[ LONG POST ] - I'm a new user, hoping to ask if SketchUp is the best program for my use-case

Hello everyone, thank you for clicking on my post. It’s gonna be pretty long, so I appreciate your time and help;

I’m a relatively young independent contractor and graduate engineer. I’m trying to steer my life in a direction that will have me designing and building one-off, small but beautiful homes/cottages for clients.

The funding and feasibility of this type of project is beyond the scope of this discussion. Please assume that it’s going to happen, even if you feel it’s a ridiculous idea. You may very well be right, but my concern at this time is in choosing which Architectural design program would be best.

I have put together a Pinterest board to illustrate the type of architecture I’d be aiming for. I t’s stuff like this: https://pin.it/2Cau3MUoE

I’m aiming for modern cottages. They will be fairly simple from a structural perspective – I won’t be doing any crazy cantilevers or suspended buildings, for example, but will contain some more exotic decorative design elements.

These include things like pillars or piers holding half of the building aloft, unique roof designs with large overhangs, large curtain walls, “architectural” or “exotic” exterior wall and roof claddings, and other design elements like rooflines which blend seamlessly with walls. Additionally, the framing of the structure will involve multiple materials, with some walls being ICF, while others are timber-framed, and with a floor assembly maybe involving some steel beams, depending on structural requirements.

The buildings would be small, maxing out at around 1500 Sq ft.

Now, the reason for my post is because although I have an educational background in computer-aided design, and am quite familiar with CAD programs like Solidworks, Solidedge, AutoCAD, and even Revit.

I’ve taken about 40-50 hours of guided tutorials on Revit through Udemy. I can now easily handle all the basics, and create finished projects for simple buildings. What I’ve started to notice, however, both first-hand, and from forum discussions, is that Revit really isn’t geared towards residential, timber-framed, highly-architectural construction.

I tried my hand at designing a simple wood-framed garden shed, and, compared to building a “normal” building in Revit with the pre-existing wall families, designing this shed on a stud-by-stud basis was like pulling teeth. Wood-framing add-ons exist, but are phenomenally expensive, and heaven forbid you go to change the length of a wall after… That’s why I’m considering SketchUp.

The reason I need to design these buildings on a stud-by-stud level is because I will be the one building them. I have been working as a general contractor and fine craftsman for several years now, and my intention is to build these places myself, with my hands, and my tools. Doing this stud-by-stud level design is my opportunity to plan things out, make sure my joinery works, figure out dimensions and conflicts, etc.

Of course, the tasks that are beyond what a single person can do, will be sub-contracted out. The foundation pour, the sceptic install, electrical, plumbing, etc., is all going to be hired out to the respective professionals. Everything else , though, like the framing, roofing, sheathing, etc., will be me. The projects will take several years each. Once again, the feasibility or financial reality of these projects is beyond the scope of this discussion.

I know that Revit is the “powerful but cumbersome” program. I know that everything IS possible in it, but sometimes at so high of a time-cost, that it simply isn’t worth it… This has lead me to reconsider if Revit is the best program for me, or if there are programs better suited to the style of buildings I want to make.

As far as I can tell, there are five options that may serve me: 1) Revit 2) ArchiCAD 3) Chief Architect 4) Google Sketchup 5) Solidworks

What I’m needing from the program is the following:

  1. The ability to design the entire structural framing of the building on an element-by-element basis. That means every stud, every floor joist, every roof rafter, and, most importantly, for these elements to have “mates” or other kinds of relationships, such that if I decided to raise the ceiling in a room, for example, the studs move with it. It would be extremely painful to need to go in and manually change the height of every stud, should I make a change to the layout.

  2. The ability to design the joinery and construction details of building elements. That means the birdmouth cuts in the rafters, the miters on the ends of the rafters, and so on.

  3. The ability to design the entire building envelope on an element-by-element basis. That means modelling every 4x8 sheet of plywood sheathing on the exterior walls, ever 4x8 panel of drywall on the interior ones, all the floor sheathing, insulation panels, etc. Being able to model detail elements like joist hangers, electrical outlet boxes, etc., would also be fantastic.

  4. The ability to model different types of wall and floor assemblies, such as using a few steel beams in a floor assembly if needed, or vertical steel beams for architectural reasons, or a random concrete wall in the middle of the structure, or even slanted wall assemblies .

