The SketchUp Model: Adventures in 3D Rendering

The next step in our tiny home adventure was to build a 3D model of the home in SketchUp. This isn’t a necessary step, but it is exceedingly helpful in calculating the right amount of materials that we will need, and estimating the weight of these materials and by extension, our final house build. It’s also one of those exercises that really makes you confront all the tiny little details about how exactly things will fit together, and the order of operations for putting it all together. It’s a lot easier to see how all the pieces fit together when you have to manually put them all into place in 3D.

As the “lead architect/designer” (ha!) of our build, creating the SketchUp model was sort of my (Mrs. Big Tiny’s) job. Without any actual training (I’m a geologist, not an architect) it was rather overwhelming to try to get started, but after quite a bit of trial and error, and stumbling across some helpful YouTube videos, I came across this:

Michael Janzen‘s excellent guide to drawing a tiny house in SketchUp (part 1).
Parts 2 – 7 are also available on his YouTube channel.

After watching part 1 and part of part 2 of Michael Janzen’s tiny house SketchUp tutorial series (see the link in video caption above to explore the rest of the series), I was competent enough to be able to create our model. There was still a lot of trial and error (so many errors…), and lots of iterating with the design, but eventually we ended up with a finalized layout and a 3D model that would prove to be extremely helpful in building.

Some SketchUp modeling tips learned along the way:

  • Draw things out on paper before starting to build a 3D model. It easy to change things in SketchUp (once you get proficient with it), but it’s pretty tedious to completely redo things like framing. Get your ideas at least relatively set on paper before you start trying to build it in 3D. My personal process for this was to first sketch things on paper for basic brainstorming or if an idea popped in my head while I was doing something else. Then I would build the basic floorplan in a different program (Home Designer Pro) where it was really quick and easy to change and move walls and add furniture. This was my step to make sure things actually worked with the dimensions of furniture and the house itself. Once I knew things would actually fit and that specific layout WAS physically possible, THEN I would move to building the 3D version in SketchUp. You don’t need that intermediate step or any kind of fancy software, but at least work with graph paper so you have a sense of scale when you are sketching by hand, and don’t forget to account for the thickness of your walls!
  • Before you get too far down the road with your model, make sure you understand the difference between groups and components, and how to best use each of these object types (see Michael Janzen’s video linked above for this). Start setting up components so you can use those to create material lists that are actually useful for ordering supplies later (e.g. so you can know exactly how many studs you need, or how many 4 x 8 sheets of sheathing rather than trying to count everything manually). This means naming and grouping things in a way that makes sense, using identical components for quick resizing of objects like studs, and creating a consistent, reliable system that you don’t have to go back and re-do later or just deal with once you’re too far down to the road to want to go back (not that I know what that’s like…)
  • Use tags early and often – this is SketchUp’s new way of doing layers. You can assign tags to individual things or to whole groups, and then use those tags to turn them on and off. Before learning about tags, I wondered how the heck you were supposed to be able to see anything inside your house once you had the walls built. Guess what? Tags are your answer.
  • Learn how to save a scene so you can return to common views easily.
  • Learn how to use SketchUp in tandem with LayOut to create building plans and dimensional drawings.

For those last two, I found this video by TheSketchUpEssentials particularly great (but they also have a ton of other really helpful tutorial videos on their channel):

How to get started using LayOut with Sketchup from TheSketchUpEssentials
  • Don’t try to build all the tiny details at once. First just use cubes/boxes as placeholders for things like furniture, cabinets, etc. so you can get your spacing correct and build your framing. Once you have the basics complete, you can go in and replace those materials with more detailed objects – either ones of your own creation, or making use of the models that countless others have made and are available through the SketchUp warehouse (Tip: You can modify these to perfectly suit your needs after you add them to your model! At that point it’s exactly like you created the object yourself.)
  • BE PATIENT and expect to make mistakes and have to start over multiple times. I highly recommend saving different versions of your model as you go, so if you really mess something up badly, you can always return to a previous version.

We spent a lot of time tweaking and scrutinizing this model. It was an extremely helpful tool in planning and has continued to be incredibly helpful when it comes to the execution of our build. Even though getting started can be a little overwhelming and intimidating, it’s worth taking the time to learn how to use the program. (Note: You can do everything you need to do in the free version of SketchUp! No need to shell out lots of money for the paid version.) Give yourself lots of time to experiment and play and talk through things either by yourself or with your building/planning partner(s), and don’t be afraid to try changing things as you go – the undo button is a wonderful thing! You may notice when you see the model (below) that our design changed quite a bit from the earlier layout! That was really because of the insights we were able to have while building the model. It forced us to come to terms with the reality of building the incredibly complicated design we had created, and we realized we needed to simplify things to decrease the stress of building and increase our chances of success.

Curious to see our 3D model? Check out the video below! (Note: Ignore the weirdness with the roof rafters over the gooseneck – we are in the middle of tweaking the plan for those!)

Tour the Big Tiny Project’s 3D SketchUp model!

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