Matthew Valero knows his way around the SketchUp ecosystem. From V-Ray to Scan Essentials to the Revit Importer and literally hundreds of extensions, Matthew has fully embraced the flexibility of SketchUp’s most robust and powerful subscription, Studio.
Save The Bay’s Hamilton Family Aquarium — conceptual exterior rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
Who is Matthew Valero?
If it’s in any way connected to SketchUp, there’s a good chance Matthew Valero knows about it. Matthew is the Director of Visualization at DBVW Architects, a 20-year veteran of the architecture industry, and a Studio subscriber. He’s also an alpha and beta tester, an avid extension user, and more or less an encyclopedia of architectural visualization developments from the past two decades. From SketchUp’s early days to now having virtual reality and real-time rendering, Matthew has experienced it all. We connected with him to learn why, after all these years, SketchUp is still his go-to tool and, in his words, his safe space.
Being a lifetime fan of SketchUp isn’t Matthew’s only credential. He’s the Director of Visualization at DBVW Architects out of Providence, Rhode Island. He’s equal parts artist, designer, and communications expert, helping his team make critical design decisions while guiding clients to a fully realized vision of their future spaces. From early believer to beta tester to full-on SketchUp wizard, Matthew has seen and helped guide SketchUp’s evolution firsthand. As he puts it, SketchUp completely changed his career.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your firm.
I have been working in the architectural industry for about 20 years now. I graduated with an architecture degree in 2004 and started a traditional path to becoming an architect. The firm I’m at now is DBVW Architects. We work on everything from small residential affordable housing to higher-ed projects. A huge part of what we do is historic renovation and historic preservation.
University of Rhode Island - Ballentine Hall. Conceptual renderings; use the navigation in the image to see more. Images courtesy of DBVW Architects.
How did you get started with SketchUp?
I was introduced to SketchUp in 2005, and it completely changed my career. I had an interest in 3D modeling even before architecture school and used to 3D model inside AutoCAD, simple extrusions and such during school. I used to build models and use 3D Studio to create — if I look back on it, terrible — renderings. After being introduced to SketchUp, I realized I could work quickly and create interesting graphics without that painful process.
“To this day, I go into other programs and still feel like I have to go back to SketchUp. It's always been intuitive, and I've been able to get my ideas and thoughts out quickly.”
I remember when SketchUp implemented styles. That was a big moment for me. The firm I was working for at the time was deeply rooted in traditional architecture and neighborhood planning. Like most firms doing this kind of work, we really wanted all the graphics in the office to look hand-drawn and watercolored. When styles were introduced, I was like, “Oh my God, this is a game-changer.” We could take our SketchUp models, composite the sketchy-style export with a filtered rendering, and make it look like it was drawn by hand. That’s a huge selling point because it plays an important role in storytelling, especially in the early stages of design. We started importing Revit models into SketchUp just to make them look sketchy. As far as creating stylized drawings and being able to do it quickly, I don't think anything else can match it right now.
In 2008, I was also one of the winners of the International Style Builder Competition. My Style, Pencil on Graph Paper, has been installed as one of the included styles ever since.
What made you choose the Studio subscription?
I like that SketchUp has a relationship with Chaos Group and that you offer V-Ray as part of the Studio subscription. That was a selling point for my firm, but it was actually when SketchUp introduced Scan Essentials that we upgraded to Studio. I thought it would be another decade before we could create 3D scans and bring 3D point clouds into SketchUp.
Real Art Ways historic renovation and expansion in Hartford, CT. Conceptual exterior rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
DBVW Architects does a lot of projects that are either historic rehabs or repurposing old buildings. We hire an outside company to do laser scans of existing buildings for us and use the point cloud data as reference material or to generate as-builts. It’s incredibly useful to be able to import point clouds into SketchUp, especially in the very early phases where we don't have a model started.
“All these technologies are making our lives easier and making us better designers and artists. Whenever I show somebody my work, they think I'm some kind of magician, but it's really the people at SketchUp that have made it intuitive and easy to use and integrated it into SketchUp.”
You can even shoot point clouds with your phone or an iPad Pro. It’s powerful to do that for a quick study or if you need to compare your design to existing conditions to ensure it's accurate. Just bring your phone out there and scan as many points as you can. When you’re back at the office, bring that data into SketchUp, and use it as a base model to verify dimensions.
You mentioned V-Ray. Is that your go-to rendering engine?
We typically use both V-Ray and Enscape. We use Enscape primarily for its speed. If we need to get something done quickly or if we’re doing something in virtual reality, Enscape is our go-to. For more polished images, we use V-Ray. It boils down to Enscape for the quick stuff, and V-Ray for the good stuff.
Can you walk us through a typical conceptual design and visualization project?