  5. The ability to do some basic landscape modelling. I don’t need full terrain mapping or terrain elevations, but at least being able to draw out a stand-in green slab for the ground, and model a basic patio or a driveway would be great.

  6. The ability to do some very basic modelling of MEP systems through the use of basic geometric shapes. I do NOT need a full MEP side to the program, but being able to model a basic cylinder passing through my floor assembly as a stand-in for an HVAC duct or something would be very useful.

  7. The ability to generate lots of diagrams and drawings. Elevation views, cross-section views, and, most importantly, construction diagrams of the wall, roof, and floor assemblies, with dimensions and annotations.

Based on these needs, and what I’ve seen of each program, my thinking is as follows:

Revit: It can handle them all, but it’s extremely cumbersome. I have to place studs and joists by using column and beam families in the structural side of the program, but first I need to manually create all of the different columns and beams I’ll need, and then these structural elements don’t play well with the architectural side of the program, and, and, and, it’s all very cumbersome.

ArchiCAD : This program seems like it could be a good choice, but I’m basing that entirely on this video. This video was where I first learned about ArchiCAD. It seems very similar to Revit, but a bit more intuitive to use, and like it handles element-by-element construction better than Revit.

Chief Architect: By FAR the best program to use for timber-framed construction, but only if you’re keeping to relatively tame suburban design. I made a post on Chief Architect forums that generated great discussion, and the consensus seems to be that although Chief excels as the framing and diagram part, it can’t handle the unique architectural features AT ALL . Even something like a simple slanted wall will completely break it.

Google Sketchup: Correct me if I’m wrong, but Sketchup is not a parametric design program, it is a “push and pull” program, more akin to Blender. Quite frankly, I don’t know how I would efficiently design a building in this program, if I have to take many steps just to assign a fixed length to a specific beam, for example. Admittedly, though, this is the program I know the least about. My understanding is also that the program does not have a means to create elevation views, or shop drawings, or any kinds of diagrams, without first needing to find or purchase add-on programs to gain this functionality.

Solidworks: This is the program I have the most experience in, with a few hundred hours, and a university course in it. However, it’s designed more for mechanical engineering and small parts, and so its workflow of needing to design elements individually as separate files, then save and assemble them manually in an assembly by assigning mates, is extremely time-consuming, and performance-heavy. It also cares a LOT about minutia, spitting out errors and screaming at you if you forget to assign a coordinate origin for a given part, for example.

And so that’s where I’m at. Five different programs, and no sense of which one would be best for me.

Any help, insight, or suggestions is greatly appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to read this.

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As far as SketchUp is concerned check out nick sonder. He is active in the forum and uses SketchUp.

BTW, SketchUp was sold to Trimbal several years ago.

The software mentioned above, has its good and bad points, depending on who you talk to.

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Sketchups primary use case is Architecture, loads of firms and individuals use it. Yes it can be very fast and very precise and yes it can do beautiful construction documents and any complex build you can dream up. I can’t tell you what to use but you should research SketchUp more as many of your assumptions are incorrect. I probably would not try to design a house in Solidworks, but in general all the programs you mentioned are popular good modelers, each very different, none of them are “simple”, all of them take time and effort to master and all of them are simply a tool, a tool that will output exactly the care and quality of modeling you put into them. Of course I choose SketchUp and Layout (the companion 2D document program) for my workflow and have for many years, but you might have expected to hear that answer on a SketchUp forum.

Do some more research and understand how SketchUp (owned and by Trimble for many years now) really works before you decide, check their prices too, perhaps you will decide as many have that SketchUp is a an excellent tool and very fit for the purpose of designing architecture.

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Interesting read. You should look at plusspec. Its a plugin for sketchup that you can do all of these things with.

I use this extension to do timber frame design and estimating as well as entire build estimating.

It is extremely easy to manipulate created objects thay fall outside of the standard design type, and its probably the closest to parametric design you will get inside of sketchup.

Dynamic components are a good option to work alongside this, but will take some time to build a library

Thank you, I will seek out Nick Sonder’s posts.

Thank you for your reply.

