Five Reasons Why I’m Loving Using Blender for my Architectural Visualisations

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been revisiting a piece of software that I had tried out a few years ago, but had gotten frustrated by and eventually put down, due to limitations that the program had at the time and my own time constraints.

Blender: Why on earth is there a monkey in my model?

The piece of software is called Blender, and it’s a completely free package with an amazing community of artists following who use it for everything from product design to feature-length films. I decided to give it another try whilst looking for a cheaper alternative to 3DS Max  to work into my workflow in architecture.

Previously I had tried real-time visualisation tools such as TwinMotion, as it works on a Mac, and the connection between the software and Archicad is fairly straight forward with a one-button plugin for exporting the model. Again though, the program is expensive, and isn’t particularly user-friendly — you still have to create or apply photo-real textures after exporting, and without masses of tweaking, the overall look is slightly cartoonish.

Twinmotion’s link between Revit and Archicad models

ArchiCAD’s built-in renderer (Cinema 4D) is great, but for scenes where you need photo-realism, all the scene-fillers that really bring a rendering to life aren’t feasibly achievable in BIM. It’s just not worth modelling small details, plants and entourage and storing them in the architectural model, as it quickly slows down drawings and creates more to manage when changing the design in the future.

Scene fillers like this Ikea candle holder – important for nice renderings, not so great for large BIM projects

Thankfully ArchiCAD has the ability to export the model as a 3D Studio (.3ds) file and import it into Blender. From here, its easy to really focus in on an area to be presented, and then fill it with all the lovely details you want for rendering. You still have to create materials, but at least with the node editor, you can fine-tune these and play around with the properties.

This is a rendering that I recently completed at work for promotional uses:

A CG rendering of the exterior of a barn/holiday accommodation

Now, I’m only a beginner when it comes to UV mapping, modelling landscapes and artificial lighting  but I’m really happy with the result and through my first month of learning the software, there have been a few aspects that stand out for me, solidifying blender as my go-to visualisation/organic modelling software.

1. Non-destructive modifiers

One important similarity between Blender and 3DS Max is that they both use modifiers to take simple models and apply amazing effects that can be reversed and easily tweaked by adjusting the original model. Things like adaptive subdivisions for smoothing without creating millions of points to adjust, and particle systems to scatter hundreds of object instances across a surface help to create organic, realistic environments. The grass in my rendering was created using a particle system, and allows me to tweak the strands and play around with the automated scattering to my heart’s content.

A simple cube with 2 ‘loop cuts’ (only 14 faces to modify) turns a simple base model into a smoothed cylinder

2. Excellent Community of Experts

One of the most important aspects of a piece of software when learning how to use it is how active the userbase is, and how easily you can get answers to your questions in forums. Because blender is freeware, it seems to have one of the largest followings in the world, and whilst the documentation on the Blender Wiki page is very good, you would be hard-pressed to find a question that hasn’t been answered in the very active forums.

CG critiquing sites such as ArtStation — although not solely used by Blender users — has so many people able to give you tips and feedback on projects, and really improve as an artist. (There are also weekly competitions and other fun stuff if you want to take part in events.)

If you’re a visual learner, like me, online tutorials by experts such as BlenderGuru on YouTube are fantastic (he’s a Blender user from New Zealand and his PBR materials store is excellent – check it out at poliigon.com – I bought a few of the textures used in my barn rendering from there). There’s no shortage of step-by-step projects showing the best ways to model, light and render projects.

3. Importing and Exporting Files to Graphisoft ArchiCAD

In the latest few editions of ArchiCAD there has been the function to import and export .3DS files, as well as the material mappings used in the program.

This is very handy, because if you’ve designated — for example — all the glazing to be displayed as a type of glass in archicad, all glass elements get exported as a single Blender object, allowing you to simply select and  link the required material. Applying it as a whole. It even brings across a simple UV mapping on some textured exports.

 

4. Great Add-Ons

The number of official and community addons is staggering, two of my current favourites is the archipack set, which allows you to form walls and windows, as well as shelves and stairs really quickly. As well as the Add Sapling tree generator tool. You can also add more, if they’re not already included in the available list.

