From student to staff architect: SketchUp in the professional’s toolkit
Architect Jack Danberg learned SketchUp in university and immediately adopted it as a critical piece of his creative workflow. We find out how he mastered SketchUp and why he regards it as an invaluable tool in every phase of design and construction.
Architect and 2016 SketchUp Ascent Competition winner, Jack Danberg
In today’s fast-paced workplace, analog techniques can feel out of place. Jack Danberg, architect at Bettisworth North and past winner of SketchUp’s Ascent student design competition, sees the benefit of exploring both hand drawing and the latest AI technology to stay creative. We catch up with Jack to see how he learned SketchUp and why he considers it a critical part of his professional toolkit. Plus, we get into how he keeps the creative spark alive and how new technology might help shape the future of architecture.
Inspiring the next generation of designers
We knew Jack had a bright future ever since he won SketchUp’s 2016 Ascent Competition. The contest is a big part of SketchUp’s biennial user conference, 3D Basecamp. We kicked off the first competition at 3D Basecamp in 2016 and held it again in 2018 and 2022. Ascent is open to higher education students from across North America and Europe, and the projects submitted were the culmination of many, many hours of hard work.
A panel narrows the array of amazing submissions to just five talented finalists who join us at 3D Basecamp to present their work to industry pros and conference attendees. The competition is an incredible opportunity for SketchUp’s higher education community to share their work with other SketchUppers, and win some great prizes! As we’ll see with Jack, a winning competition entry can be a springboard into an engaging design career.
Keeping the spark alive
From hand drawing to AI-generated art, Jack Danberg’s creative process has enough variety to inspire anyone from art and design students to long-time professionals in the field. As a professional architect now seven years into his role, Jack has some wisdom to share, a fresh perspective, and an eye toward future technology.
Arctic Sciences research campus proposal — main entry; modeled in SketchUp and rendered using Enscape. Image courtesy of Bettisworth North Architects.
Let’s start with the basics. What can you tell us about your firm and your role?
The firm is Bettisworth North Architects — they're located in Alaska and are the largest architecture, landscape architecture, and interior design firm in the state. The firm does everything from airports to park picnic shelters.
I’m a staff architect and project manager. I’ve been at the firm for seven years, working on all different projects, usually with large, interdisciplinary teams of other design professionals. My niche in the firm, the thing that I do really well, is concept design. All projects, be it a hospital or a small park restroom facility, start with SketchUp. The software is well-established for the ideation phase.
Analog pen and marker rendering done by Jack
Tell us a little about yourself, what you're into, and how you ended up in Alaska.
I ended up there after going to college in South Florida. I grew up spending summers on my grandfather's sailboat in Southeast Alaska, and I knew I wanted to go back. There are firms but no architecture schools in Alaska, so they're always hungry for new graduates. The idea was to stay for a year or two, but I loved it and stayed five years before working remotely from Florida for the last two years.
Outside of architecture, I love to draw. I have tons of drawings up on my wall. That was my first passion. I originally went to school for fine art. My mom was a swim coach growing up, so I also love swimming. And gardening, I grow and graft and breed mango trees as a hobby — very bizarre, I know, but a popular thing in Florida.
It’s my dream to build a tiny cabin to live in one day — buy some cheap land, build a cabin, have an orchard, and grow my own food. I think there's something very rewarding about farming and working outside.
It's ironic that I decided to be an architect, a field where you're on the computer all day dealing with technology that's changing at breakneck speed. I really like traditional marker renderings and old-school illustrations. I have this cool Japanese book from the 70s that teaches product illustration. It's all in Japanese characters, so I don't know what it says, but it gives step-by-step instructions with the markers.
'Miami Central Station: A Train Hanger Proposal' — Ascent competition entry; Interior view from the platform. Image courtesy of Jack Danberg.
You submitted your thesis project for the 2016 Ascent Competition — and won. Can you tell us about the project?
When I was about to graduate, they announced the competition, and I had all these super-polished SketchUp images ready to go. SketchUp is the easiest tool to produce something fast. For concept design, it’s the ideal tool.
The design was for a train station in Miami. There was a proposed train network that would connect Miami, Fort Lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and Orlando for tourism. The cities held a competition for the train station design, and the winning entry would actually be built.
It was cool to have a real program to address. I was enamored with aircraft design technology. Similar to an airplane hangar, the term for where trains enter a station is called a train hangar. My idea was to have the trains suspended in a way. I thought, “let's get literal with it and hang these trains.” Typically, you'd only experience a train as a user loading and unloading from the platform. I loved the idea of trains being elevated and seeing them from all different vantage points.
'Miami Central Station: A Train Hanger Proposal' — Ascent competition entry; exteriors. Image courtesy of Jack Danberg.
