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AECbytes Product Review (August 18, 2005)

SketchUp 5

Product Summary

SketchUp is a popular application for conceptual 3D design exploration which has been specifically developed to be easy, intuitive, and fun to use.

Pros: Affordably priced; modest system requirements; sparse and intuitive interface with minimal dialogs, options, and user input for seamless modeling experience; extensive set of component libraries; new release features terrain modeling, more import/export options, and several modeling, rendering, and interface enhancements; cross-platform, with the same interface on both the Windows and Mac versions; excellent quality of documentation, which makes the program very easy to learn.

Cons: Lack of solid modeling capabilities makes it difficult to select and manipulate individual volumes for massing; not fully equipped for detailed and dimensionally accurate modeling; missing some useful features for building design such as grid display, wall objects, automatic positioning of contour lines based on a specified interval, automatic derivation of a footprint of a building for stamping on a terrain, and so on.

Price: $495 for a new license; upgrade cost from previous release is $95.

@Last Software has just released the next version of its highly popular and successful 3D design exploration application, SketchUp. It provided a sneak peek of the new release earlier this summer at the AIA National Convention and Expo (see AECbytes Newsletter #22), showing new terrain modeling tools that work in the same intuitive way as the other SketchUp tools, the ability to add depth to drawings, improved ability to organize and manage component models, enhanced 3D export and new import formats such as DEM and 3DS, and other improvements. Now that the new release is out, let's explore these new features in more detail.

For those not familiar with SketchUp, please see a comprehensive overview of the application in my review of SketchUp 4.0, published in AECbytes last year.

New Terrain Modeling Tools

SketchUp 5 introduces a new set of tools that can be used to model and sculpt terrain for building sites as well as create and manipulate other organic forms. Dubbed the "Sandbox" tools-following the SketchUp tradition of coming up with innovative, "true to real life" names for its tools-these are not loaded by default but can be enabled through a new Extensions Manager in the Preferences dialog. There are two ways to create a form or terrain with this new toolset. You can create or import contour lines, position them at the required heights, and then apply the Sandbox from Contours tool to them. The terrain will be created using the contours as a guide, as shown in Figure 1-a. This would be the method to use when a precise form needs to be created from strategically positioned shapes. When you need to interactively sculpt a form and accuracy is not that important, it is much faster and easier to use the Sandbox From Scratch tool. With this, you can create a flat, rectangular meshed surface with the required grid spacing and then apply the Smoove tool-another tool in the Sandbox toolset-to parts of the mesh to move it up or down as required, as shown in Figure 1-b. You can vary the radius of the area that will be sculpted by specifying a different value in the value control box (VCB) located on the right side of the status bar.

Figure 1. The new Sandbox tools in SketchUp 5 allow a terrain to be created in two ways: from contours, or by creating a flat meshed surface and then sculpting it as required.

Other Sandbox tools include the Stamp tool, which allows you to create an imprint of a shape, such as the footprint of a house, on a terrain and move it up or down depending upon whether the building is raised above or embedded into the terrain; the Drape tool, which is used to project edges, such as the edges of a road, onto a terrain; the Add Detail tool, which allows you to add triangulation to specific parts of the meshed surface to increase its resolution, enabling more detailed sculpting of those parts; and finally, the Flip Edge Tool, which can be used to manually adjust the triangulation for any pair of adjacent triangles in a terrain, particularly useful in removing flat spots or plateaus in a terrain generated from contour lines. In addition, the Soften/Smooth Edges option that can be applied to any SketchUp object comes in particularly handy when applied to organic forms created with the Sandbox tools; it can be used to give them a more lifelike appearance by smoothing and hiding edges and rendering adjoining faces with a smooth tonal gradient. The use of the Stamp tool and the Soften/Smooth Edges option is illustrated in Figure 2.

Figure 2 .The use of the Stamp tool for creating an impression of a building footprint on a terrain, as a precursor to placing it on the terrain. Subsequently, the Soften/Smooth Edges option was applied to give the terrain a smoother look.

The Sandbox tools are certainly a welcome addition to SketchUp's toolset, allowing its architectural users the ability to now model their sites along with their buildings and better explore how well their proposed designs fit into their context. They can also be used to explore freeform building shapes, and they work with classic SketchUp simplicity and elegance. However, those used to more sophisticated terrain modeling tools in high-end modeling applications may be a little frustrated at the limited set of options that are available. For instance, contour lines have to manually positioned at the correct heights; they cannot be automatically placed using a specific contour interval. This becomes very tedious when there are a large number of contour lines. The form has to be double-clicked before any of the modification tools can be applied to it, which is non-intuitive and takes some time to figure out. And SketchUp's lack of solid modeling capabilities means that all these forms are surfaces-you cannot create a box, apply a grid to one its sides, and sculpt it while still retaining the closed volume of the box. Thus, you cannot model a terrain as a solid on which you can do cut-fill analysis and so on; you can only model it as a surface. Hopefully, we will see some of these enhancements in the Sandbox tools in future versions of SketchUp.

