In today’s digital climate, architects are relying more and more on their design software to not only produce detailed construction drawings, but create believable visualizations and bolster their design process. Computer aided design is an essential aspect of any design business, with a few programs rising above the rest to find their way into every studio across the world.
And while there might still be a few old guard, pen-and-pencil-only cats out there who will never relinquish their grip on trusty T-square and vellum, the rest of the world has moved on.
The software on this list is vital to the workflow and process of a majority of architecture offices. Without these programs, the entire construction industry would grind to a screeching halt until we all learned how to draw by hand again.
The drafting program that started a revolution. While much of the professional design industry has moved on to BIM and other, more informative means of construction documentation, there are still many who will forever and always use CAD. It’s powerful, fast, and capable of producing complex line drawings and schedules.
AutoCAD has been the industry standard for decades now, and won’t soon become obsolete. Until BIM can get a handle on detail drawing and engrained design discipline, AutoCAD will hold a large chunk of the design industry under its wing.
While SketchUp might not be the most refined, complicated, or powerful 3D modeling program, it is certainly the most accessible. And it’s in that accessibility that architects have found so much value in it. SketchUp allows designers to quickly model their work, assess its strengths, and take it right back to the cutting room for refinement and alteration.
Taking things further, SketchUp is now being used as a viable visualization tool with the use of several easy-to-use rendering plugins. SU Podium and Brighter 3D have opened up a whole new world to SketchUp users, and one architects and designers are taking full advantage of.
When architects are in need of adding texture, scale figures, trees, cars, and other contextual imagery to their renderings, they turn to Adobe’s world famous photo editing software for help. Photoshop is taught to architects very early in their education because it’s something they will use over and over again to push their work to the next level.
Architects might not edit many photos, but they do create artwork in various ways that all act to describe their designs and push forward the process of getting their work built. They might not dig into the deepest depths of what Photoshop can offer, but then again, they don’t have to.
As mentioned earlier, many architects have already made the jump from 2D CAD drafting to Building Information Modeling (BIM) software. Revit is the most popular BIM program on the market, and allows users to digitally construct their buildings in three dimensions with embedded information pertaining to construction, scheduling, and finished materials.
Revit endured a rocky start, but has since been developed into a program that is user-friendly, powerful, and nuanced. It still has a long way to go in the detail department, but those who use it can’t possibly make the jump backwards to strictly 2D drafting.
Presentations, competitions, and marketing materials make up a seldom talked about component to running an architecture business. InDesign helps arechitects and designers collect their visualization content and present it in a way that is easy to digest. It’s a layout program that’s also heavily used by book publishers and magazine editors.
InDesign is fast, streamlined, and easy to gain a grasp of. It offers a much smoother interface than Photoshop, and has a robust toolset that lets designers add visual flair, diagramming, and text-driven content to renderings, plans, and other design-related drawings.
Before SketchUp blew up the 3D modeling industry, architects relied on other, less user-friendly forms of digital drawing. Not to say Rhino is incredibly complicated - it’s not - but it’s vast catalogue of tools and setting has a way of turning new users off.
However, there are some things SketchUp simply can’t do. And for that, Rhino has the medicine. When used in conjunction with Grasshopper, designers can write their own scripts that allow for an advanced flavor of parametric modeling that’s reserved for only the most high-profile design jobs.
SketchUp is one of the most widely-used 3D modeling programs around, especially among architects and interior designers. It provides the speed and flexibility to make quick changes to a design, and lend strength to the process of developing a project. By itself, SketchUp is a powerful design tool and an adequate visualization tool.
However, there is a power locked away in SketchUp that can only be unlocked with supplementary software and plugins that transform its rudimentary graphics into photorealistic representations of your work.
The rendering programs on this list are the best for use with SketchUp because of the way they transform the most accessible 3D modeling program into a visualization powerhouse. Many of these programs are just as easy to use as SketchUp itself, making for a smooth transition for those who don’t have much experience in rendering and post production.
