Is Plusspec any good? Well it is very good at what it does but it is not perfect and not for everyone.
Plusspec is a plugin for Sketchup which people might have heard of in their attempts to use the Sketchup platform for creating technical drawings from their 3d models. It sets up Sketchup to work like an building assembly parametric modeller similar to Revit and Archicad, making it easier to create your building models anatomically correct and then modify it using “smart” parametric properties.
It is one of the more expensive plugins that you can buy for Sketchup. You can buy the plugin on a monthly subscription basis for AUD$99 or purchase an annual licence for AUD$990 which theoretically gives you 2 free months if you were to instead pay monthly.
The plugin is cross-platform which will be a relief for Mac uses and the first thing you notice when you download the file is that it is substantial (~30Mb). When starting up a licensing window appears to activate the software and then there are a number of additional windows offering tutorial videos and synchronisation of some libraries. The main toolset of some 21 icons also appears and you can start modelling your building with them.
The author of the software, Andrew Dwight, is a builder by trade and Plusspec very much follows the language of small domestic builders. In many ways using Plusspec helps you learn building terminology that previously as a designer you didn’t ever take much notice of (Reverse dutch gable - never knew what that was until now). The software seems to be ideal for small builders or draftspersons who do small domestic projects where it is quite easy to recreate that standard volume homebuilder vernacular with the Plusspec toolset.
When you build your model with the Plusspec toolset there are several advantages, the main ones being the ability to model “assemblies” (like a grouped wall that contains an outer and inner leaf plus all linings combined into one) to speed up the modelling process, and at the end create a take-off or bill of quantities from the model which is essential for pricing a job; an essential feature for builders and one architects would also definitely appreciate. From an architect’s standpoint you can also use the Plusspec toolset to model generic sections of a building relatively quickly with many of the tools designed to simplifying some fairly complex tasks. Plusspec is not so good when it comes to unconventional types of construction however, and you need to revert to basic Sketchup geometry and modelling techniques when you reach the limits of the modelling toolset. You do have to be careful at this point because things must be modelled in a certain way in order to ensure that the take-off information remains accurate and the advantage of the parametric modelling is somewhat maintained.
After watching all of the tutorial videos and a few of the webinars, I proceeded to model up one of my house designs as best I could with the toolset and it is true that Plusspec has some very handy tools. Its project setup dialog box is very useful and helps you to store all of the relevant info to the project in the one place - the model. So you can use it to store the wind and bushfire categories, soil classification, project stage, etc. and bring the info up with the click of a button; it saves rifling through your notes and computer folders when someone asks the question over the phone.
The wall tool along with the door and window tools are sort of great. The doors and windows placed with Plusspec are simply intelligently programmed dynamic components and inserting them into a complicated wall assembly of studs/bricks/sarking/plasterboard/air gap has never been so easy. Wall openings are automatically formed into the wall and you can adjust settings for architraves and lintels (they warn you that member size and dimensions must be confirmed by your structural consultant) all in one hit. That you can use standard windows from the AWS window range is even better. Where the power of parametric modelling comes in is the ability to be able to swap components of your wall assemble by simply selecting you new material from a dropdown menu. Still, I did find it quite difficult to join one type of wall type to another. For example, the garage where I needed to join single brickwork and piers construction to my double brick, this involved a whole lot of splitting and redefining, and despite all of that I was still unable to get a face brick texture to appear on both sides of the wall.
I liked the way that items placed with the Plusspec toolset are automatically grouped and placed on layers with logical names. So when you placed, say, a roof component into your model, each element of the roof would be placed into a layer and the overall roof group itself would also be placed on its own separate layer. It creates a lot of layers - A LOT - but it all generally makes sense and works in conjunction with the scene generating tool quite smartly. You can customise the layer names for the main grouped objects and subcomponents but leaving it with the default allocated names is not such a bad thing. Existing and demolished elements are also handled by the layering system but not quite as I expected and once you put demolition items in, they become locked objects for some reason. Not sure what the procedure is if you need to change your demolition scope but I did not delve any further into this.
Lots of operations are performed by right-clicking on a Plusspec object which brings up a small context menu. It takes a little while to know where all these are but the video tutorials are helpful in this regard.
