SketchUp: André Silva

This case study comes to us from André Silva. André is a freelancer in Lisbon, Portugal who mainly works on industrial projects and technical illustrations. He’s also currently working on some architecture and archaeology projects.

I was first introduced to SketchUp about three years ago, while I was searching for simple software to model mechanical devices in 3D. My first contact with it was not very promising and I felt a bit skeptical about its real possibilities to build good mechanical models — mainly because it seemed to be a software intended to build models for Google Earth.

However, after some days of training, I became really surprised with how easy and fast someone can model almost anything with this software. As an example of simplicity, a chain link which took me about 4 hours to model with “Mechanical Desktop” (an Autodesk application that I was using then), was done only in 50 minutes with SketchUp.

Of course, there are important differences between these softwares: SketchUp is not a CAD software, but I believe that when the problems you have to solve are simple you must always look for a simple solution and for what I need to produce in my work, SketchUp is without a doubt, the best solution.

Since those days, I’m modeling with SketchUp on a daily basis, not only to produce schemes and 3D model views for technical documents (usually for parts lists and exploded views) but also as an important helper in the development of small mechanical projects. Basic analysis about interference between machine parts or assembly sequence studies are easy with SketchUp.

A good and recent example of how SketchUp helps me in my work is the set of studies and schemes I made for a simple lifting adaptor for copper cylinders. This was a simple project entirely developed with SketchUp since the first sketch, up to the final product. All presentation and assembly schemes, and even a presentation video, were made easily and rapidly with SketchUp.

Some time ago I also started to use SketchUp in another way: as a pre-modeling tool for some architectural or “inorganic” models in Blender. Working this way dramatically simplifies the modeling work with Blender and I think is a technique that I will keep exploring.

In my humble opinion and to conclude this note, I only find one “problem” with SketchUp: the non-existence of a dedicated version for Linux. But what can we do? We all know that the world is not a perfect place.

New book: Google SketchUp Workshop

When it comes to instructions for building your first house, or your first bench, or your first Google Earth model, there is no shortage of available materials. But what happens after you’re a SketchUp rockstar? Where are all the tomes full of delicious inspiration for those of us who have mastered inference locking and nested section planes and scene properties? It’s all fine and well to read about how SketchUp works, but real progress comes from peeking over our peers’ shoulders to see what they’re working on.

And that’s exactly the concept behind Laurent Brixius’ brilliant new book Google SketchUp Workshop. Translated from the original “Créer avec SketchUp” (originally published a few years ago in French) this full-color volume presents sixteen beautifully illustrated case studies authored by expert SketchUp users from a multitude of different disciplines. Each one includes high-level workflows, tips and techniques for using SketchUp in a different field of design. Architecture, urban design, engineering, process plant design, woodworking, theater set design and architectural graphics are all represented.

Our friends over at conducted a nice interview with Laurent (the book’s editor) before the English edition came out. An architect, architectural 3D artist and author from Belgium, he’s done an amazing job of assembling a collection of projects that are pure inspiration. This is a book that belongs on the shelf of every SketchUp aficionado.

Real-time design with SketchUp


I especially appreciate that SketchUp allows me to model in real-time which is a feature I use in meetings with clients, stakeholders and other consultants on the design teams. A few years ago a colleague of mine, Gary Hartnett, started using SketchUp in meetings as a tool to both “wow” the client and to educate them regarding the possibilities and constraints tied to different design options.

This capability came in handy on a project we were working on with Community Transit in Everett, WA to design concepts for a series of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) Stations. After our first workshop, we came out with a couple of concepts which we refined and presented using SketchUp. One of these concepts ended up being built as close as possible to the original design. By modeling and presenting in SketchUp, the client felt ownership over the design and had a better understanding of the challenges associated with construction. Initially, they wanted something “wavy” or “fluid”, but using SketchUp, it was effective to show that a two-directionally curved canopy is not terribly easy to build, especially with a limited budget and a tight schedule.


3 options developed for BRT stations. The bottom option was built in 2010. 

Later in 2007, we designed a Pedestrian Bridge in Tempe, AZ at the Town Lake. In meetings with the client, the engineer T.Y. Lin International, and the artist Laurie Lundquist, it was highly effective to present proposed concepts for the bridge directly from SketchUp using a laptop and a projector. This allowed the team to engage in real-time with the bridge concepts and study the relationship with the neighboring Tempe Center for the Arts, which was a sensitive issue for this design. The viewpoints at the different piers of the bridge were easy to visualize using a series of Scenes in SketchUp. The model also allowed real-time analysis of aspects like transparency, visibility and shading. I then created a rendering of the bridge using Adobe Photoshop, which was helpful in creating the reflection in the water.

SketchUp was also a great tool to do shading studies for consideration of different shading structures. A shading sail, developed together with local artist Laurie Lundquist, integrated with the flow of the bridge and proved elegant and functional.

Toward the end of the design process, SketchUp actually played one more unique role. While I was determining the right angle for the 2 bridge arches to touch each other at the top of each arch in SketchUp, the 2 arches suddenly overlapped (as I was working within the component, both arches were turning simultaneously), and voila, a unique crossing arch appeared, which we introduced as our preferred alternative. Today, the bridge is currently under construction.


A shading study 


The bridge under construction 

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, I used Match Photo for the first time in a meeting with a prospective client for station design and design of alignment options for another Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) line. I created just one model to demonstrate 3D modeling, show 3D sections of the streetscape and show a Match Photo context study.


Different configurations for street lanes 

By switching Layers on and off and clicking on saved Scenes, we were able to show how future transit oriented development (TOD) would positively impact the streetscape. The different lane options were also placed in different Layers and Scenes, so we could show their respective impact with one click on the Scene tab. At the request of the client I was able to change the station configuration in real-time, which translated immediately to the Match Photo Scenes.


BRT station renderings 

I want to conclude by saying what I appreciate most about Sketchup is that it’s highly intuitive and quick enough that it enables real-time modeling, which is a real asset in presenting and shaping public projects that usually include a significant amount of community engagement.