I do see a lot of architectural models being produced on SketchUp, but it has always been just that: architectural models. I haven’t found much at all that covers the structural and construction sides of things. I’ve seen beautiful houses built in SketchUp, but they are just the exterior surfaces of walls and floors and roofs. The walls are just one big rectangular slab, there’s no internal geometry, no studs and insulation and paneling. The floors are just one big rectangular slab, no joists or MEP or hangers.

Not saying that stuff doesn’t exist, of course, just that I’ve had a hard time finding it.

You say you probably would not try to design a house in Solidworks, and I agree with you there.

As for what you said about how I would probably expect your answer to support SketchUp on a SketchUp forum, you’d be surprised! Dissenting opinions are the most valuable of all! There’s no one who knows the limitations of a program more than the people who use it every day!

Thank you, I will look into that.

One thing that confuses me about SketchUp is all of the different versions of the product there are. Do plugins and extensions always work with all versions of SketchUp, like Pro or Make? What about different version years?

Some other resources to take a look at:

Home - MasterSketchUp.com

ConDoc Tools – SketchUp Extension | Automated Professional Workflow

Medeek Design Inc. - Garage, Shop, Shed and Barn Plans

Thank you, I will check those out!

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No, extensions only work on the desktop versions of SketchUp, thats Pro or Studio. SketchUp Go and SketchUp for Ipad don’t support extensions.
SketchUp Make and Free are not for commercial purposes.

Edit: Extensions in general do work on all version years of the desktop versions allthough each individual extension has a supported version list displayed on the warehouse!

I see you posted on the Archicad forum as well. I have just dropped AC after 28 years due to the way it has become so bloated & complex. It can be difficult to use even for experienced users. If you are paying that much a month you need a return and AC wasn’t doing that for me anymore.

Anyway, that’s not my point, what troubles me is your statement “The floors are just one big rectangular slab, no joists or MEP or hangers”. Forgive me if I am misreading your post and making wrong assumptions on your experience, but too many come into the 3D CAD market believing they are going to model the elusive digital twin of their project. This is generally a myth. A general guide is if you can’t see the part at 1:50 / 1:48 scale in your building model there is little point to adding it. Hangers are possibly one good example that sits in that grey area. If you need to show hanger details then I would assume it is done in a separate referenced detail model. If you are only showing your model at 1:100 / 1:96 then there is possibly a good argument for not modelling the joists either.

Despite having AC for many years, there have been occasions when I used SU for collaboration, and used intelligently it is very capable, if a little frustrating in the Layout app.

I would also as others are suggesting look at some of the plugins for SU which might suit your work. Profile Builder and Skalp are top of my list at the moment, but it depends what you are drawing.

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Thank you for clarifying!

Hi there, yes you’re right, I did post on Archicad’s forums… and Revit’s… and Chief Architect’s…

An opinion like yours, from someone who has actually used multiple programs, is extremely valuable. You’re absolutely right with your assumption, and I know that in the industry, it’s exactly as you said – the broader strokes are designed in software, but the minutia is figured out by the specialized tradespeople who do the building.

However, in my case, I truly do need to create a 1 to 1 digital twin of the project. Not down to every last nail, but definitely to the level of individual studs and insulation bales and major HVAC lines and the like. Since I will be the one doing the framing and the carpentry and the construction, this digital planning is my opportunity to figure out my measurements and identify conflicts and mistakes, all from the comfort of my home, rather than when I’m on-site and burning money with each minute of delay.

If I was handing the project off to a team of builders, you’re right, that detail wouldn’t matter, it would be up to them to decide how they want to realize what I’ve designed. In my case, though, the detail is the only way I’ll get through this, working by myself.

Do you mind expanding on the downsides of ArchiCAD, the ways in which it’s surpassed by SketchUp, and what motivated your switch? Are there things that you find ArchiCAD handles BETTER than SketchUp?

So much typing! Shortest answer: SketchUp Pro (desktop version) plus some extensions will probably serve your needs as well or better than others.

SU is a general modeler, so can model just about anything you can imagine. BIM programs like REVIT, ArchiCAD and Chief Architect automate a lot construction elements involved as long as you stay within the limits of what they imagined you to need. You can get some of that functionality in SU with extensions like Medeek BIM (Medeek Wall, Truss, etc.), and then what it doesn’t cover, you can make from scratch with SU’s native tools. I like this “best of both worlds” type of solution. See this example case where the conventional stuff was all made by the extensions, but the steel moment frame and elevator cab/rails/motor were all scratch build with native tools.