The author has spent a fair bit of time collecting regional product data and inside the libraries you will find items that are available from Australian suppliers that you can readily insert into you model.
It is hard to satisfy everyone and as an architect using the toolset I can see where Plusspec has some obvious shortcomings. While I can see that Plusspec could significantly reduce the time needed to model generic walls, doors and roofs, but when it comes to something more sophisticated, I just couldn’t get it to do what I wanted it to do.
The roof tool in Plusspec has some amazing functionality but at the same time is also fairly limited. You can do hip roofs, skillion roofs, roofs with parapet walls, add dutch gables and create the trusses and rafters with the toolset. You will have to go back to base Sketchup tools and/or other plugins to create anything like a barrel-vault roof or something that has non-standard geometry. There aren’t many architects out there do hip and gable roof homes (I did one once!). It is restrictive and the creative architect is not going to like this at all. There is some sophisticated work going on behind the roof tool, especially when you turn on the cappings and add gables, but it doesn’t generate things perfectly; there are gaps between cappings at different angles, gutter ends did not close off, the rafters seemed to poke out around the fascias and a few other things that irked the perfectionist in me. I’m sure that some of these things are probably very hard to program parametrically.
In the tutorial videos, the instructors use a blend of Plusspec tools with standard Sketchup tools and sometimes it is difficult to know what standard Sketchup tools can be used and what will potentially break the parametric nature of the elements. I dare say that people without basic Sketchup skills are going to struggle as you cannot rely on solely the Plusspec plugin to do everything for you. The window tool for example is great for generic rectangular shapes, but if you want to use something a bit odd shaped you have to use the library (a different button in the toolset) and you need to employ basic but slightly tricky Sketchup modelling skills to manually create your openings. Even the instructor makes mistakes in his help video when trying to demonstrate what to do.
The tutorial videos are graded from beginner to advanced and I quickly exhausted the information in those. When I couldn’t find what I needed I moved onto the 25 extra webinars (each about an hour long) explaining the “best” way to do certain things; the learning curve starts to get a bit steeper. It started to feel like I wasn’t using Sketchup anymore but an entirely different program and the fun was gone. For instance, when it comes to changing the dimensions or properties of items you needed to to measure what you wanted first and then type in the number in a dialog box or select an option from a dropdown menu - and you do end up doing a lot of measuring and entering. Gone are the fluid modelling/snapping tools like push-pull that make Sketchup so likeable.
Once you have created your model in Plusspec, you are basically wedded to their system. When creating walls for example, the modelled pieces are not simple Sketchup geometry elements grouped together to form a solid but rather a stack of individually grouped faces on various different layers nested into a main group. What this means is if you no longer wish to use Plusspec, turning your objects back into simple geometry will require a considerable amount of deciphering and reverse-engineering.
The promo videos for Plusspec say that the plugin is great for designing, but only from a very narrow perspective. The fact that you are forced into using their toolset to design means that you can only be creative in the way that they want you to use it - not unlike how Revit and Archicad force you to adopt their system of modelling. In my eyes, these programs, Plusspec included, are building documenting programs and designing with them is far too limiting. Designers choose to use Sketchup because it offers a freedom to explore 3d forms and experiment. A restrictive toolset is not conductive to experimenting in this way. Of course there is nothing stopping you experimenting with the base Sketchup tools first and then use Plusspec to help you document after everything is resolved.
Plusspec tries very hard to be clever and turn Sketchup into a Revit or Archicad style of documenting tool, but it is never going to be able to do it properly because it is riding on a base program that doesn’t necessarily cooperate with it completely. The Dynamic Components plugin that comes as standard with Sketchup is quite buggy and while this is no fault of Plusspec, the program seems to be quite reliant on it. You could see this when using “interact” to close the doors; sometimes the door worked perfectly, other times they would close and the door leaf would be sitting proud of the frames with a big gap around the jam. Other glitches included the stud wall bottom plates showing through doorways and odd faces of walls remaining visible even when selecting the “structure only” views. In the tutorial videos there are also many stated “workarounds” with the tools that make the plugin feel a bit adhoc. Mucking around with the wall assemblies to get different wall types to marry together just about did my head in.
