Building a 3D model of a work of architecture isn’t always just about transforming into a pretty picture. And while, yes, modeling does in many instances lead to renderings for the use of presentations, meetings, or marketing, there is another function of this software that, ultimately, is why architects tend to use it in the first place.
That function is the design process itself. Building a design in three dimensions gives architects information necessary to make decisions about massing, circulation, materiality, and the overall experience of the finished work. Without this information, blind spots can form in the process, leaving those components up to the experience of the architect and the saavy of the builder to successfully execute.
But, architects don’t like to guess, and neither do clients. The modeling programs on this list are the best for bolstering the design process and leaving as little up to chance as is possible when designing a building.
SketchUp is the 3D modeling program that every architect wanted before they even knew they wanted it. SketchUp scratches the itch of being a fast effective design tool that just about anyone can learn. And while many designers and architects scoff at the simplicity involved, there’s no denying the software as a highly productive design tool that provides fast visual information of conceptual work.
SketchUp is also free, and supported by a vast user-base of designers who are always finding new ways to squeeze functionality out of it.
While Rhino might not be as fast or user-friendly as SketchUp, it is the true professionals tool for modeling complicated works of architecture. It’s integration with scripting software Grasshopper allows designers to quickly conjur geometry-based models, meshes, and components that are anything but rectilinear.
Be warned: the learning curve is steep. Those who get the most out of Rhino as a design tool have spent many hours learning to to model with it quickly and efficiently.
Revit is a documentation program first, and a design-driven modeling tool second. But, despite this, it’s just that duality that makes it such an attractive option for architects. If they are going to be building the Revit model for construction documents anyway, why not use it as a working drawing and design tool?
Revit doesn’t have the speed or flexibility as some other programs on this list, but it comes with an accuracy of building information that moves the process along towards the final phases of a project’s development.
Much like Revit, ArchiCAD is a building information modeling program that provides architects and designers with a valid alternative to the AutoDesk giant. It’s a niche program, but with an emphasis on building things in 3D and making use of component properties to construct a model that accurately represents the finished work.
ArchiCAD also interfaces well with structural and mechanical engineers, which allow it inform design options that will be influenced by the necessary inputs of those disciplines.
While SolidWorks is a 3D modeler mostly geared towards engineers, it can have a very specific place in an architecture studio that designs a lot of specialized components and details. It is a highly accurate modeler, and one that interfaces well with rapid prototyping and 3D printing. Because of this, it can be used as a design tool to organize ideas in tangible, physical models without spending weeks building them by hand.
There’s a reason why 3DS Max is the most popular professional 3D modeling tool in the world. It’s a program that just works, and has the ability to quickly build highly detailed 3D models from scratch. Because of SketchUp, few architects use 3DS Max anymore. However, it shouldn’t be overlooked because it has the ability to produce work that can have a drastic impact on the feedback loop.
It works well with much of the best rendering engines, making it an all-around visualization tool that leads to better designs.
For the bold architecture firms out there, Maya is the daunting, incredibly powerful modeling, animation, and simulation software that allows them to do things other firms simply can’t. It provides detailed information about how building systems can work, and can build 3D models that can be used in experiential visualization.
This, of course, isn’t for everyone. However, for those willing to implement Maya, the payoff is represented by a wealth of helpful design information that can be used to move along incredibly complex projects.