Here are 5 rendering programs for use with SketchUp.
SU Podium was designed from the ground up to be used specifically with SketchUp - making it the only one of its kind on this list. There aren’t many bells and whistles here, just an easy-to-use rendering plugin that will have your SketchUp models looking shiny and new in a matter of minutes.
If you spend time detailing your SketchUp models and finely tuning the applied textures and lighting sources, Podium will do the rest. It allows you to tweak things like brightness, contrast, and color filters after the rendering is complete, adding some flexibility to the whole process. For new users, Podium is the first place you should look for rendering help.
No matter how far we’ve come since the early days of computer graphics and 3D rendering, V-Ray will always be at the top of the food chain. As technology advances, so does V-Rays ability to produce the most mind-bending visualizations, renderings, and animations possible with ones and zeros.
V-Ray comes equipped with a plugin that interfaces directly with SketchUp. It certainly comes with a learning curve, but those willing to put in the time are rewarded with the ability to do just about anything with a rendering. With V-Ray, SketchUp is instantly transformed into a rendering tool professionals can be proud to utilize.
Twilight Render is a visualization tool for professionals and hobbyists alike. In fact, that’s exactly how it’s marketed, and with good reason. It presents the user-friendly interface SketchUp users appreciate, with a powerful rendering engine that can produce photorealistic images for even the greenest of amateurs.
Twilight Render isn’t the most feature-rich rendering program in the world, but it provides just enough in terms of quality and speed to find plenty to like here. For people who are just getting their visualization foundation underneath them, it’s an absolute slam dunk and one that won’t cost them much to get up and running.
If you’re looking to dip your feet into the bleeding edge of rendering technology, look no further than Keyshot. It utilizes real-time rendering in a way that allows you to see the results of a rendered scene as you’re working on it. That means you can tweak textures, lighting, camera, and even massing and instantaneously view the rendering.
Keyshot is still working on a proper plugin for SketchUp, but does have the ability to import your models into the base rendering program for quick use. SketchUp users will be impressed at just how easy Keyshot is to use, especially considering the technological magic it carries with it under the hood. Keyshot is something that has to be seen to believe.
If SU Podium doesn’t have enough to satisfy the professional renderers needs, Brighter 3D is another exclusive SketchUp plugin to try out. It works within SketchUp’s already user-friendly interface, and has enough in terms of options and flexibility that experienced users will love. It supports a variety of different lighting models, including artificial and HDR.
Brighter is a CPU multi-tasking rendering engine, meaning you won’t need an expensive graphics card to unlock its power. It is the perfect rendering plugin for people who don’t have the money to build themselves a dedicated visualization machine.
It’s okay to be skeptical about the quality of things that are offered for free. While there is plenty of free content out there, it’s typically saddled with some sort of nefarious ulterior motive, microtransaction, or otherwise unethical business practice that will either completely nerf the value of the content, or eventually bleed your wallet anyway.
For architectural visualizers, this is all too common a problem. Rendering programs are expensive because they offer a very sophisticated set of tools that provide professionals with the ability to be the best at what they do.
That all being said, we’ve managed to find a handful of free rendering programs for arch viz that aren’t complete garbage. In fact, they aren’t garbage at all, and in the right hands these programs can be used to create work that is just as impressive as some of the titans of the industry.
Free doesn’t have to mean terrible. This software is proof.
It’s impossible to separate “free rendering software” with the empire Blender has created. It’s an open source 3D modeling program that has been developed into a visualization powerhouse. It’s on-board rendering engine, Cycles, is easy to use, capable, and works so seamlessly with the base 3D modeler you simply can’t separate one from the other.
Blender is created by people who’ve grown up with the software, and is supported by a robust community of rabid fans who are more than willing to help newcomers unlock all the tricks, secrets, and shortcuts available. Blender is an absolute no brainer for anyone interested in architectural visualization, and it won’t cost you a dime.