I also found that there was a considerable delay when you pressed one of the Plusspec tool icons, waiting at least a few seconds (sometimes 5 seconds) for the tool dialog box to appear. I thought that maybe my older MacBook Pro was to blame but testing it with other plugins like 1001 Bit tools, there was no such issue with their dialog boxes. I guess there is a lot going on behind the scenes of the plugin, but it became quite annoying after a while because often I was left wondering if I had pressed a tool icon properly or not. Right-clicking and using the contextual functions seemed to be a bit more reliable.
Certainly lots of effort has gone into creating Plusspec and there are many tools inside the program that would make excellent standalone plugins for architects and building designers. Unfortunately they don’t come as standalone plugins - you have to buy the whole thing and it doesn’t come cheap. For generic residential builders and draftees of builders it may be the perfect tool for getting the job done, a big time saver and worth every penny (provided you already have some basic Sketchup knowledge). If you do larger building projects that are a bit less conventional, Plusspec’s toolset could potentially help you speed up your modelling of generic parts, but it is not going to do everything and balancing up the cost of the software, it may not be worth it - you’d have to weigh it up.
If you enjoy Sketchup for experimenting with forms and design ideas then this is probably not the plugin for you.
Being able to open doors and windows interactively inside your Sketchup model can give you a better understanding of sightlines between internal rooms while delivering that extra “wow factor” to a presentation. In this tip I show you how to animate objects like these in your 3d model with a simple click of a button by using embedded commands inside your components.
Dynamic components can be used to assign pre-programmed commands and operations to an object, allowing it to change within a set of customisable rules. You can add dynamic properties to any components that you make and in this video I look at the ANIMATE command that works when inserted as an onClick behaviour.
In the video I go through programming a basic swing and sliding door and then use the interact tool to execute the functions. There is a little bit of pseudo coding involved which can turn people off, but this example is very basic and the steps I go through here can be followed by anyone.
It should be noted also that there are a couple of bugs in the dynamic component plugin which can be a bit of a nuisance and I point these out in the video.
The onClick commands that I use are:
ANIMATE(“RotZ”,0,90) - Rotates our object around its origin axis by 90 degrees and then returns it back to the 0 degrees state with a subsequent click.
ANIMATE(“X”,0,-86) - Moves our object from its origin axis minus 86 centimetres along the X axis and then returns it back to its previous state with a subsequent click.
You can also create multiple command combinations, ie. rotate and move together, by separating each command with a semi-colon (;) inside the dialog box.
Watch the video and then have a go yourself!
If you have access to my intermediate online courses, there is a bonus video about animating with dynamic components that goes much further and has an example file that you can download!
Modelo is a web-based platform which can be used as a 3d model display interface as well as a collaborating tool for sharing files with other colleagues and clients. You can create a free account with them which has a number of limitations or there are paid accounts which unlock all of the platform features. They have made Modelo very simple to use with logical menus and a well-thought out interface that allows you to access the features in the platform. The authors claim that they have made Modelo with architects and building designers in mind, and certainly it does have some functions which could potentially be quite useful in the field.
The thing that most impressed me about Modelo was that it can not only display your 3d model in realtime on a standard webpage, there are also options to add rendering effects to make the result a bit more interesting and less flat looking. Options include adding ambient occlusion, specular highlighting and outlining, plus there a number of post-production effects such as vintage paper, grayscale, brightness and control over your field of view angle. There are also other tools that allow you to measure distances, tint material colours, set transparency and even create a section cut. You cannot assign reflectivity to materials at this stage however, but this is not really surprising.
You can also use the interface to create an automated walkthrough path using a nice graphical interface which shows your model as a floorplan with buttons to add linked waypoints and control eye height and walking speed. You can also display pre-rendered 360 degree panoramic at key node points that can be selected - a nice feature - and pre-save a presentation that you can take with you on the road.
Another great thing about the Modelo platform is that you can embed the 3d model display into a webpage and allow people to interact with it - there are a lot of possibilities with this function. I have put my Japanese restaurant model on this page below. Use the arrow keys and the mouse to navigate around. Be warned that it does take a bit of time to load.
