Model Your Home, Plan Improvements in 3D with Google Sketchup [Home Improvement]

13 Mag/09

My wife and I just moved to an apartment with a great backyard, but neither of us think spatially. Using Google Sketchup, it’s been easier than I’d imagined to plan our Ultimate Patio 4000.

If you’ve got a similar kind of project that you want to mess with in three dimensions before buying or modifying anything, Sketchup is a free solution that might work perfectly for you. It’s powerful enough to garner an intrigued look from the one SolidWorks-using engineer I know, but user-friendly enough that liberal arts majors like me can put a 3D model of their house on Google Earth, model things to build, or, as we’ll detail below, recreate any space, indoors or out, to inspire an Extreme Makeover: Geek Edition.

Hyperbole Check: This isn’t a quick one-hour project, and you will have to use measuring tape and some scratchpad/calculator math to measure and build your virtual space. That said, after about 5 hours of measuring and designing, I was able to take this backyard patio:

And spin it into this not-yet-completed 3D space:

It’s not the Sistine Chapel, but it’s not bad for a few hour’s work. More importantly, it’s set to scale, and it answers the questions we’d normally argue out in the middle of an aisle in Lowes: How wide is the space on the yellow brick wall between the window and the edge? Would this free-standing planter be visible over the fence? How much space should we leave if we bust out the grill? Finally, for the wife’s consideration, what color should a lounge chair be to blend with the brick, the clay flooring, and the (not installed in 3D yet) garden stones? The kind of questions that leave action-oriented husbands with furrowed brows and over-taxed memories.

Getting around

The first step, unfortunately, is the decidedly non-sexy measuring of the basic outlines of the space you’re looking at. (Though this video from Google makes it look rather fun.) Bring a small pad of paper with you, and don’t worry about every single detail—you’ve got to learn how to punch a window into a wall before you get to worry about the radius of curvature on your wall sconces (or how in the world you’re going to re-create that maple tree).

Once you’ve got your numbers, go ahead and download Sketchup 7 for Windows or Mac OS X. If you’re a Linux user, your best options are to give it a try with WINE (and here’s our guide to running Windows apps with WINE to get you going).

Google has a comprehensive, conversational set of Sketchup training videos that could fill in the gaps if you’d like to learn by tinkering. But let’s nail down a few basics to get you started. Start up Sketchup, choose the default perspective/setup (Architectural, inches and feet), and let’s get rolling.

The most important first step in Sketchup is learning how to get around, and get to the point where it’s not too hard to shift your view under a glass table and look up through it at a virtual Adam Pash (which isn’t a bad way to put off actual work, by the way). If you’re conversant with Google Earth, this will be somewhat familiar, and it similarly requires a good mouse or trackball for the most comfortable experience; you can, however, get by with keyboard shortcuts if you need to. Basically, you use the “Orbit” tool by holding your middle mouse button (or pressing “O”) to rotate your view of the 3D world around. Hold down Shift (or hit “H”) to use the “Hand” tool and drag your view around, as if you’re playing an overhead strategy game. Zooming is done with the mouse wheel (or hitting “Z,” or using the trackpad edge). It’s important to spend a little time learning how to get around, because Sketchup is all about perspective.

You start off with a view of a virtual dude who’s about 6 feet tall and bears a strange resemblance to a more formally-dressed version of this blog’s editor. He’s standing near the nexus of three “guide lines”—red and green, which you can consider the length and width lines, and a blue line, which is your guide for a straight-up vertical height line. I prefer to build my stuff near these guidelines, but not cover them up by building right on them. Hit the “M” key or select the “Move” tool from the toolbar, grab our VAP (Virtual Adam Pash), and pull him away from that nexus. You’ll notice that as you move him around, he snaps into certain positions, like a program in Windows does at screen edges. That’s Sketchup letting you know that he’s lined up with guidelines, or lines you’ve drawn, as you move around. Put the VAP down somewhere, rotate your view to make sure he’s “standing” on the red and green lines, and let’s build him something to play with.

Make some objects

Rotate your view so you’re looking down at the “ground” VAP is standing on, select the pencil-looking Line tool (or hit “L”), and click to create your line point. It’s a familiar two-point line drawing tool, so hover until the line you’re drawing is roughly lined up with the red axis. When you’re close, the line will automatically snap a bit and a hint dialog will state that you are “On Red Axis”—thanks! Click to draw that parallel line, then rotate to draw a 90-degree turn. Again, you’ll get notified when you’re on the green axis.