Interface Enhancements

SketchUp 5 has a number of enhancements which improve upon its already easy-to-learn interface. The Extensions Manager, referred to in the previous section, is one such improvement. Located in the Preferences dialog, it lists all the non-core SketchUp features, such as the Sandbox tools and various utilities and macros created using the SketchUp Ruby API (see my review of SketchUp 4.0 for more on this API). These extensions can be added or removed from the interface using the Extensions Manager. This helps to maintain the minimalist quality of the SketchUp interface-one of the greatest strengths of the application-and avoid needless clutter for those who don't need to use these extensions and utilities.

The interface itself has received somewhat of a makeover with a redesign of some of the icons and cursors to make them more easily recognizable, and to also make them look consistent on both the Windows and MacOS platforms. Dialog boxes now exhibit sticky behavior and snap to each other as well as the edges of the application window, allowing them to be neatly stacked. A dialog can now be collapsed to show only its title bar with a single click; another click restores it back to its original visible state. A new Show/Hide Windows menu item allows you to show or hide all dialog boxes in one step.

Another new interface feature is the Component Outliner window, which will simplify the process of working with components in a large model. It displays a hierarchical view of the groups and components in the model, making it easier to navigate through all the objects in the model. It is also useful for restructuring the model hierarchy, locating instances of a particular component, and renaming groups and components. It uses a combination of various icons and text to identify groups and components in a hierarchy as well as their status; for example, four block squares represent a component, one solid square represents a group, one grey square with a small lock in the lower right corner represents a locked group, and so on. The Component Outliner also contains a Filter field for quickly locating similar groups or components by specifying a filter string. An example of the Outliner being used to browse through all the groups and components in a sample building model is shown in Figure 3.


Figure 3 .Browsing through the groups and components of a building model using the Component Outliner window.

Modeling, Viewing, and Display Enhancements

On the modeling front, the Push/Pull tool has been enhanced with an additional option. When used in conjunction with the CTRL key, this tool does not modify the existing face; instead it uses the edges of the face as the starting point for a new push/pull operation. This allows the creation of a stack of connected volumes as shown in Figure 4, which can be used to model multi-level buildings. However, since the individual volumes that are created cannot be independently selected for modification-this problem will be discussed in more detail in a later section-the usefulness of this new option is quite limited.

Figure 4 .The Push/Pull tool has a new option which allows stacks of connected volumes to be created, but this option is of limited use since the individual volumes cannot be independently selected.

Of more decided benefit for modeling is a new Replace Selected option in the Component Browser's context menu. This allows you to replace the selected components in the model with the selected component in the Component Browser (see Figure 5). Thus, you can now use the Select Instance option to quickly select all of the instances of a specific component in your model and replace them with a different component in one step. Other component-related enhancements are the ability to lock components and groups to prevent them from being moved or edited, and a new Make Unique option which converts the currently selected component into a unique component with a new definition. This component can now be edited without affecting the original component definition and all its other instances. Components with the Face Me attribute (for more on this, see my review of SketchUp 4.0) cast shadows as if the object were always facing the sun, no matter what view you are in, creating a more full shadow volume.


Figure 5 (a) The new Replace Selected option in the Component Browser's context menu allows a one-step replacement of all the selected components in the model with a different component.

Modeling interoperability has been enhanced in SketchUp 5 with some new import and export options. While 3DS export was supported in previous versions, SketchUp can now also import files in the 3DS format, which is still widely used. In conjunction with its new Sandbox tools, SketchUp has also introduced import of digital elevation models (DEM) containing point data relating to terrain elevations. While there is no single standardized file format for digital elevation models, SketchUp supports two of the most important ones: USGS DEM and spatial data transfer standard (SDTS). SketchUp also has expanded its range of export formats with the addition of three new ones: OBJ, a popular 3D file format which is text-based and supports free-form and polygonal geometry; XSI, which is the native Softimage file format; and FBX (Filmbox), useful for working with Alias' Motionbuilder and other applications. Of these, the last two are more relevant to digital art and film rather than building design. SketchUp 5 also has revised DWG and DXF import and export by using the latest DWG libraries, which will allow smoother translation of DWG and DXF entities into and out of SketchUp.

On the viewing front, the Walk Tool has been enhanced so that it now walks up inclines including ramps, stairs, and terrain while attempting to maintain eye height. It also has advanced collision detection to avoid walking through walls or other barriers.