LuxRender is a physics based rendering engine that has the ability to make your conceptual works of architecture looking like photorealistic jaw-droppers. Very few free pieces of software come with as many options and features as LuxRender, making sure every visualization artist has something they can apply to their own workflow and best practices.
A quick look at the gallery page on their website should give an indication of just how capable a renderer we’re dealing with here. Once you’ve downloaded the program, you’ll forget everything you thought you knew about using free visualization software. It’s set up to work with both CPU and GPU systems, making sure no users are left behind.
Once you learn how to properly say Kerkythea, you’ll be telling all your friends about this free, powerful, easy-to-use 3D rendering engine. It utilizes physically accurate lighting and texture, giving users a free option that allows them to create impressive, photorealistic renderings and animations without dropping hundreds on a software license.
It also comes with a free SketchUp exporter, which is perfect for architectural visualization artists who rely on that 3D modeling program for most of their up-front work. Kerkythea is a truly unique piece of free software that doesn’t skimp on usability. It’s geared directly towards architects and interior designers who want a reliable program they don’t have to worry about breaking the bank on.
If you’ve already gotten used to using Blender for your 3D modeling needs, you shoudl do yourself a favor and give Freestyle a try. It gives users a bit of a different feel than Cycles, instead focusing on creating images that rely only on line drawing. And since it’s a well-known fact that architects love lines, this is certainly a match made in heaven.
Freestyle is more of a light plugin than a fully-fledged rendering engine, but it will give architectural visualization artists something unique to supplement their photorealistic work with. It’s great for diagramming, concept development, and finding clever ways to promote design communication and process-driven workflow.
Yes, you can download and use Pixar’s famous rendering software right now from the comfort of your home desk. It was a shock to the visualization industry when Pixar announced they’d be making their software available to all consumers, and an even bigger shock when they actually delivered!
Of course, this version of Renderman is probably completely different then the one they’re using in house today, it still has many features architectural visualizers will find incredibly helpful to their practice. It’s fast, feature-rich, and used by Pixar! ‘Nuff said.
For those early adopters and future seers, it was easy to predict how much of a massive success story SketchUp would eventually become. And while those first few years were met with mostly skepticism, harsh scoffing, and a massive inferiority complex, it was the dedicated few who proved it could be used for more than just jagged representations of their ideas.
Now, SketchUp is employed as a full-fledged visualization machine. Not only does it interface with all major rendering engines, its ease-of-use lends itself to being a powerful design tool that has helped architects and interior designers do better work.
SketchUp is also entirely free, making it a modeling program with very few glaring blind spots. However if you’re looking for something else - like a modeler with a more robust feature set, there are some options that you can consider diving into. The programs on this list are just as user-friendly as SketchUp is known for, and all offer something just a little bit different under the hood.
Before the SketchUp era began almost 20 years ago, the cool kids in the architecture industry were modeling everything in Rhino. AutoCAD was way too cumbersome and frustrating to handle any serious 3D modeling needs, and the easy and intuitive design of Rhino meant quicker results and more complex solutions.
Rhino has evolved over the years to maintain its grasp on a large number of dedicated rendering artists and architectural visualizers. It can do things that SketchUp will never be able to do, and using Grasshopper to write your own scripts opens up an unlimited number of modeling possibilities.
New users wouldn’t likely sing Blender’s praises for having the most accessible of user interfaces. However, those who take the time to climb this initially steep learning curve are rewarded with a free 3D modeling program that can do just about anything. It spans 3D rendering industries, and is suited for anything from arch viz to 3D animation.
Blender also comes coupled with its own proprietary rendering engine, Cycles. As you’d imagine, the two pieces of software mesh together perfectly, giving users a powerful, all inclusive package to hang their reputation on.
For those 3D modelers who might be less serious about a contending career as a rendering artist, Inventor is the program like SketchUp for you. It carries the same whimsical attitude towards learning, tinkering, and...well...inventing as the aforementioned program. It institutes a drag-and-drop style modeling interface that makes it easy for users to quickly populate their scenes.
