Sketchup Blog - News and Notes from the Sketchup folks

An article about "Skipping the Architect"

An article published in last week's New York Times made me a little queasy. Entitled "Skipping the Architect: Wise or Otherwise?", it profiles a handful of people who, empowered by user-friendly drawing apps like SketchUp, have decided to do their own design work. An excerpt:

Philippe Jeanty was interested in saving money but also time when he decided to design a house using SketchUp. Mr. Jeanty, a 58-year-old doctor with no architecture or engineering training, spent several months coming up with a plan for a one-story, three-bedroom house in Fairview, Tenn., with thick, insulated walls and numerous windows. Using SketchUp, he was able to keep tweaking the design until he was satisfied. “If we had to discuss the plans with an architect and said, ‘We want to change this, change that,’ it would be an endless number of meetings,” Mr. Jeanty said.
As it was, he just hired a draftsman and a builder to carry out his plan, and his lack of design knowledge, he said, wasn’t an issue: “The only thing we really regret is putting marble in too many places. It’s a pain to maintain.”

Here at SketchUp HQ, we're more than a little conflicted about stories like this one. On one hand, it's great that folks like Dr. Jeanty are able to realize their ideas using our software—I'd love to congratulate him on his successful project. On the other hand, owning a scalpel doesn't make me a surgeon. I would no sooner remove my own gall bladder than proceed with a major building project without consulting an expert.

SketchUp is used by everyone from schoolchildren to world-renowned architects, and that's exactly how we like it. But how should we react to stories that portray accessible tools as a replacement for domain expertise? How do we continue to encourage enthusiastic amateurs without downplaying the importance of trained professionals?

The original NYT article didn't include a feedback thread, which is a shame. If you like, feel free to use this post's Comments to let us know what you think.

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StilTeg said...

I am not sure this is really endangering ... Someone with at little a bit of cleverness will still seek advices for the how-to-build it in the end ... I am designing my future home, and I have to admit that sketch-up really helps me talk equal to equal with the builder ... I can show him what I planned, and he answers what is possible and not possible ... and based on his experience and my knowledge of sketchup design, I know I will have the desired home with suitable quality.

Quantity Engineers said...

I think that the "How-to-Build" craze or DIY as it is called, made interesting TV shows when Bob Villa stared it. But it has empowered too many people with no construction or Building Code knowledge to remodel their homes. This has created buildings with severe code violations that are safety hazards.

gerrrg said...

I hate, hate, hate clients who come with preconceived ideas about how things are supposed to be. I would prefer they just go to a builder and have their ideas constructed without my input, because they're wasting my time.

You don't need me to put to paper your romanticized idea of what a home should look like.

I have no problem with DIYers looking to save money by wasting their own time -- they'd only be wasting my time, otherwise.

Joel Kennington said...

I´m an architect in Mexico. Where two few codes make it very easy for clients to do there own junk.
I feel frustrated by clients not giving value to our work when they find it "so easy to do" On the other hand the customers frustration of losing time with too many meetings is a very important point to foucus on.

Sketchup can help if and only if we draw before the customers eyes and the customers time is not wasted. I belive that drawing before the customer in the begining stages of design eliminates the problem as the customer can see what we the architects are thinking but we have to be good at sketchup for that to work.


Ano Namous said...

Sounds like the "professionals" don't want to -work- with the customers. I would think that Sketchup would be an excellent starting point for customers to present their idea. Requiring a technical review is reasonable, but requiring the customers to sit with hands folded, helpless, while 'the professional' uses Sketchup... is not good. Power to the people... with technical review for code compliance, etc.

LukeG said...

I see three big problems here:
-interaction with a builder

I was in an owner-designed home once that was inadvertently also a very efficient chimney. In the Texas summer, massive amounts of heat rose into the second story up the central stairwell and air-roasted the upstairs occupants with stifling temperatures. The southwest-facing windows took on loads of heat all day, and the upstairs took hours to cool after sundown.