Modelo also has a Google Cardboard virtual reality function which is simple to use - just log into your account using your phone and the option to view your model in a Google Cardboard headset appears on-screen. I have to say that the VR is not as versatile as Kubity; in Kubity you can walk around your model using your headset to any location in the model whereas Modelo restricts you to predetermined set views with no freedom to explore - at least not from what I could see. Also the Modelo logo across the screen reduces the experience considerably and you need to have a paid account to remove this. So my choice for Google Cardboard VR is still Kubity.
Japanese Restaurant_VR By Adrian Price Modelo »
From a collaboration perspective, you can share models with other people and allow them to markup changes on your work and add comments. This makes Modelo a useful tool for collaborating with clients, and particularly internal company and consultant collaboration. You can choose to share links so that people can download a model (like a sort of Dropbox), or in view only mode with the ability to create markups and comments. It has an in-built PDF markup tool too. And because the platform is cloud based, you can access your work anywhere that you have an internet connection.
You need to have a paid account to use some of the advanced features in Modelo and these plans look quite pricey; the “light” account is US$50/month and you need to enquire for a business plan which I understand is priced per seat. However, if you are looking for a collaboration-type 3d platform, Modelo could be the perfect solution to streamline your operations and help you to communicate more efficiently with your staff, consultants and clients.
I have been talking about it for a while now, and after countless hours of production, editing and testing, today is the official launch day of the new online Sketchup Training School! Now you can watch our Architect and Building Designer focused shortcourses as a series of comprehensive videos in an easy to follow format without leaving the comfort of your home or office.
The first two courses, Sketchup Modelling Essentials and Sketchup For Visualisation, are now available with Technical Drawing With Sketchup to come in the next month. The courses incorporate all of the material in the face-to-face classes, the exercises and accompanying exercise files, as well as special bonus videos that cover additional skills and topics that we could not cover in the limited class time.
You can purchase access to the online video series through the website by clicking the purchase buttons on the School information webpage. Just pay once and you will have continual access to the videos; no tricky subscriptions.
I am also throwing the doors open to all past, present and future students of my face-to-face courses as a bonus extra. Just a thank you for everyone who has attended the face-to-face classes over the years and to make our shortcourses the undisputed best value for money around! Let me know that you want access to the online school and I will send you your unique username and password.
The videos have all been updated for Sketchup 2018 and I aim to add new bonus videos and additional material to make the Sketchup Training School the ultimate resource for Architects and Building Designers that want to learn Sketchup.
Now there is no excuse not to learn Sketchup!
If you have an existing licence, you may have received notification that the latest version of Sketchup, is now available for download and perhaps you are deciding whether it is worth the risk.
First thing to note is that the free version of Sketchup, Sketchup Make has now been discontinued. I have to admit that this is kind of disappointing because Sketchup Make was the entry point for many professional users who were not quite sure if they wanted to invest in the software until they were satisfied that they could use it effectively. The 30 day trial is just not enough for most people so hopefully they look to extend the trial period of Sketchup Pro. You can still at this moment download Sketchup Make 2017 by going HERE.
If you are worried about upgrading and needing to cope with a host of major changes, you can relax. The changes and new features are minimal, with the majority being behind-the-scenes fixes for known issues with Sketchup 2017. Most of the newly implemented features are also user-friendly and quite easy to use.
I have found that most of the new features are targeted towards improving the workflow of people who want to use the software for architecture and building design, which is great for our industry but perhaps other industries may not appreciate the bias so much. Anyway, I have summarised these new features below:
The Section tool has had a bit of a makeover and is now easier to handle. When you go to place a section, you are prompted with a section name and 3 letter code which becomes visible at the 4 points of the section plane definition. This is a handy addition especially when you start using multiple section definitions in the one model file.
There is also now an automatic option to fill the section cut ends of objects, something that used only to be possible with the SectionCutFace plugin found on Sketchucation. Implementation of this is very smooth and the cut fill adjusts automatically when the section plane is moved. You can also change the colour of the fill in the model options of the Style palette to whatever you like. You can see in the screenshot below that I have changed my Section Fill and Lines to yellow by modifying these settings in the Style palette.
