My Modeling Career

Learning SketchUp and trying to avoid architecture fees


One area where Andrew and I thought we could save some money on the project was on our architect. Since I obviously had a lot of interest in working on this project we hired our architect to do the technical drawings for the building permits at an hourly rate instead of the usual 10–15% of the overall project budget (this is a typical architect’s fee structure 😱). This saved us a good amount of money (about 60% on his fee) and it allowed me to design interior elevations, finishes and more of the details, which I was really excited to do.

I don’t mean to say our architect was unimportant or that we weren’t thoughtful on who we worked with. Our architect was awesome and the plans he put together really set the stage for the house, it was just that we limited the scope of his portion of the project. He did the initial floor plan, the external elevations and the technical drawings (framing plans and structural stuff). The GC and I filled in the gaps. You have to have a pretty experienced GC to do it this way and it has not been without it’s hiccups but I was definitely happy to be more involved in the process.

Because we were paying the architect hourly, each little tweak of the floor plan was costing us so I tried to work through most of it on my own before giving him feedback. I used — aptly named— to try endless combinations.

The master bath/closet for instance was giving me some serious problems.

Endless combinations
A very typical texting convo with my mom

This site lets you upload a floor plan and then overlay edits on top of it, which made moving things around and scaling furniture in much easier. My mom is old school (and a brilliant designer) and she always did this for her homes with graph paper, cutting out little rectangles and labeling them “shower” and “toilet”, shifting things around. The digital system worked better for me, though it was significantly less adorable.

I actually never really worked out this closet/bathroom layout issue until we were well into framing the house and the GC suggested just making the addition 1 foot bigger than on the plans (what?!) and that the building inspector would never notice. If you remember we were trying to work within the existing footprint for permitting reasons. Don’t tell anyone about this. You are all sworn to secrecy. This apparent loop hole solved all my problems and all this shifting things around was wasted time. At least I didn’t pay an architect hourly to pointlessly shift things around for me.

Once I had mostly sorted out my floor plans, I still felt like I needed a clearer picture of what the house would look like to make decisions on materials (siding, windows, roof, floors). I wanted be able to visualize the different options so I built a Sketch Up model of the house.

Sketch Up is a free 3D modeling program owned by Google. It is about as user friendly as you would expect from Google (each icon has been a/b tested to be 1% more clear than the alternative). That said, with YouTube (ok Google, you win), you can learn anything.

After more hours than I care to admit, my model started coming together.

Pretty good right?? But it didn’t help me much with materials. Then I figured out how to import custom materials for different surfaces.

Please ignore the lack of roof, it was making my furniture planning difficult so I deleted it…

As you can see, you can also add plants and furniture. Like I said, I spent a lot of (some might say too much) time doing this. But I found it super helpful in decision making. The gray is what aged white cedar looks like, the brown is what it looks like when it’s fresh on the house. That fresh look I think is beautiful but it is tough to maintain. You can seal it but it inevitably ages and looses most of that rich color. The gray is really beautiful but felt more like a beach house than a house in the woods to me. V. Block Island.

Having a model also made it much easier to experiment with horizontal vs. vertical siding. I wanted to switch it up between the main floor and the basement to exaggerate that ranch feel and make the downstairs feel separate.

Does this just look like a black square on your computer?

After a lot of consideration, I settled on a black siding for the exterior called shou sugi ban which is really common siding material in Japan. They consider it a really inexpensive, practical siding that they put on fishing shacks and any old building. In the US, it’s a serious novelty and they put it on high end, modern, architectural buildings. Our house is somewhere in between (probably closer to the fishing shack) but I think it will look beautiful surrounded by the greenery of the woods or the snow in the winter. I love the depth and texture of the color (it’s not just black but has a lot of brown in it as well). I dunno. We’ll see.

To make it, they char the wood to seal and weather proof it instead of using a chemical sealer and paint. At this point I was just hoping I’d be able to track this material down somewhere and that it would fit into the budget but I hadn’t sourced it yet. I’ll cover more on shou sugi ban in a later post. The process was pretty interesting but since we haven’t installed it, I don’t want to jinx it. It arrives next week, I will post updates on instagram.

One thing is for sure, being able to play out these different design choices in a visual way really helped.

The deck only floats in the model, in real life it has posts.

I used Sketch Up to work through the interior elevations as well. I’ll go into detail on these in a later post. A lot of the interior stuff is still in progress and not yet finalized so I don’t want to jump the gun on those.