The handy Sapling:Add Tree plugin, making it easy to create organic site foliage

5. SCULPTING

As somebody who has never really used 3D modelling for anything other than architecture and interior design, the idea of being able to use Blender to sculpt using a mouse or pressure-sensitive Wacom table was intriguing.

I had a go, and it was surprising just how intuitive the process was! Once you get the hang of  pushing, pulling and creating creases and lines, you can create characters and organic shapes really quickly. It’s like having a virtual ball of clay. I have heard that programs like MudBox are more specialised for this kind of thing, but honestly – looking at some of the more advanced sculptors online I think you can pretty much model anything in blender with enough time using this mode.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9q2Ied337zk

Summary

What do you think about Blender as a tool? Do you use it in an architectural/interior visualisation workflow? Let me know in the comments section below.

Designing a shipping container house for the Greatest International Scavenger Hunt (GISH)

We’ve been moving into our new house! The past two weeks have been physically exhausting, but great fun. We are finally unpacked, and enjoying having a garden for change – just in time to enjoy this wonderful weather in the UK. The building itself is a 1930s council house, and its true what they say; ‘they don’t make ’em like that any more.’ Once I’ve finished drawing up the house in Archicad I may have to do a blog post to share what I’ve been doing.

Somewhere within the past two weeks I managed to fit in a fun little project for Kirsty (my wife) who had been taking part in the week-long scavenger hunt GISH, where people taking part carry out fun/crazy/charitable tasks and it just so happened that one of the tasks was to:

Submit Bonafide architectural drawings (that can’t already be found on the Internet) for a homemade from two shipping containers. Must have a kitchen, bathroom, and windows.

Obviously, with my background and experience I leapt at the opportunity and agreed to mock up a really sketchy design for submission. It was great fun, and shipping container architecture was something that I’d wanted to look at for a while!

After a quick sketch around and a bit of modelling in Archicad I managed to come up with this:

The main idea was to stack and stagger the two container units so that it created a sheltered area, for planters and even a swing set. The floor plan is fairly bare, with a small kitchen/dining space on the ground floor but with consideration given to how the staircase winds up into the main bedroom space. The bed on the higher floor is extra large to take up the whole width of the container, with views directed out, through folding doors over the balcony area and beyond.

(Tea and Crumpets was the team name, as some members were from the UK, and others were from the US! Go team Tea and Crumpets!)

Swept Path Analysis Tool with Rhinoceros and Grasshopper

This is a quick video showing a tool I created using Rhino to calculate simple fixed axle swept path analysis on site plans for work.

This was quite a complicated program to create, but is able to be reused on multiple sites, for multiple vehicles. Based on the Ackermann steering and parametrised geometric principles.

It works really well in my workflow in architecture, as I can export siteplans as DWGs, import them into Rhino, perform the swept path analysis and bake them back into a DWG to be reimported into the BIM model.

If there’s any interest in it, I may upload a .GH file of the script for others to try out.

#awesomeusesforparametricdesign

Structural Efficiency with Grasshopper and Galapagos

One of my latest obsessions has been tinkering with Rhinoceros and Grasshopper – whilst I still have my 90 day trial of the software, i’ve been trying to teach myself as much as possible about the benefits of coding in design/architecture. The blog ‘I Eat Bugs For Breakfast‘ by David Rutten has been invaluable in explaining many of the subtleties of the software.

I had originally heard about Grasshopper and parametric design in an interview with Bjarke Ingels of BIG architects (BIG.dk) where they stated that the connection with coded elements was crucial to their design strategies, allowing them to quickly iterate through options and form amazing computer generated landscapes.

The software also happens to work really well with ARCHICAD – the BIM software that the practice I work at has invested in, so it seems like a good match.

I created a little video that walks through one use-case I’ve found for the software, in helping to advise/evolve a solution to calculating efficient timber spans for floors (not very exotic, I know – but handy nonetheless), for giving a good estimate on structural depths whilst minimising the amount of timber required for the build.

