The will to learn: 8 steps for learning architectural software
Joe Storr

November 14, 2011

The will to learn: 8 steps for learning architectural software

Featured Contributor and Black Spectacles Author, Joe Storr, details the road that he took to learn architectural software & become a 3ds Max expert.

With 3DS Max, Cinema 4D, Revit, AutoCAD, Sketchup, and countless other options available to architects, there’s no shortage of digital modeling programs to choose from. And with ever-increasing processing power and the emergence of GPU based rendering engines, we’re beginning to see more and more firms integrating these programs into their design process.

While we can all agree that becoming familiar with the programs listed above can be a great asset for any aspiring designer, the road to familiarizing yourself with them is daunting. Most of us have had only limited exposure to them by the time we reach the collegiate level, and by then we’re so busy learning about codes, structures, and form vs. function, that we have little time left to devote to learning about Polygons, Vertexes, and Nurbs. The key in my experience is to go out of your way to integrate these programs to your design work flow while you are still in school.

Despite having developed a strong background in AutoCAD during my time in High School, I was woefully unequipped to make the jump to full fledged 3D modeling programs. The GUI’s were complicated, my professors had limited knowledge of the material, and I was busy learning how to make models and put together coherent presentations on three hours of sleep. Still, I had a strong interest in 3D modeling, and with the rise in the use of Revit, Sketchup, and Vray, it was clear that the use of digital programs would only increase in the future of the Architectural Industry. I made the choice early on that even though my studios didn’t go out of their way to integrate digital design to our design process ... I would.

The result was an often painful five years of trial and error, reading books, and scouring the internet for information on how to model, texture, light, and render the scenes that I was working on. As with most things, the biggest struggles and failures usually taught me the most. While other students modeled the Barcelona Pavilion and Farnsworth House in a 3D AutoCAD class, I modeled the Sydney Opera House. When other students were building sheds in a Revit class, I modeled the Thorncrown Chapel. When I decided that I needed to learn 3DS Max, I bought a Copy of the 3DS Max Bible and challenged myself to use it exclusively for my Urban Design Studio.

The results were mixed. There were some epic failures, like when a panel member on my Urban Design Studio review asked if I was depressed (in reference to my poorly lit renders), and some really cool breakthroughs, like a sustainable library concept that eventually landed me a job as a 3D Designer in the midst of a recession. Over time I was able to learn not only how to build an architectural scene from being to end, but also how to better present my designs in a purely digital format.

There are a few key things that I can share that will hopefully ease the process for you:

1. Learn whichever program you have access to. While the programs are all different, at the end of the day they all do the same thing. There wasn’t strong support for 3DS Max at my University, but there was a strong Cinema 4D following. The principles of modeling, texturing and rendering are the same. I was able to take the tools that I learned in Cinema and apply it to other programs in my own time.

2. Learn the strengths of the programs: This goes hand-in-hand with #1, but it’s worth noting. There are things that are easier to do in Cinema 4D than they are to do in 3DS Max, and vice-versa. Each program has its strengths and its weaknesses. The sooner you learn them, the sooner you can identify when to use them in your work flow.

3. Learn the lingo: “Edge to Spline” is to Cinema 4D as “Create Shape from selection” is to 3DS Max. Different terms, same effect. Google is your friend when you’re translating skills to a new program. Simply typing in “Edge to Spline in 3DS Max” into a Google search will yield a conversation on CG Talk with the answer to your question. You not only solved your problem, but you just found a great source for 3D modeling.

4. Once you learn it, break it: Doing tutorials is a great way to be introduced to the tools of a 3D program, but you need to keep in mind that you’re working within a controlled environment. Often times the scenario in which you use a tool is different from the scenario that the Tutorial designer sets up for you. So when I learn new tool I try to flex it every way I can to figure out its quirks.

5. When you break it, fix it: Just like real life problems, digital ones don’t magically fix themselves. While it may be tempting to hide a double polygon or a problematic loft, you’re doing yourself a disservice by missing the chance to learn the technique properly. Modeling programs tend to have little quirks, so you’ll be better in the long run if you take the time to iron out the kinks the first time.

6. Push your limits: I learned a lot more by trying to figure out the correct way to make the geometries from the Sydney Opera house than I would have learned making the Farnsworth House. It’s a beautiful building, but it would have just been a rehash of high school for me. If you’re going to spend your time doing a project, you might as well spend time doing a badass project.

7. Teach others: Not only am I a firm believer in sharing ideas in our creative industry, but I’m also a believer that practice makes perfect. Spending time teaching others is a great way to develop your own skills. Often I find that friends have encountered a problem that I never have. It gives me an opportunity to learn from their mistakes, which usually ends up saving time in the long run.

8. Get involved in unique projects: It’s easy to get focused on our industry and miss awesome opportunities that come our way. Architects are designers, and our skills can be applied to many different industries. I go out of my way to use digital programs in ways that I wouldn’t encounter in the traditional Architecture industry. A friend approached me about doing projections for a play he was producing. Creepy Dexter-like night scenes aren’t my specialty, but the result was a new level of texturing and image optimization that I hadn’t encountered before. We live in an amazing time where computers are becoming fast enough that we can envision them keeping up with your imagination. The sooner you learn the nuances of these programs, the sooner you can quit fighting them and the sooner you can focus on what you were born to do … design.

Image Credits: tdtphotography via Flickr

Joe Storr

November 14, 2011

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