involving nine new towers in a derelict area just south of the Bell Centre. Once completed, users will be able to freely 'walk' through the site as if they were actually there, enter into the buildings, tour a typical floor of the towers, and get a better sense of the atmosphere of the new district. The virtual setting can be adjusted to show different times of the day, and will be complete with moving vehicles, people, and even leaves on the trees that move in the wind.

Montreal, Norm Li, Cadillac Fairview, Tour Deloitte, Quad Windsor, KPF ArchitectA rendering of Cadillac Fairview's Tour Deloitte, part of the Quad Windsor in Montreal, image courtesy of Cadillac Fairview

Their interest in interactive models stems from a reaction to the limitations of producing videos. "Animations are painful to do", Li says, "but the other problem I found with animations is that it's just the same thing over and over again. After you've watched it for the first couple of times, it's kind of done; no matter how long or short they are, they get boring". With an unlimited interactive model, the experience becomes more individualized and less rigid, and the possibilities are endless.

Norm Li, Toronto, architectural renderingsA view of Norm Li's new open-concept office, image by Julian Mirabelli

An air of optimism fills Norm Li's new open-concept office spaces, with the company's motto, 'Always Better', overlooking the vast area filled with computers and workstations. The office comes complete with a training area for employees to share knowledge and stay up to date on the latest technologies, their very own render farm packing a ton of computing power, and even a fun area with a couch, TV, and foosball table - everything that's needed to propel the company forward into the future. With no shortage of proposals needing renderings in Toronto and abroad, Norm Li will be busy in the coming years, working behind the scenes to showcase to the public the future of their cities.

Norm Li, Toronto, architectural renderingsNorm Li's motto, Always Better, appears in their offices, image by Julian Mirabelli

Want to find out more about Norm Li? Check out their website, here, or follow them on Instagram with @normandthegang. You can also find links to projects in our dataBase files below with more samples of their renderings. Want to get involved in the discussion? Check out the associated Forum threads or leave a comment at the bottom of this page.