I doubt anyone would be so cavalier as to claim Inventor a ‘professional’ 3D visualization tool, but it is a nice alternative to SketchUp that spins the easy user interface genre of moders in a different way.
If Form Z is just a bit too grown up for your late-to-develop 3D modeling muscles, then you’re in luck! Form Z Jr. takes all the things people have loved about the parent program for years and makes them a bit easier to digest. You won’t find the grand chest of options and tools, but you’re gifted instead the ability to digitally create just about anything your imagination can conjur.
Form Z is primarily used by character designers, 3D artists, video game developers, and anyone else who requires a more freeform modeler. In that way it’s very much unlike SketchUp, but still worth a look for people who want to test out an intuitive program that does modeling a little bit differently.
3D modeling on an iPad? Not only an emphatic ‘yes’ to that question, but the kind of intuitive 3D modeling you’d only expect out of something being controlled by a mouse and keyboard. Sharpr 3D is the most widely used and capable modeling program for tablet consumption. Using it actually feels like magic, and is great for artists and visualizers who don’t feel like hauling around an expensive laptop.
It primarily targets Apple Pencil users, and is designed to work in concert with the technology. Once you start using Sharpr 3D, you’ll keep coming back because it’s, quite simply, good clean fun. Do yourself a favor and download it now.
Building Information Modeling was certainly around before AutoDesk launched Revit over a decade ago. However, that particular launch ushered BIM into the mainstream, as architects and engineers gravitated towards it for the flexibility and efficiency it allowed - not to mention its accuracy.
Over the years since its release, Revit has undergone a number of important quality of life upgrades that has transformed it into a powerful construction documentation tool that is no longer a clunky mess. Its usability has given designers no other choice but to abandon exclusive 2D drafting in favor of something that not only assists in the documentation process, but the design process as well.
Now, AutoDesk is searching for a new frontier for Revit to conquer: visualization. Revit has always had an on-board rendering engine that never seemed like an afterthought, and doesn’t begin to hold a candle against dedicated renderers such as V-Ray, Keyshot, or Maxwell.
AutoDesk is hoping to change that with the release of Revit Live - a licensed plugin that promises to give architects an all new Revit, complete with visualization tools that can be used seamlessly alongside the base program. We’re going to take an in-depth look at what Revit Live is, and how it can expect to change the way we use BIM software.
Revit Live is a cloud-based extension of Revit that will render your model in real-time, and allow architects and designers to create a variety of different visualizations, walk-throughs, animations, and even VR tours of their building model. It takes material and texture information directly from the components within the model to create a virtual space where users can explore at their heart’s content.
It gives design firms the ability to utilize a powerful visualization tool without the need for expensive equipment to run the back-end. The cloud computing offers almost instantaneous results, meaning users can quickly update the visualization once changes have been made to the base model.
Revit Live comes packaged with most AutoDesk software packages, so no additional funds need to be set aside to make full use of the service.
One appealing feature of Revit Live is the ability to share the visualization models with just about anyone. This means engineers, consultants, clients, and builders will have access to a fully rendered version of the building - as it is drawn in the construction documents - to better understand the design in its most current state.
For architects and designers, there is nothing more important than having the ability to clearly communicate ideas, details, and vital construction information that might make the end product more aligned with the design. Revit Live has the potential to do this, with cutting the middleman from the equation of designer to visualizer, back to designer and finally to the intended party.
It injects efficiency and accuracy into a program that is touted for its efficiency and accuracy. Architects are given the tools to quickly communicate visually without the need to hand-hold through a sterile set of 2D plans and drawings.
Perhaps the most impressive feature included in Revit Live is seamless virtual reality integration. More and more design firms are digging their teeth into the possibilities of VR to showcase their unbuilt designs. The problem has been finding software that doesn’t require a doctorate in computer engineering to be able to operate. Most offices have resorted to hiring outside help to set up and operate virtual reality experiences in the office.
