Google SketchUp home improvement experiment

Finally getting round to having a look at Google SketchUp, which by now has a super smooth new logo and is now part of Trimble Buildings. Ever since we moved into this flat in South Wimbledon, I’ve wanted to knock out the wall between the dining room and kitchen – I believe one could make the kitchen bigger and extend the visible space, but it’s hard to get an idea for what it would look like just by squinting at it from various angles. So I decided to try some 3D interior design programs, and in the process, decided to give Google’s free SketchUp 8 a spin.   Google SketchUp 8 also comes in a Pro version, which you can trial for 8 hours. I managed to make a decent little model of the downstairs area of the flat in about 4 hours.. 


Bear in mind though, ‘frustrating’ is a word that often comes to mind, as a complete newbie to 3D design, using SketchUp. I am fully prepared to admit that I should be starting with the tutorials, but I’m lazy and want to cut to the chase, so I decided to just plunder forth and learn as I go along. I will be doing the tuts and letting you know more about that in the future, but for now, let me say that, considering how I didn’t read any documentation, Google SketchUp is obviously very intuitive and user-friendly. It’s free, so you can’t expect it to be perfect, but it goes a pretty long way to being awesome.


I won’t go into production detail, or give you a long how-to – there are many great tutorials to help you out here, but I will give you my initial reactions, thoughts and opinions so you know if it’s for you. Upon opening SketchUp, the first thing that struck me is that it doesn’t look as polished as most of the programs I’m used to working with. It actually looks quite crude in comparison. Don’t let this fool you – SketchUp is a powerful program with LOADS of great features. The program never once crashed wile I used it (this is more than I can say for the expensive Adobe Suite I use). It starts up quickly and doesn’t seem too intensive on processing power. It takes up only 138MB on my hard drive, and the files it creates are very small (my whole downstairs flat is only 190KB).

Raising the model up from a floor plan

Raising the model up from a floor plan

You can choose to start in plan view, which lets you draw out your floor plan using very basic shapes (rectangles, circles and lines), and then create the 3rd dimension from there. The frustrating part here is that some of the 3D planes act in unexpected ways, and it’s hard to keep your geometry, uhm – geometric. This is obviously to allow flexibility in design (walls at different angles, curved walls, odd-shaped rooms – pretty much any shape you can think of) but it takes a good while to get used to the way planes intersect and affect each other. If you’re used to working with subtractive and additive vector shapes and paths, you’d be a few steps closer to grasping the concepts. If not, a little playing around won’t go amiss.

some hollow boxes behind the scenes

some hollow boxes behind the scenes

some angles that didn't line up - reckon it's similar to actual construction!

some angles that didn’t line up – reckon it’s similar to actual construction!

I eventually aborted the idea of being too precise (i.e making perfect joins in walls and maintaining exact wall thickness throughout) because I realised that for my intended purpose, having a few millimetre gaps wouldn’t be the end of the world. The model still looks pretty good at the end of the day. My biggest headache was with 3D shapes that lost one or more facets, so they would look hollow. I’m sure there’s an industry way of dealing with this – my fix was simply to redraw the missing area with the snapping pencil.

Click and drag to '3Dify'

Click and drag to ‘3Dify’

By far the most useful tool is the Push/Pull tool. You can draw any 2D shape, then using this handy little thing, add a 3rd dimension to it by simply extending it into the 3D plane. At this point using the program actually feels a bit like sculpting, which I enjoyed. I would have appreciated being able to draw walls with accurate measurements. As it is I guessed at the proportions (I wasn’t trying to be too accurate) and then measured them afterward with the measuring tool. This seems a little back-to-front to me, but it’s possible this feature already exists, and I just haven’t found it. I would also appreciate slightly more intuitive controls, particularly for switching between my 3 main work interactions:

1) Rotating the model (Currently this is set to spacebar, although it would be useful if it snapped back to whatever was being used before I press the spacebar – similar to existing programs)

2) Moving or repositioning the model around on the canvas (I am used to using the spacebar for this – there is no shortcut set for it)

3) Actually modifying the model, which includes selection (currently ‘V’) and then Scale, Rotation and Positioning).

flat-01Other cool features include Cut Away Views (up until I discovered this by accident, I was deleting and re-adding external walls to see inside the flat properly). This allows you to view detail inside close up without having an external wall suddenly show up and block your view. Once the model was done, I filled in walls with colour, floors with carpet and wood textures, and cupboards with granite tops (very basic selection of textures, unless you load your own).

Colouring in without having to worry about going over the lines...

Colouring in without having to worry about going over the lines…

xcolour-03Then I had a look at export options, which are pretty impressive. You can choose to save the file as a 2D or 3D file to use in other applications, preview it for Google Earth (which opens the model in PhotoShop CS6 in 3D mode) or share it with the Google public library, for others to look at and/or access. The awesome part is that you also have access to that same VAST library of resources (buildings, furniture, objects, people – whatever other people have created and uploaded) and you can import these into your existing SketchUp project.

Importing the model into PhotoShop CS6

Importing the model into PhotoShop CS6