There are a few cosmetic things that have changed. The Entity Info palette is icon driven now rather than having tick box options, and there are additional properties you can assign to your components which enable more advanced reporting functionality. You can now optionally create a Rectangle using the centre as your start point and the Tape Measure tool can give you lengths and areas by simply hovering over your objects. Just little things like that. You now also get an option to increase the anti-aliasing (smoothness) of the modelling window which is a nice little addition. See below.
Trimble have also made some decent changes to Layout which are going to delight architects and building designers.
The main new feature is that you can now draw to a nominated scale on your Layout page. A new Scaled Drawing palette has been added and you can assign a particular scale to an existing group of lines, or you can start drawing from scratch at the scale of your choice. I used to use the dimension tool as a way to work around this problem but this is an excellent solution and implemented very cleverly to what was a significant issue in previous versions.
But it doesn’t stop there…! The biggest news is you can now import DWGs directly into Layout and use the Scaled Drawing function to reconfigure it to the size that you need. You can either import the DWG line data directly into Layout entities or import it like a model window which you can adjust as you would if it were importing a Sketchup model file. There is now no excuse to make the jump from Autocad to Sketchup because all of the time you spent drawing those 2d construction details in Autocad can now be moved over to Sketchup/Layout without minimal fuss!
All of the courses at sketchuptraining.com.au will be updated where necessary to capture the changes brought about by the new version; it has become a regular annual event. Also the new Sketchup Training School videos will be updated/or created with the latest version of Sketchup so that everyone who has done our courses can keep their knowledge up-to-date. All part of the service!
Every now and then you may wish to present the 3d model that you have been working on to your client. There are quite a lot of model viewers around that will load a Sketchup model and give you some basic controls. Which one is the best is really a matter of preference though I prefer the official Sketchup ones because they take best advantage of any scenes or styles that I might have saved inside my model.
The official Sketchup viewer is multi-platform meaning you can get a version for both Mac and PC desktop computers, there is a tablet and phone version of the viewer that supports iOS and Android devices, and there also appears to be compatibility with the Microsoft Hololens which is a holographic augmented reality headset - though when I tried to follow the steps to purchase a viewer for the headset it lead to a dead-end on the website (love to hear if anyone has tried this).
The desktop (or laptop) version of the viewer is free to download from the Sketchup Viewer webpage which can be found at: https://www.sketchup.com/products/sketchup-viewer
It works very much like Sketchup where you can orbit, pan, zoom, walk and look around with all of the standard navigation tools in the basic toolset. You also have some control over the your display style attributes and the shadow settings, but surprisingly no control over layers. I say that this is surprising because while you have no layer control in the desktop viewer, you have layer control in the mobile device viewers.
You have to pay for the mobile device viewers unfortunately - they are not free and will cost A$15 which is an unfortunate impasse because if you want to let a client view your model on their phone or tablet, they will have to purchase the viewer. It is not a lot of money but just a bit of a barrier to freely showing your work off to your client. The tablet viewer can display files that have been shared on the 3d Warehouse which is nice if you want to share your project with the whole world, but you can also use Dropbox or if you have a Trimble Connect account you can load up your model files using this more private method.
The tablet viewer is quite a smooth experience where you can use your finger to orbit around or pinch the screen to zoom in and out. The viewer does not display fancy linework styles like pencil or freehand look lines but will display watermarks and other rendering attributes. And like I said earlier, you have control of your layers inside the model and can turn them on and off, and as well as this, you have the tape measure tool at your disposal. It is a bit clumsy to use especially if you have fat digits but it just another feature that the tablet/phone viewer has which is not implemented in the desktop version.
If your client is resistant to loading up any additional software to their computer, you can always get them to open up a Sketchup model on the online version of Sketchup - YES! there is an online version of Sketchup. You can get to it here: https://my.sketchup.com/app It is still very much a “beta” product but it is surprising good and feels very similar to the full program. There is a screenshot of it below where I just mucked around a bit with it.