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I’m not going to hammer AC, it has served me well in the past. Unfortunately I think it currently has an identity crisis which has caused neglect of the basic workflows. The rest of the reasons I chose to drop it are set out in my post above. The type of work I do has also changed towards offsite fabrication rather than traditional building > contractor CDs. The one thing AC doesn’t handle well is grouping & instancing. SU does this in style. AC does have plenty in the parametric libraries, but if those libraries don’t contain what you need then in my opinion AC becomes hard work. AC is perhaps better on the document management front, but it also has its weaknesses when it comes to publishing. Perhaps the one thing that finally turned me to SU is I feel more in control of what I am designing and documenting even if in some areas it is slower (I’m still picking up how to get the best from SU). I also think the SU YouTube channel is awesome for learning. You risk hitting a paywall for learning materials in AC.

Hi _Ty,

I understand your thoughts on trying to find a suitable CAD programme for your requirements. However, I don’t think there’s a definitive answer.

Whether its a manual 3D programme like SU where Nick Sonder can make SU fly without extensions from planning design to construction plans, or AchiCAD with that CONTRABIM.COM chap (just viewed that video) who can clearly make AC do exactly what he wants, it all involves a lot of time in learning.

I guess costs must also play a part as well & true parametric CAD programmes that have already been mentioned are eye watering compared to SU due to their incredible parametric abilities.

There may be some thought in using two programmes, one for quick 2D architectural plans that’s easy to use & another for 3D manual modelling that can both be used side by side when needed. In that regard, I note PowerCADD was mentioned & AutoDesSys were working in collaboration with the PowerCADD people with the next upgrade. Not too sure though if PowerCADD will have some link with AutoDesSys Form.Z 3D modelling programmes.

A not so heady architectural parametric programme is ArchLine-XP, which also has import/export abilities with SU.

For my everyday Architectural requirements here in the UK for new build one off homes and extension/alteration works, I use a 2D Cad architectural programme & a 3D manual modelling programme (SU) & a lower cost parametric+BIM programme, as they all can be used together or individually subject to project type/size.

Much typing!

That’s a beautiful model you built, thank you for sharing.

And yeah, I’ve been trying to consume as much video content as I can on ArchiCAD and SketchUp and their modelling processes, and Sketchup is definitely intuitive. Very streamlined to design with, even when using the manual/native tools.

The only section where I was disappointed was when it came time to do the layout, planning, drawing, and drafting work. That stuff all seems way less streamlined and less powerful than what can be done in ArchiCAD. Having to set up scenes manually, give them all names, then set up those scenes in viewports in Layout, it all seems much weaker and more limited than what can be done in ArchiCAD, but the tradeoff is that ArchiCAD’s modelling is less streamlined than SketchUp’s.

Thank you for your comment.

And yeah, at the end of the day, I’m sure that the kind of work I’m looking to do can be done in any of the major CAD programs out there, it’s just a matter of tradeoffs and efficiencies. Each program has its strengths, each program has it weaknesses.

You should check out Michael Brightman’s ConDoc Tools extension for SU. It automates that process and integrates with Medeek BIM. It would be a very powerful combination for what your looking for while still benefitting from SU’s relative simplicity.

Check out the Condoc website:

https://condoctools.com/

and especially watch this video that you’ll find on his home page:

There are plug-ins that can do that automatically, the latest one I’ve been using is VBO 5D, it also has a feature that exports 2D dxf with all the tags as layers, it’s very useful in case you want to do the documentation on another software, I’m an architect and for the last 13 years I’ve made all my projects exclusively using sketchup and layout, from earlier analysis till documentation, I also use 2D cad software cause in my country is mandatory to present the project with digital dwg files, Qcad pro works for small projects and draftsight for bigger ones, on the 2D cad software I used to create and assign layers but with VBO it’s done automatically. The cost of sketchup pro+draftsight is ~600 dollars per year, plus on time payment for VBO plugin $40. It’s a lot cheaper than Revit and Archicad.