In Miami, there's a lot of Brutalist concrete architecture. Taking cues from that, I wanted to wrap the space in a honeycomb of reinforced concrete that would create an attractive dappled lighting effect and amplify the layering of the elevated trains — it could be a powerful architectural experience.
For the presentation, I used SketchUp and a rendering program. At that point, there were only a few rendering programs for SketchUp. I was using Podium, and it was like magic what it could do. I remember it was wild because you had to set your rendering and let it run for around seven hours to make one image. You’d let it run overnight and hope you're MacBook didn't overheat. At the time, Podium had just been updated with the ability to add artificial lighting. I went wild with it and created some pretty stylized, neon cyberpunk images in a very illustrative style.
Mid-century vacation cabin — exteriors. Image courtesy of Jack Danberg.
How did you get into SketchUp in the first place?
I learned it all from one of my professors in school. We had this class, Architectural Technologies, where they would teach you different design software, the first being SketchUp. We 3D modeled part of a famous skyscraper, just one window bay or some small piece using images and diagrams of the building.
The professor helped us learn SketchUp and showed us cool workflows to take the finished model from SketchUp to create renderings or documentation. You could bring scenes into Photoshop or use section planes and annotate your plans and sections. There are a lot of directions you can go once you have the finished model. It immediately got me on the SketchUp track.
At what point did SketchUp become your go-to tool?
Oh, that first project. It was just so simple. The barrier to entry is so low. If you can wrap your head around groups and components, that's all you need to know to start. Now, I rely heavily on extension workflows.
Concept rendering for a remote Nordic skiing training facility. Image courtesy of Bettisworth North Architects.
What does your current SketchUp workflow look like?
For concept design, I rely on 3D primitives that I’ll heavily modify. I use a lot of Fredo6 extensions like FredoScale, and I use Solid Tools quite a lot to combine things into one model. When the project team says go, we’ll usually take the concept model into Revit to get a loose plan. We take that plan back into SketchUp to show real-world geometry quickly, then stylize it to present the design and get early client feedback. There’s a lot of back and forth between SketchUp and Revit; we do design work in SketchUp and documentation in Revit.
“What SketchUp allows you to do is really explore the decisions you're making very quickly and very easily.”
My SketchUp models are what I like to call “Hollywood sets.” They have one view that’s fully fleshed out, and that’s what we share with clients. If you rotate around, it’s chaos on the other side. It’s a great workflow because you're quickly figuring out proportions, size, shape, texture, etc., in SketchUp. You can solidify details later in construction drawings.
University of Alaska Fairbanks Student Success Center concept rendering. Image courtesy of Bettisworth North Architects.
What other tools do you pair with SketchUp?
We use Enscape, which is a real-time render tool, in addition to Photoshop. I advocate for not showing photorealistic renderings, especially in the early concept design stage, because stakeholders often zero in on specific details. We hear, “that’s not the brick pattern I want,” when we’re really asking, “is brick the right material?”
I've also been developing watercolor-style renderings through the SketchUp Style Builder. That gives us a much softer, more stylized image to share with clients. I’ll set up a scene in SketchUp, export an image from it, and link it to Photoshop. Using scenes lets me resave a new image at the same angle and with the same style applied after updating the model. This process lets me work back and forth between SketchUp and Photoshop without having to restart the rendering from scratch.
Arctic Sciences research campus proposal — section perspective. Image courtesy of Bettisworth North Architects.
How do you typically communicate with your team and with clients?
What I'm working on right now is a new indigenous study center for the University of Alaska. With the design team — 20+ people: engineers, architects, landscape architect, interior designers — we’ll work directly in a 3D model, navigating around and talking through details together.
For clients, we share images that are prepared ahead of time. If they want to see more dynamic visuals, we’ll create a 3D fly-through. That's typically later when the project is already designed, more of a marketing tool to build excitement and stakeholder buy-in.
For institutional projects — hospitals, colleges, and civic buildings — there’s generally a facilities manager familiar with the design process and design software. We’ll show them the working SketchUp model because they understand we’re still exploring design options.
Mid-century vacation cabin — value studies. Image courtesy of Jack Danberg.
From school to the competition to starting your career, what role has SketchUp played for you?
When you're first starting out in the workforce, firms understand that you won’t know how to completely detail a full set of construction documents or write specifications. You learn the firm’s way of doing those while working. Where you can really help is with selling ideas through modeling, rendering, and creative exploration. My ability to quickly ideate and create conceptual renderings in SketchUp helped me get interviews after school. It helped me land my first job. When I first started as an intern, I focused on graphics. As I learned more and got licensed, I moved into more managerial roles. Now, I get to do it all. For a small project, I can do the technical stuff and also the fun design stuff.
“What I love about SketchUp is that it's simple. It's just surfaces and edges, and you can model exactly what you want quickly. And that’s perfect. That’s why it's so fast and agile. For me, SketchUp is a design tool. It's like digital clay.”