There was also a serious lack of closet and storage space, and the kitchen had horrible workflow, with limited prep space and cabinet access.

Money paid for a competent architect is money well-spent. A sound design is the root of a happy home.

Unknown said...

I use SketchUp for the second stage of preliminary design - right after the floor plan sketches are approved. When I sit down with a client and show them my SU models, I also instruct them how to use the program so that can take their own walk-throughs. Very seldom do they modify the model, but if they did, I would help and encourage them. In the end, an informed client who is aware of what he is paying for will be a happy client. Many people don't have the ability to see in three dimensions like an architect can, and they're not fully aware of what the project will look like when it's finished. SketchUp solves that problem simply and elegantly. I'm currently working with a Google employee who had never used SketchUp, but he learned without any help from me. His comments and critique about the design are intelligent, and helps me provide the solutions he requires.
Working drawings,engineering, planning and code compliance are quite another matter, and my clients will back away from that process and focus on material selection such as electrical and plumbing fixtures, tile, countertops, flooring and colors.

Beatriz said...

As you said in your article it is something to be worried about but you explained it very well with the example you gave I studied architecture for five years have my masters degree that took me two years to do have been working with architecture firms for eight years and started doing my exams to be licensed in california and to be eligible to take this exams you have to have eight years experience internship and you have to pass seven exams which are no easy task if you fail there is a six month waiting period to take each of them which is ridiculous I am almost forty years old so I might as well give up and be a designer the rest of my life....

Jason Quinn said...

My attitude is you should help clients do this so that you can focus on high value work. If your client can produce work with Sketchup that is "as good as" your work then you should be either proud to work with this genius or unemployed. Reality is they won't produce work as good as yours so enhance their work and charge for it. In reality the person in the article laid out a floorplan and had a builder/drafter build it - no worries.

fguerra said...

I am gonna tell you what the real Danger is: Have your first meeting with a potential client who has a folder full of magazine cutouts! These are the ones that you should be worried about.

I agree with Kennington, (I also practice in Mexico) the problem is that our profession is not valuable for many people. Sketchup has given me a great tool to shorten the time spent in conceptual design, which is frequently not paid. So even if this Doctor would have hired an Architect/Builder, he would have been a terrible client. The ones that calls you like a thousand times a day just to see how things are going.

Would you skip the Doctor when you are sick? Sometimes it works, sometimes it gets you worse. Same thing here.

Matt Kleinmann said...

As a Sketchup enthusiast, I'm actually impressed that at that age quickly learned Sketchup to design their home. I agree that there's that surgeons are surgeons, builders are builders, and architects are architects, but good design shouldn't be exclusive to the few (whether his design was good or not is another question entirely...).

As an architect, I would be slightly worried if our clients came in with their own sketchup models and said, "Hey, look what I did, now build this". But if they're already your client, the assumption is that you can manage that relationship well enough that that doesn't happen. Depending on the field, designing (in Sketchup) is only a small part of the role of the architect.

Long story short, Sketchup is just a tool, albeit a unique one, but a tool nonetheless. Its strength is its power to rapidly turn ideas into visions. If enterprising individuals want to take control of their own designs - and aren't just building it themselves, but are going through the proper channels of city permits, building codes, etc. - then more power to them.

Draco TB said...

Someone drew up a house and then took it to a draughtsman to engineer - what's to be concerned about? It's really no different to what people used to do with pen and paper. They probably got closer to what they actually wanted using SketchUp though and the 3d nature and digital file probably helped the architect as well.

It's not replacing the experts but empowering the non-expert.

Noah Way said...

As noted a above, this just saves professionals the time and trouble of dealing with those who don't understand, appreciate or deserve the knowledge that an experienced professional brings to a complex project.