With Revit Live, the software is all right there, and all that’s needed is an in-house virtual reality headset to get things up and running.
Clients love being able to freely move around in the buildings they are paying lots of money to construct before ground is broken on the project. It gives them hope during a long and sometimes painful design and permitting process, that their project is going to come out the other side as good as advertised.
This flavor of visualization is what strengthens trust between designer and client, and allows decisions to be made a bit more freely. The client can see with their own eyes, and therefore don’t need to blindly believe that things will turn out as planned.
Revit Live is just getting started, but it promises to shake up the design and visualization industries with streamlined information that is more closely aligned with real-world context.
Not all 3D modeling software is created equally. In fact, depending on which rendering artist, architect, or designer you might be talking to, their preference for modeling programs will probably differ as widely as Congress trying to agree on a comprehensive spending budget.
Disagreements aside, there are some tangible and concrete reasons for why certain people prefer certain programs. One of them, of course, being cost. The most complex and powerful modeling software will usually carry a steep price tag (though, as we will see, not always). However, not everyone has their child’s first year of college tuition to spend on computer programs, so finding free alternatives that are also mechanically capable is a necessary side-step.
The programs on this list are entirely free to download and use, and represent a growing groundswell of open source and free software that doesn't necessarily suck. This is a very good thing. Your bank accounts (and your significant others) will thank you.
SketchUp has entered its way into the mainstream like few other visualization programs have. Just about anyone can get the hang of SketchUp in a matter of hours, making it accessible for even the most untrained brains.
The free version of SketchUp is now hosted entirely within a browser, making saving files easier than ever to transport between different computers. You can upgrade to Pro for around $250, but the base version is more than most people - even architects and designers - would ever need. SketchUp might be easy to use, but it can be an incredibly useful design and visualization tool when paired with the right rendering plugin.
Anyone who uses Blender says the exact same thing: “Wait, are we sure this is free?” It’s not for any reason other than the fact that Blender can do just about anything the likes of 3DS Max, Rhino, and SolidWorks can do without users having to fork over a single penny. The interface is unique, and will definitely take some getting used to, but the vastness of the community that supports Blender have made it easy to learn.
Blender also comes with a proprietary rendering engine called Cycles. Also free. There are few 1-2 punches in the visualization world that stack up to the combination of Blender and Cycles, let alone ones that don’t rip your arm off and beat you with it just for a license key.
When the notoriously money-grubbing design software company, Autodesk, starts putting free software into the market, it is understandably met with a raised eyebrow and a wheel-barrel’s worth of skepticism. However, they did just that with Meshmixer 3.0, and surprised everyone when it was, in fact, free, and a useful little modeling tool for inventors, tinkerers, and object makers.
It was developed as a 3D printer interface for people to build and print, well, whatever their imagination conjured up. But, more than that it can be used as a powerful mesh building tool for designers whose focus is on the smaller details in life.
The free program so free it was named for being free. FreeCAD is free, yes, but it’s also got a powerful little engine working in there that can produce highly detailed 3D models and meshes for those eager and willing enough to give it a chance. Most would shy away from something called FreeCAD because of the whole “you get what you paid for” thing. Normally, I’d agree, but can make an exception in this case (and the other cases on this list).
FreeCAD is an open-source program that focuses on giving users a highly flexible experience by way of parametric modeling. It allows models to be modified quickly by going into the modeling history and changing values of key components rather than having to rebuild things from scratch. It’s component based, and incredibly fast if you know what you’re doing.
For those looking for something a little different out of their 3D modeling experience, 3D Crater is a free program to give a look. It utilizes a drag and drop approach to 3D modeling, making it an interesting option for people who don’t have a ton of experience to fall back on. Learning a new program is never easy, so why not get after one that does a lot of the work for you?
3D Crafter doesn’t come with the flexibility, complexity, or raw modeling power of some of the other programs on this list, but it does represent an option that has a fresh take on user interface and can be used to produce some beautiful models and animations.