Finish out the square using your guides, and you’ll notice it turns a gray shade. That means it’s a completed surface—now you get to have some real fun. Select the Push/Pull tool (or hit “P”), mouse over your finished surface so it turns a dotted blue, and drag your mouse forward and back. You’ll create a 3D box shape by pulling up on your square, rather than laboriously create the next four points and the next eight lines. The Push/Pull tool is the most powerful one in Sketchup—it’s the Ultimate Creator of shapes, and can also be the Master Exploder when you need it to be.

Get precise

So, it’s been fun playing with this play set, but now need this box to be exactly four feet square, and exactly as tall as our VAP. No problem! Let’s create another shape to try that out. Select the Line tool again and click on the ground to create a new line. Line it up with an axis if you’d like, then type in 4', or 48 inches, or 3' 12" or however you’d type it in an email, then hit Enter. You could also click somewhere close to drop your second point, then type in your length to correct it. Either way, Sketchup will understand the length you’re shooting for, and snap the line’s end point exactly to it.

That’s why you spent all that time with the measuring tape. Sketchup is easy on those of us who aren’t precise with measurements, but generally know how big something is. This drawing method—start, mouse to determine angle and direction, then type length to complete—is how you determine the radius of a curve, the indent of a window, how far you move an object, and pretty much complete everything else in Sketchup.

As for our VAP-sized column, start pushing or pulling on the top of our new box, but while you’ve got the mouse button held down, move the cursor over to the tip of his noggin. Sketchup snaps your box to that reference point, and if the line’s on the green axis, shows us that, too. What if you wanted to snap your box to some other reference point, like a notch on a wall that’s not right next to us? Right as you start pushing, pulling, drawing, or whatever action you’re undertaking, move over to that reference point, make sure your cursor snaps to it, then continue pulling or pushing or whatnot. When you hit the same level as that reference point you just hovered on, Sketchup lets you know. It all feels a bit like having The Force—hard to put in words, exactly, but intuitive when you practice it.

Punch some holes

For our last beginner’s trick, let’s pretend the VAP got mad about having his view blocked by big white brick, so he used his Editor’s Laser Vision (ELV) to bore a hole right through it, at eye level. Easy! You could easily start a line at an eye-level notch, connect it to the block, and delete it, but try using the Tape Measure tool (T key), which leaves a kind of perforated line that doesn’t build any new objects by accident, and goes all the way across our virtual world. Start the line at his eyes, and connect it to the face of the block along the green axis. Sketchup will probably snap you to a few other points along the way (like the edges of that other 3D block), but keep going along the green axis until you stop on the block face, which will hint with “On Face” (duh?).

Select the Circle tool (C), mouse to the contact point of the measuring tape at the block face, and draw a line out to start making a circle. You could type in exactly how wide the radius would be, and if it was taller than the remainder of the block, you’d have a nice little groove. But we’re going to say the VAP’s ELV is more precise, so our circle has a radius of 3 13/16″.

How do we punch the hole his wrath hath wrought? The Push/Pull tool, of course. Select it, mouse over the new circle surface you’ve created, and start pushing. While you’ve got the mouse button held down to push (or after letting go), use the middle mouse button to rotate around and look at the other side. Once there, keep pushing until you’ve pushed it all the way to the edge of that cube, which Sketchup will snap to. Let go, and, BAM—another obstacle falls before the VAP’s singular ELV, like so many overwrought tutorial framing concepts (ahem).

In calmer English, the Push/Pull tool can both create new structures out of existing surfaces, or punch holes out of them, which pretty much gets you any shape you need, with enough experience and patience. You’ll have to do a little thinking about how you get there, but building up surfaces and blocks and pushing them around is how you create everything in Sketchup. It’s how I got to a reasonable simulation of our patio space, which I’ll be measuring more and detailing this weekend to start doing some real improving.

Now that you’ve got some experience under your belt, head over to the Sketchup team’s tutorials, and feel free to start at the intermediate, “Familiar with Google Sketchup” level.

Got a Sketchup project you want to show off for your fellow amateur architects? Found another use for Sketchup that got your imagination running? Tell us about it in the comments!

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