I've seen homeowner designed projects struck by Italian lightning immediately upon completion as well as properties made absolutely unmarketable by bad design.
In fact right now there is one going up just down the street from me with white cedar shingle siding (20% cheaper than reds but requires 5 bundles per square instead of four and more labor, with a shorter life), black aluminum Pella windows (expensive garbage), dormers up the wazoo on a 3/12 pitch roof, exterior roof deck over interior space (drip, drip, drip), etc., etc.

In the end, it's really no worse than a really bad architect or some numbnuts fresh out of school. In life you tend to get what you deserve.

Dana said...

What if someone took the time to read all the books put out by said professionals, read local building codes, etc. then run it past a professional for the final product? If the books and codes were written by professionals, then essentially they are helping train people on their own with their books. That is how the professional learned in the first place too. I am sure many architects have made mistakes and learned from them. That is what makes learning and trying new things so much fun. said...

See. Architect is also a consultant. He will lead team of builders till project is finished. You sucked up with marble, but i bet also with many other things where eye of educated and talanted architect could help more. So...its not right way to solve dream house.

pb said...

There is nothing to stop the INTELLIGENT client from investigating all areas of design, including sustainability, passive heating and cooling, occupant circulation etc..There is nothing to stop that INTELLIGENT person from using sketchup to portray this, and their personal wishes in a house design. There is nothing to stop that INTELLIGENT person then consulting designers, architects and others for their required contribution and agreeing with that input.
Between client, designer, architect, drafters and planners we have 100% contribution of all required. Sketchup helps the INTELLIGENT client provide their contribution in a way that has proved hard before.
Right tools, right people, right communication and right decisions. Be careful Mr or Mrs Architect, the next person who comes to you with a Sketchup proposal, might just be INTELLIGENT.

LifeInBeats said...

There are plenty of architects out there willing to stamp a set of DIY drawings for an exorbitant price tag, and take on the liability on themselves. And there are plenty of builders out there willing to make someone's [sketchup] dream a reality. But if you hire an architect to design your home, and you plan on taking images of your sketchup model to him in your first meeting, consider the following:

1) It takes 7+ years to become a licensed architect. Unless you are very humble about the whole process, he/she WILL be incredibly perturbed by your assumption that you can do their job. Whether true or not, be prepared to be told you're wrong. This is tantamount to telling your doctor that you know what's best because you read it on the internet. Not necessarily untrue, but consider the implications...

2) You will get things wrong. Believe it or not, designing and building a home is more complicated than it looks, and getting the details wrong is incredibly easy (and not always perceptible). Hence the 7+ years of training for architects, and the 20+ years of construction experience for most GCs.

3) Most architects are trained to translate your needs and desires into a design. If it's a good fit, your architect will give you something special, that likely suits your situation better than something you could have come up with on your own. Conversely, if you take images of what you want to an architect with no flex, you can be sure that the creative ownership is taking out of the equation for him/her. So be prepared for them to be apathetic to the process, tweaking your design to match code and that's about it. In essence, be careful what you ask for, because you'll probably get it...'

4) If you're going to skip an architect and go straight to a builder, do yourself a favor and do it right. Look closely at your model and consider EVERY intersection at EVERY material change, and sketch (on paper) what that looks like to the minutest detail. If you can't draw what that looks like, be prepared for problems...

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PhaseTransit said...

Sketchup empowers everyone in the design and construction process to improve performance. It empowers the client to visualise and the builder to tweak technical detail from experience, and the designer to communicate. Sometimes these are all one person, but far more likely with the growing complexity and performance of construction they are not. Sketchup is simply increasing the distinction between good and bad building. There will always be cheaply compromised cheap functional buildings - but now with the benefit of energy performance enhancement via sketchup, as well as more affordable high spec building also better faciliated by sketchup. However it is not sketchup's fault if some owners decide to build-as-experiment through over inflated beliefs in their own capacities. A case of even greater increases in familiarity breeding further contempt for architecture? If so then ignore them and focus on those who respect the enhanced abilities of architects and builders who use sketchup.