Creating Renderings with SketchUp

Posted by on October 31, 2012 in Tools and Methods | 0 comments

During the early stages of the design process I often create a virtual 3D model to help my clients visualize what the space for their celebration will look and feel like.  Here’s a model for a wedding reception I recently designed, which took place in a small tent filled with white paper lanterns:


Sketchup model of the tent: View 1

This process is especially helpful for celebrations that will take place in a tent.  For an existing structure, such as a rustic barn or a grand ballroom, it’s usually possible for me to meet with my client in the real space, so we can talk about ideas while easily picturing them in full scale.  A tent, however, will typically not be installed until the week of the event.  In this case, usually all the client has to work with when I start working with them is a fairly rudimentary groundplan and 3D line drawing from the tent company, and possibly some flags stuck in the grass at the site delineating where the tent corners will be.

Here’s a comparison.  The black and white drawing is what one typically might get from an event company.  Helpful, but limited.  Look what some color, some scale figures (people), and multiple views can do for your understanding of the scale and feel of the space.

Event company sketch of 60 x 90 tent

Sketchup model of a tent with roof hidden to show overhead view

View inside a tent with white paper lanterns


I use the free software program SketchUp to create my models.  For freeware, it’s amazingly powerful and versatile.  With a simple two-button scroll mouse, you can easily navigate through your model as if you were a flight-capable superhero with x-ray vision.  If I’m able to meet in person with my client, we can do a fly-through together (or even walk-through, with motion restricted to eye-level).  If not, I make extensive use of screen shots, which I email as-is or embed in various other presentational paperwork (usually made with VectorWorks).


Sketchup screenshot showing tools and palettes

Here’s a screenshot that shows the menus and palettes I typically keep open as I work.  You can construct your model with various entities assigned to separate layers, so that you can turn their visibility on and off.  (In this view I’ve hidden the roof and the paper lanterns.) If you’re familiar with Photoshop or VectorWorks, the logic will feel like second nature.  SketchUp has all the basic tools you would expect: Symbol creation, align & distribute, duplicate array, snap to lines and planes, section cutting…. I could go on and on, but my basic point is probably clear: It’s easy to build a basic model, and easy to customize the view so you’re looking at exactly what you want to be looking at.

One of the most useful aspects of the 3D models is the ability to give my clients a real sense of how much of any one element is the right amount for the space.  It’s hard to know from a groundplan what 50 paper lanterns will feel like, versus what 100 will feel like.  Is it worth the extra money for double the number of something?  The renderings give the client enough information to be able to make that decision without feeling like they’re just guessing.


A sketch of a 60 x 120 three-pole tent with 50 white paper lanterns:

60 x 120 tent with 50 white paper lanterns


And the same size tent, with 100 paper lanterns:

60 x 120 tent with 100 white paper lanterns


A few things I wish SketchUp did, that it doesn’t (or if it does, I haven’t figured it out yet):

—I wish it were easier to render lighting effects with SketchUp.  I would love to be able to set the template to “dusk” or “full night” and to have my lighting fixtures act as light sources, with the resulting highlights and shadows on their surroundings.  SketchUp does have SOME capability for this kind of thing… but with this many light sources and shadows to calculate… Aaaaggghhhhh!  It melts into a little virtual puddle of I’m-sorry-I-tried-but-I-just-couldn’t-do-it.  (Although we may have to blame some of that on my computer’s lack of video RAM.)

—What’s up with the people?!?  OMG these scale figures are totally lame.  In truth, they are from the SketchUp 3D Warehouse (an online repository of things people have made, and volunteered up for free use via a kind of public domain junk drawer) and they’re the best I could find.  Does anyone have better people I can use?!?  The wannabe fashionistas and grungy slacker dudes are just not right for a rendering of a wedding reception.