SketchUp as a Construction Modeler

September 10, 2008

One thing to keep in mind is that a construction model is not the same as a building information model (BIM). A construction model graphically communicates the means, methods, and processes found in the production of complex objects. It dynamically represents the sequence of events necessary to build that object.

Our books demonstrate the potential of construction models and their ability to graphically communicate construction processes. First using an early versions of AutoCAD (Graphic Communications in Construction, Prentice Hall), then exploring the potential of web-based visual systems (The Web @ Work, Homebuilder Press) and most recently as a series a graphic narratives using SketchUp as a construction modeler.

The potential of SketchUp for construction management was first explored at the University of Florida in 2001. SketchUp was used to quickly orient construction management students struggling to learn how to build piece-based models with AutoCAD 2000.

That early effort evolved into an advanced construction modeling class and the first book, 3D Construction Modeling: Project Based Learning. This early book broke new ground simply because it was based on the work of several comic and graphic novelists. It used SketchUp V4 to explore the format and delivery of construction information on the two dimensional pages of a book. The models are dated, but the book remains popular as a project-based learning tool.

Our next book, Living SMALL:The Life of Small Houses, expanded on the lessons learned from both SketchUp and publishing a graphic narrative. Living SMALL uses SketchUp to build 16 small houses. The idea was to mix modeling tutorials with video tours of three-dimensional models to convey some of the traditions of home construction and the values of small house construction. The 16 models also tested different organizational structures for the models and hinted at the potential of SketchUp as a construction modeler.

The results can be seen in our next book, Building SIMPLE: Building and Information Model. This book used many of the new features found in SketchUp V5 to explore the organization of a large construction model and communicates the production of a mid-rise office building. The models with this book were the first to be “outlined” with V5’s Outliner feature and the first to communicate real-world construction as a sequence of collaborative events. The models and illustrations from this book are now used internationally to illustrate and explain construction methods.

These values were continued in our next book, Being SUSTAINABLE: Building Systems Performance. Construction models in this book were built using Google SketchUp. The book, models, and video tutorials illustrate the mechanics of sustainability in the same mid-rise office building found in Building SIMPLE. The models push the limits of construction modeling in SketchUp and the real potential of three-dimensional modeling to illustrate complex systems. The value of the book is that it illustrates the collaborative promise of SketchUp and construction modeling to bridge the information gaps often found in the real-world when dealing with complex building systems.

We’ve also used SketchUp to publish assembly manuals, forensic models, and fabrication models for management consultants, contractors, and manufacturers and are working on a new book using SketchUp to illustrate every detail in the construction of a wood frame house, How a House is Built: With 3D Construction Models. This book is also an updated project-based learning tool on how-to-build construction models with SketchUp.

The goal is to improve construction communications. The objective is to make complex construction information quick to read and easy to understand. With these books, we’ve found that very complex construction models can be built using a simple three-dimensional construction modeler called SketchUp. And the best thing about SketchUp is that it is free.

2 Responses to “SketchUp as a Construction Modeler”

  1. WB Says:

    Hi Dennis,

    I’ve enjoyed reading your approach using Sketchup as a construction modeler. I work for an architecture firm that is starting to use Revit, and have read your posts regarding BIM vs. construction modeling/SketchUP in detail.

    Do you think SketchUP can eventually be used successfully as the main application for a design professional from schematics to construction documents? How do you think it handles the inevitable changes and revisions that come with a project? I would love to use it as an alternative to parametric-based BIM solutions – so far I am finding I spend more time trying to fix the 2D drawings that are generated from the model so they display correctly. And it seems like SketchUP 7 with dynamic components and Layout2 is getting closer to providing a somewhat parametric solution that could work on small to medium scale projects.

    I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

    Thanks and Best Regards,


    PS – Is there a release date yet for “How a House is Built: With 3D Construction Models” ?

    • insitebuilders Says:


      My guess is that as SketchUp approaches the kind of 3D/parametric/2D drafter that the BIM hype is imagining, it would become exactly like all the other programs on the market – expensive, complicated to operate, and just as inoperative in a real-life-change-as-you-go-and-E&O-liable as any other BIM program. It kind of reminds me of the CAD generated construction drawings that continue to arrive in the field with last minute cut and paste details, hand-drawn dimension changes, and illegible notes embedded in the prints (and therefore not in the computer).

      IMHO there are just too many variables and unforeseen details on most projects to sustain an as-advertised BIM modeler and there’s just too deep of a cultural divide between the designers and production architects. Of course when one dumbs down the design or ignores the risks of poorly produced construction drawings, the BIM model seems to fit right in. IMHO….

      And SketchUp V7 and Layout 2 are far from even the early 2000 versions of ACAD and its Paperspace — not even close in basic drafting capabilities.

      My guess is Google SketchUp doesn’t have the will to produce a CAD program and even seemed to reluctantly produced V7, picking up on none of the bugs that existed in V6 and taking a couple of years to publish it.

      I’ve also never seen much interest in serious (construction) modeling from Google or on the SketchUp forum — –or in the galleries or SketchUp Warehouse. Especially since the original @Last team and founder of the program drifted away from the fold.

      At the same time, I continue to think there/s a lot of value in SketchUp as a construction modeler in the real world, but only as a three dimensional tool to communicate construction details in 3D. I think this implies a completely different kind of contract document, one that is more interactive, inquisitive and lighter to produce. I’m still not sure what that might look like, but my guess is some young genius is out there working on it.

      At any rate those are my thoughts, I’d be anxious to hear any others …

      ITMT, the new book “How a House is Built: With 3D Construction Models” is in its final throws. Editing should be complete this month and we’re hoping for preproduction proofs in January. That means final publication in February if all goes well. It takes about a month to get it up on Amazon after that….

      For those interested, please email with an email address and she’d be happy to send you notice.



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