One thing which is not ideal about using one of these Sketchup viewers is that you have to hand over your model file to your client without any type of controls to stop them from changing things or distributing your hard work to anyone else as they like. Sometimes a way to prevent your file from been copied around is to export it to your client in a less versatile file format like .KMZ or .COLLADA and there are many model viewers that support alternative filetypes that Sketchup will export and it is just a matter of doing a Google search and then trying them out to see which one meets your needs the best.
There are other viewers like Sketchfab allow you to save your file to an account and then send a URL or link to your client via an email where they can view your 3d model on a webpage and there is no handing over of your model files to your client. You can also use Sketchfab to view your models in virtual reality with Google Cardboard or other devices making it a good around choice though it won’t support Sketchup’s styles, layers or other settings like the native viewers published by Trimble.
Don't be afraid to try out other viewers that are available on the Apple Apps or Google Play stores. There are many free 3d model viewers and you can always give them a try and delete them if they are no good. Have fun with it!
I was going to use the two above mentioned plugins for Sketchup on the modelling of this odd shaped desk in the photograph below as a demonstration of how to create objects that have a curve in two direction. However after having a good look at it, I have realised that the hood curves only in one direction and you can easily model the desk with the basic Sketchup tools without too much trouble.
That’s alright. I'll do a bit of a demonstration of what Curviloft with Joint Push-Pull can do and then go ahead and model the desk conventionally.
Sketchup’s basic tool are great for orthogonal and planar modelling and probably the majority of buildings and houses fall into this category. Sketchup is also reasonably good at handling linear curved surfaces like curved vertical walls or wavy roofs; the sort that Harry Seidler used to drop on top of his houses.
It becomes a bit more difficult when the curve is in two directions or more complex organic surfaces with multiple curves. The sandbox tool can be used to some degree to model complex surfaces but one of the better plugin tools for this sort of job is Curviloft by Fredo6.
The Curviloft plugin can be found on the Sketchucation website and requires both the installation of the plugin file as well as LibFredo6 which contains some essential functions that allow Curviloft to work.
It has 3 different modes:
- Loft by spline
- Loft along a path
Each mode has its own different options which varies parameters of the resulting objects. Watch the video below as I go through the three modes. Unfortunately I don’t need to use Curviloft to make the hooded desk, using just the conventional Sketchup tools to create it but should you need to model something more complex in the future, Curviloft is very versatile.
If you have recently started a new project and wanted to match your project to a real world address for sun studies and to add context to the surrounding areas, you will have noticed a significant decrease in quality of the aerial photo mapping that is available inside Sketchup.
As of the 22nd May 2017, Sketchup no longer uses Google Earth/Maps to collect terrain and aerial photo mapping data for your site, but is instead now using aerial imaging produced by a company called Digital Globe. The difference in image quality is substantial due to the fact that Google Maps’s aerial photographs are shot using aeroplanes at moderate altitudes, while Digital Globe’s photos are shot using satellites. See the image below for comparison:
This change affects all versions of Sketchup. If you have a Sketchup 2016 licence or earlier, you will see a message saying that “Add location is no longer available”. Aerial photographs from the new Digital Globe source have also been deactivated on the free version, Sketchup Make 2017; a move which may be to try and make it harder for people using the free version for commercial purposes.
Trimble, Sketchup’s developer, were very coy about the changes to the geolocation function in the weeks leading up to the changeover - and it is not surprising. Many Sketchup users have reacted negatively to this downgrade in functionality, with some businesses like solar array installers, seeing their methodology for calculating roof sizes completely disappear overnight. It is no surprise that people want to be compensated and their yearly maintenance fees returned.
The change from Google’s mapping/aerial photography to Digital Globe’s has been explained as the expiration of Trimble’s contract with Google to supply location data for Sketchup, and that Google are no longer allowing anyone to access to it. However in the argumentative forums that have popped up about this issue, many users believe that Trimble were given free access to Google’s data for the last 5 years as part of Sketchup’s sale to Trimble and now that this period has expired, they simply did not want to pay Google’s price for the continuation of the service.