Disclaimer: as architects we never advise on actual structural elements, and cannot guarantee any safety – that’s what structural engineers are brought on board for – but in any case, it’s always nice to get an idea of the structural zone the building will require…

Please see the video below:

See the grasshopper script here:

 

Grasshopper complete script – click to maximise screenshot

So all in all, a very fun and interesting project, definitely with some scope for development as well as fine tuning — I’m also quite sure that there has to be an easier way of performing a few of the procedures, but for the time being I am  really enjoying the process! If you’ve got any questions or comments on the script, let me know in the comments.

My previous Grasshopper script was a push-pull brick facade generator (very pretty), which I hope to also do a video about as well, so stay tuned for that!

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Beautiful Trees – Free Autocad Block

Since there was quite a lot of interest in my last free AutoCAD block offering on the site, I decided to release another! This time in the form of a hand-drawn, fully-shaded tree in plan symbol that can be used anywhere.

I got the idea for drawing a few of these after seeing hand-drawn landscaping plans and wishing I could do something similar using just AutoCAD. Turns out: you can! Using true line weights and carefully selecting true colours, this block can be stretched, scaled and rotated to suit without losing its look due to pentypes or weights.

Download

Click here to download the block for free (Right click > Save as)

A dappled summer/autumn tree, good for general usage

Some additional info:

  • File version is AutoCAD DWG 2000.
  • 195kb (pretty small for a presentation block).
  • Fully purged.
  • All lines on layer 0 with colours overridden.

If you like using this file, you may consider buying the full set of 8 trees (including this one) for only £1.79 ($2.30) here

Designing Our New Offices

This week I have been working with the two directors at Rogers and Jones Architects (the practice where I work) to redesign the building which will eventually house our new offices! It’s quite an exciting opportunity to think about the design space, our own work units and how best to retrofit quite a dated building.

The general plan for the works, showing finishes, reflected ceiling/lighting plan and heating.
3D Isometric view to show the general layout and feel of the furnishings and table arrangements.
Front elevational treatment, showing the minimalist glass canopy to be installed, signwriting and vertical cladding section.

Quite a lot about the design has been focused on the change of ceiling levels as you walk through the building, giving the more personal, intimate spaces a cosier feel and the design studio space a light and airy room height.

Looking forward to moving in and starting on some of the works now!

Dissertation – The Lost Art of the Plaza

Block plans of famous city squares (left to right, top to bottom, respectively):
Trafalgar Square, London, England; Times Square, New York, USA; Plaça de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain; Place de la Concorde, Paris, France

For the dissertation aspect of the RIBA OBE Part II course, I chose to focus on the cultural-context module (rather than technology or economics) and to take a closer look at role of the plaza in everyday urban life. It was a really interesting piece to research, and the first hand surveying of Plymouth’s usage of these open spaces was incredibly illuminating. It took me from the historical inception of even the term ‘plaza’ all the way through to infrastructure and guerrilla urban design techniques of the modern age.

Please feel free to read through the dissertation by clicking here.

Survey of a Classical Block

For Rogers and Jones Architects, I recently completed this massive survey – featuring an existing block of accommodation for a housing association in Plymouth. I counted over 300 rooms whilst measuring and drawing this up in BIM software, but it was a useful experience as it gave me practice in manipulating large numbers of rooms on confusing level arrangements (through half-floors, stepped floorplates etc.).

Ground Floor and Site Plan
East Elevation

Extension and Alterations at St. Bridget’s Avenue

Some recent work I did at Rogers and Jones for a private client in Plymouth. I really loved the light and airy feel of the dining area, thanks to the three tilting velux skylights, as well as the quality of the kitchen finishes and fixtures.

Extension and alterations made to the rear of a dwelling in Plymouth. Replacing an existing lean-to conservatory/utility. Clients wished to maximise their views out into the garden, as well as create a more open and contemporary kitchen/living/dining area. We proposed a large 4m+ wide sliding/folding aluminium door opening out onto the patio and garden. The sloping soffit to the ceiling allows a light and airy space in the dining area, whilst the three pivoting velux rooflights allow a good amount of natural daylight into the room. The bespoke kitchen was designed by specialists.

The utility facilities were relocated to new side extension [not pictured] that also incorporated access to the rear garden and downstairs WC facilities.

Front elevation drawing
Sectional detail through lean-to roof