SketchUp plays a part in all project phases, even during construction administration. If there's a question about a detail when a project is in construction, I’ll quickly model it to show the contractor so we can make decisions and stay on schedule. Being able to see it in 3D is helpful. Unfortunately, a lot of times, production schedules are tight. We need to be able to resolve issues that come up quickly.
What advice do you have for current architecture students or recent grads?
Many architects and architecture students think they should come off very seriously. Design is fun. If you keep it light and show playfulness in the finished result, you can really stand out in the professional world. It’s super important to inspire not just clients but your coworkers and yourself. A big problem in architecture and the design world is burnout. Find ways to keep it fun and constantly reinspire yourself.
AI-generated cabin images created using MidJourney. Images courtesy of Jack Danberg.
What are you working on outside the office?
I've been messing around with an AI art generator called MidJourney to generate some far-out-looking small cabins in forests. I take those cabin images into SketchUp to model on top of the image and model the cabins in 3D.
I give MidJourney different prompts to have the image look like a rough painting. Some of the prompts are wild. You don’t quite know what you’ll get. Once I told it to make one that looked like a Caterpillar excavator. They don't actually make sense if you look closely. It doesn’t produce a realized form, but it's good at executing an idea and a mood. It’s still very experimental for me, but I’m starting to get good results.
“I think working alongside AI is very much the future. How do pieces from the image connect? These are an inspiration, but there’s still a lot of room for design. It’s wild how many new AI tools are popping up. In the next couple of years, things will move fast in all industries with AI."
I use the images to get a rough form in SketchUp and then figure out what the floor plan could look like. A lot of this AI art stuff is primarily being used for character design. It’s fun to incorporate it into an architectural design workflow. Modeling it in 3D means I have to make decisions that the AI didn't. If you look closely at the images, it’s nonsense. Still, you can very easily imagine maybe there's an interior courtyard and this is some sort of greenhouse — or you can imagine something totally different depending on what you see. That’s the beauty of it — it gets your wheels turning.
Arctic Sciences research campus proposal — modeled in SketchUp and rendered using Enscape. Image courtesy of Bettisworth North Architects.
You attended 3D Basecamp again in 2022. What were some of your favorite presentations?
James Akers is one. His was all about digital painting over SketchUp models and using Procreate. I loved his presentation because he has fun with design like me. He was painting over the model, using it as a trace drawing, and then blowing the model out of there completely and ending up with this painterly thing using SketchUp to get the perspective right. I don't do too much digital painting, but that’s amazing.
Another one was JJ Zanetta*. He showed how to turn a SketchUp model into a watercolor-style painting through a series of filters and exports from SketchUp. It was all a 2D workflow, so there were no rendering extensions, just SketchUp and Photoshop. I’ve been experimenting with his techniques after 3D Basecamp.
How do you stay inspired?
I love taking inspiration from things that are not architecture. I'm a big sci-fi fan. One of my favorite authors is Larry Niven. He's very descriptive in the way he talks about futuristic buildings. I’m inspired just by reading his descriptions.
I also love production design, like vehicles and sets from Star Wars. When you look at those AI art images, I'm using a lot of callouts to those specific things: an orange Caterpillar excavator, Anakin Skywalker's Podracer, and a salvaged B-17 Flying Fortress. A lot of production design objects are just beautiful.
Lastly, I think about architecture differently. Instead of selecting things that already exist and mashing them together, I like to imagine everything custom-made for a specific use. How would I design spaces and objects for the end user if I could start from scratch? You can’t always do that, but imagining how you would approach it is fun.
Lastly, how would you describe your philosophy?
No egos. I don’t believe in hoarding workflows. I don't think anything I'm doing is novel. I think this [AI workflow] is a cool idea, and I want everyone to play with it, and we'll all build it better together.
For Jack, it’s all about balance to avoid burnout. Artificial intelligence has its place. Pen and paper drawings have their place. By embracing all the tools available, we can all find inspiration from an array of seemingly unlikely sources and keep the creative spark alive.
SketchUp model built over AI-generated cabin image.
After our conversation with Jack, the SketchUp team took on one of his AI-generated cabins in their weekly 3D modeling livestream. See how they turned a moody, futuristic, semi-realistic cabin image into a workable 3D concept design and how AI might fit into architecture and design. Head to the forum to join the conversation and see more AI-generated imagery from the SketchUp community.
Ready to amplify your inspiration with SketchUp? Try it out with a free trial, or become a subscriber today. If you’re involved with higher education, check out our student, educator, or university-wide licenses.
*JJ Zanetta is part of Trimble's Visiting Professionals Program, an outreach project that brings industry pros to campus to connect with students. Our industry partners visit college campuses to share their expertise, workflows, toolsets, and best practices with the education community.