Read the forum on the issue here: https://forums.sketchup.com/t/upcoming-change-to-add-location/40953
Personally, as someone who teaches Sketchup and uses it to operate their architectural design business, I am disappointed - it stinks. It makes producing conceptual and schematic presentation material for my projects substantially more difficult and time consuming. I’ll have to source other aerial photographs from places like Nearmaps (who are very expensive) or council/local government sources, import these images into Sketchup and rescale them to match my site. I have no problem with changes when they are an improvement to the existing product, but when the change is regressive in nature, it makes you question the future direction of the product and the potential loss of support base to other CAD programs.
Let’s hope that Trimble remedy the situation sooner rather than later.
Rendering grass and other organic 3d objects like trees, and plants into your scenes will often bring your rendered images to the next level of realism. It is generally not feasible to place every blade of grass in your 3d scene and thankfully there are a couple of Sketchup plugins around that automate this process for you. The one that I have used every now and then is called Make_Fur which is available for free from the Sketchucation plugin store. To download it you simply need to create an account with Sketchucation, download their plugin store extension and then find Make_Fur from their list and click install.
It then becomes a matter of creating a grass component, either some grass shaped geometry or a PNG photo of some grass blades with a transparent background (removed in an image editor) and then using the plugin to randomly place the component on a designated face. You can see by the results in the image below, created from a long grass variety with seed-heads, that it works very effectively and there are options in the plugin to randomise the scale and lean of the grass blades to create a more natural look. You can download this Sketchup model from the download files link at the top of the article.
The problem with this particular plugin (and the plugin author fully acknowledges this) is that it places a vast number of polygons into your 3d model. The grass components need to be quite dense in order to cover the ground surface and when you suddenly add 100,000 odd polygons in the form of grass blades into your model, it will reduce Sketchup’s performance to a slow crawl on even the fastest computers. While layering your model carefully will help, the effect on performance will see most people put adding realistic grass into their renders into the too-hard basket and opt for a less convincing 2d texture map or doctor their finished renders with a photograph of some real grass taken from approximately the same angle.
An alternative to Make_Fur is a commercially available plugin for Sketchup called Skatter. Skatter is an amazing plugin that considers all the problems of rendering huge numbers of polygons and then conveniently bypasses Sketchup’s interface so that these polygons only show up when activated in the rendering engine. What this means is that you can have vast grassy fields or forests of trees in your rendered images but with little or no effect on Sketchup’s performance. If you do a lot of rendering, this feature alone is well worth the money. Before I get carried away though, it should be noted that not every rendering engine supports this function; thankfully Twilight Render is supported so anyone who has done my Sketchup For Visualisation short course or intends to in the future can use this plugin to full effect.
As well as this important feature, Skatter has many other options to optimise your models so that you are not rendering your grass components unnecessarily. For example when creating a field of grass, you can set a fall-off rate so that grass blades are less dense as you get further away from the camera. You can set the grass field to match your camera’s cone of vision so that it does not generate grass outside of your scene. There is a lot of control over your Skatter components and you can layer up multiple types of grass or vegetation so that there is a considerable variety of foilage in your scenes, changing the scattering parameters such as scale, rotation, density to ensure there is enough coverage of your base surfaces. You can even concentrate your grass blade density around the borders and edges of pavements where you often need extra grass blades to hide the ground surface underneath. I did find that my best computer which I use for rendering did at times struggle with some of the preview generations and would occassionally hang, but in general, the plugin appeared to be pretty stable; the most important feature in any piece of software!
And it is not just about grass either. You can use either of these plugins to create leafy vines on walls, a forest of trees, street lights around roads, fields of pebbles or rocks, even shagpile carpets just to give you a few ideas. Whatever you attempt to render, like anything it requires a bit of fiddling with the settings and component textures to get it right. You can see my efforts on this page to create a lush green lawn and an abandoned railway scene with dry yellow grass and rocks with the plugin.
To sum up, while it does require a bit more effort to get photorealistic grass into your 3d renders, it is definitely achievable with Sketchup and you can get some amazing results with Skatter, Make_Fur and the many 3rd party rendering engines that are available.
You can download a 15 day trial or purchase a licence for Skatter from here: http://getskatter.com/