And finally, rounding off the enhancements list are some new edge rendering options, accessible in the Display Settings dialog. The Depth cue option allows you to emphasize foreground lines with heavy lines, while the Endpoints option allows you to emphasize the edge terminations of the model. The use of both these options in a model is illustrated in Figure 6. Additionally, there is a new option for turning off the edge display completely, allowing the model to be rendered only by shaded surfaces accented with profile lines.


Figure 6 . Displaying a model with the Depth Cue and Endpoints options activated.

Strengths and Limitations

SketchUp continues to remain the hands-down winner for conceptual 3D design exploration along all fronts: it is very easy and intuitive to learn and is a delight to use; it is a lightweight application with very modest system requirements, and is quick and easy to install; and it continues to remain very affordable at a price tag of $495, which has not changed since the application was introduced. The developers have consistently managed to add new features to the application without increasing its complexity or cluttering its interface, which is a remarkable achievement. Moreover, all the enhancements are designed in the same mold as the rest of the application: smart inferencing is used to minimize input from the user; the use of dialogs is minimized to make the modeling experience seamless; and the tools are given non-technical names that reflect how they behave. Overall, SketchUp 5 adds a lot of features without detracting from its inherent simplicity in any way, and is well worth the upgrade price of $95.

One other critical aspect in which SketchUp stands apart is the excellent quality of its documentation, which is one of the best that I have seen among the many applications I have worked with so far. It has a comprehensive set of video tutorials covering different aspects of the application, all nicely packaged together in one integrated interface on its website (see Figure 7-a). Also unique is a new "Getting Started" application, which includes self-paced tutorials that provide interactive step-by-step guidance towards mastering the basics of SketchUp (see Figure 7-b). The online User's Guide has also been enhanced in the new release with a concepts section, a glossary, and visual cues letting users know when a companion video tutorial is available on the same topic. All in all, the documentation is designed so that users can get started quickly without relying on external training and possibly even master the application without attending a training class at all. It certainly raises the bar for other software vendors in the field, and should hopefully encourage them to pay more attention to the quality of their documentation.


Figure 7 . Two examples of SketchUp documentation. (a) Video tutorials. (b) Interactive Getting Started tutorial.

When you first work with SketchUp, it seems perfect-its simplicity and elegance coupled with intelligence and sophistication that let you model with effortless ease. However, once you get used to its capabilities and take them as a given, you start wishing for additional features that it does not yet have. This wish-list would be different for the diverse design professionals that SketchUp caters to. For building design professionals, one of the desired features would be to have a grid that can be displayed and snapped on to. This is so common in drawing and modeling applications that you can feel at a loss of where to begin in SketchUp without it. You can actually create a grid yourself using construction lines, but it would be a lot more convenient to have a grid display feature built into the application. What would also be useful is a double-line feature that would make it easier to create walls, slabs, roofs, etc., all of which are currently modeled as single-line surfaces. Considering that SketchUp has so many component libraries for architectural objects such as doors and windows, it would seem logical to have wall or wall-like objects in which to insert these objects. This would also enable SketchUp to become a real bridge between the initial conceptual 3D design process and the later detailed BIM (building information modeling) process in building design.

Being a surface modeling rather than a solid modeling application, SketchUp is essentially a massing tool and is not best suited for the creation of precise, detailed, and accurate 3D geometry. Even its use for developing massing models can sometimes be frustrating because it cannot recognize individual volumes unless they are disconnected from all other volumes. So if you have a series of connected volumes, you cannot select them independently and move them around, unless you have collated the individual surfaces of each volume into a group first. Hopefully, SketchUp can improve upon its selection capabilities to enable the individual selection and manipulation of volumes, which is a critical requirement for studying massing options for a building.

SketchUp's First User Conference

In a relatively short span of five years, SketchUp has grown from being a small startup application to an established player in the AEC industry. For those who witnessed its crowd-pulling debut at the AIA 2001 National Convention and Expo (see Cadence AEC Tech News #51), this comes as no surprise-a product that was so innovative was guaranteed to do well. What is astonishing, however, is the phenomenal speed of its success. At the recent AIA 2005 National Convention and Expo (see AECbytes Newsletter #22), the SketchUp booth was no longer a little one but was comparable in size to that of the more established vendors. And its usage has reached enough of a critical mass to warrant its own user conference. Dubbed "3D Base Camp," the first SketchUp user conference is being held from October 5 to 7 in Boulder, Colorado.

For more on SketchUp, watch out for a report on this conference in AECbytes later this year.

About the Author

Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at lachmi@aecbytes.com.

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