Want to visualize your real estate project quickly? Try collage.

Want to visualize your real estate project quickly? Try collage.

Whether digital or on paper, collage lets you play with ideas — and anyone can do it.

This post comes with a caveat: Many in the architectural world believe that collage is no substitute for a hand-drawn sketch. But not every homebuilder has the confidence to draw by hand. There are times when we want to visualize ideas quickly, in detail, without breaking focus. That's where collage comes into play.

I studied art as an undergraduate, and I still use collage as a tool for visualizing house plan combinations. Take the Incognito Cottage Court, for example. It took five minutes to portray the streetscape by pasting two Loganberry Court facades together. 

Watercolor drawing of two "Loganberry Court" facades, arranged side by side and surrounded by trees.

That simple collage answered the question in my mind and liberated me to ask the next. Like a sketch, it was quick. But it was far more detailed than a sketch would have been. That detail, in turn, made the idea easier to visualize.

If you haven't learned to sketch, I hope you'll give it a chance someday. It's a useful skill that's fun to learn. Until then, let me help you add collage to your toolkit. It's a popular activity in kindergarten. If a five-year-old can do it, you can, too.

Collage 101

For entry-level collage, try working with paper. Print the design elements with which you'd like to experiment, use scissors to trim them, then move them around on a blank piece of paper until you've found the arrangement that suits you best. You can stabilize the end product with the help of a glue stick or tape. Overlay it with tracing paper to add details or to sketch the final arrangement you made.

If you're working with an idea for a homebuilding project, you might find it helpful to print some elements at a smaller scale, in order to give the impression that they're farther away. Have fun with it — approaching collage with an open mind will give you better results.

Digital Collage

There's a popular application by Adobe that dominates the photo editing industry. If you own it and use it regularly, you don't need this post; go to it.

This overview is for everyone else. Think of it as an outline. If the process sounds doable, you can uncover the details with the help of the world's two most visited websites. Here's how the process goes.

A Starting Question

Any collage that I make starts with a question. Today, the question was, "Could Bruce Tolar's Tucker Carriage House work well with the Magnolia house plan by Anderson-Kim?" I tried placing each design side by side in their own browser windows to see how they'd look together, but that wasn't satisfying enough. I wanted a little more realism for reassurance.

Screenshot of two browser windows side by side. On the left, a photo of the Tucker Carriage House. On the right, a drawing of the Magnolia house plan.

An Image Editor

My go-to image editor is Acorn 7 by the software company, Flying Meat. It's easy to use, highly rated, and (best of all) affordable. If you have other software you like, use what you're comfortable with. You don't want your tools to get in the way.

Main Ingredients

To begin, I collected the drawing files for the Magnolia and the Tucker Carriage House. They're the same drawing files you see featured on our website. It helped that we show front elevations for both designs; a consistent perspective makes a collage easier to comprehend.

Collage of two images: Tucker carriage house on the left; Magnolia foursquare on the right.


In Acorn, I imported each drawing into a layer of its own. In my imaginary scenario, the Magnolia would have a driveway leading from the street to the carriage house at the rear of the lot. So I placed the carriage house in a lower layer and the Magnolia in an upper layer, like layering one piece of paper on top of another, with the carriage house layer tucked behind.

To complete the setup, I trimmed the images in each layer, just as you would if you were making a collage with scissors and paper. Any image editor worth its salt offers tools to help you remove the background of an image. Those tools are the software equivalent of scissors. In this case, I removed the white background from the Magnolia and subtracted some of the gravel from the carriage house photo so it wouldn't look like the house was sitting on the driveway.


As you'd imagine, making one image smaller than the other makes it look farther away. I used the Scale function to reduce the apparent size of the carriage house by "shrinking" its layer. It works like a charm.


Image of Magnolia in front, Tucker carriage house behind, with fencing extended to the right of the Magnolia.

I like to make house collages more realistic by adding landscaping. If the source drawings or photos with which you're working include landscaping, you can use your software to copy and paste the existing landscaping and arrange it in appropriate places around the houses. I applied that principle to this collage by taking two boards of fencing from the carriage house photo and copy-pasting them to extend the fence across the imaginary yard.

What if your source material doesn't include landscaping? In that case, public domain images help. My favorite source is Wikimedia Commons, which has hundreds of landscape photos as of this writing. Each image includes an information box that tells you whether the image is in the public domain.

Collage of Tucker Carriage House with fencing to the right and trees behind the fencing.

You can download the file from Wikimedia Commons, import it into its own layer, and trim it as you did with the house images. If you want to adjust the exposure or hue of the photo to better match the collage, your software's "filters" feature will do the trick.

In the case of my collage, the right-hand sky was bare. The collage looked imbalanced. So I imported some trees from a public domain image, trimmed them, and placed them on a lower layer so they'd appear behind the fence.


Final collage with Magnolia Foursquare in front and Tucker Carriage House behind, with fencing and trees on the right.

As with any creative project, it can be easy to forget yourself and go too far. Some may strive for more perfection than the task really calls for. Would my collage be better if I changed the color of the Magnolia to match the Tucker Carriage House? Perhaps. But the image, as it stands, is enough to answer the starting question:

The Tucker Carriage House could be a good match for the Magnolia.

One question down... On to the next.

Final Message

It takes many steps to take a homebuilding project from concept to completion. Don't let formality get in your way. Try your ideas by sketching them, if sketching is your thing. If not, give collage a try. It's productive and fun.

Warm regards,

Jennifer Krouse, Founder and CEO

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