We worked on a facility in Providence for an organization called Farm Fresh. They work with local farms and organize farmer's markets. They wanted to build what they call their food hub. They would host both winter and summer markets, and they wanted space for local businesses to move in. It’s a mix of shared co-locator spaces and offices; a lot of different programming.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island - new headquarters. Conceptual exterior rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
For early renderings, we want to go with that conceptual, filtered feel. I add materials and lighting using V-Ray, then composite the different layers in Photoshop. I export linework from SketchUp and add filters in Photoshop to make it feel conceptual — we don't want clients to think the design is fully baked when we're just pitching the idea.
In one image, we studied an idea for a restaurant and seating space. Renderings are never just renderings; they're always design studies for us. The client wanted to see a tree element using structural steel and sound panels. They wanted big graphics and big art and to maintain an industrial vibe, so we were playing with those ideas, incorporating different elements into the renderings.
Farm Fresh Rhode Island - new headquarters. Conceptual interior renderings; use the navigation in the image to see more. Images courtesy of DBVW Architects.
The base of this was a Revit model, but you wouldn’t model most of the details you see in Revit. All the entourage, that's all SketchUp: signage, the wood treatment on the walls, ceiling fans, lighting and HVAC, and the metal deck on the ceiling. We just don't model to that level in Revit. Then we flesh out design ideas with our interiors and design teams to pitch the concepts to the client. That project alone would pay for our Studio subscription because we’re able to realize the client’s vision and make decisions so quickly.
“SketchUp is a tool that our office is using daily and making major decisions with.”
We really did use SketchUp for all aspects of the design process: interior, exterior, and landscaping. The client then used the imagery to raise money as part of their capital campaign. The city had also approached us with an idea for a pedestrian bridge. They wanted to see that in the rendering, and it was important to the client that we include it. All these pieces come together in SketchUp. Most of our major design decisions are not happening in Revit; they're happening in SketchUp.
Is your visualization process pretty similar across projects?
The workflow for all of my non-photoreal renderings is pretty much the same. What comes out of rendering engines can feel a little sterile. We give it more life and visual interest with texture and sketchy styles.
Another example of a design and visualization project is an aquarium in Newport, Rhode Island. It's a pretty small facility for an organization called Save the Bay. We worked on the design and retrofit of the existing building, but we also put together early concept renderings for them to use as part of their initial capital campaign.
They wanted imagery that they could use to a) envision themselves in the space, b) help the state see that this would be a good location, and c) drum up donors. It’s really an exercise in crafting the narrative to get them excited about the project. We add their branding, realistic signage, and people using the space to tell that almost fairy tale story that clients want to see when they envision themselves in a building.
Save The Bay’s Hamilton Family Aquarium — conceptual interior rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
This project was again modeled in SketchUp, rendered in V-Ray, and stylized to feel conceptual. I imported a Revit model into SketchUp where all the texturing and finishes were done. Then we exported a number of layers from SketchUp: linework, sketchy edges, people, signage, and material finishes. All the layers came together in Photoshop with two filters, one watercolor and another that creates a hatch effect. Last, I added a paper texture to enhance the watercolor effect, and that’s that.
How much are you using Revit and SketchUp in parallel?
Nine times out of ten, I'm working with a model from Revit that we want to better visualize and use to make decisions. Bringing your Revit model into SketchUp has always been part of our workflow, and we did that with DWG until SketchUp released the Revit Importer in early 2023. We've also tried plug-ins to export a SketchUp model from Revit, but that was mostly terrible.
Most of the time, I get a Revit file pretty early on, typically during schematic design or design development. The 3D model usually needs quite a bit of work and is still going through ideation. We can do those design studies faster in SketchUp than in Revit. If we need to make design decisions or look at moving walls or windows, we'll do that in SketchUp.
Real Art Ways historic renovation and expansion in Hartford, CT. Series of conceptual interior renderings; use the navigation in the image to see more. Images courtesy of DBVW Architects.
One huge benefit of the Revit importer over DWG is for site models. If you export a DWG to bring into SketchUp, it’s just messy. The geometry translates really well with the importer; it's clean. It’s really nice that families come in as components – that's important.
“I can't really say anything about return on investment in actual dollar amounts, but as far as the cost of the subscription, we make that back in like a week. It's a no-brainer.”
It's just faster to iterate and share in SketchUp; you don't want to do design iterations in Revit. We're in the design phase on a project now and want to flesh out some options. I imported a Revit model into SketchUp, and in two days, we worked through all the designs we wanted to see. We then created visuals using V-Ray and wrapped the project up. It was only a three-day thing, which saved us a lot of time.
Speaking of time savings, I hear you’re a big fan of extensions.
Extensions, I love them! I must have over a hundred extensions. Even if an extension does one simple thing to save me five minutes, I will install it. People always come to my desk and ask if there's a tool for this or that. I'll go to the Extension Warehouse or SketchUcation and show them, “Yeah, you do that with an extension.” SketchUp’s evolution, thanks in part to extensions, in the last decade has changed the playing field. If somebody asks me what extensions they should be using, Profile Builder is a must, and Flex Tools is great too.
“Without extensions, I would be lost. I've always wanted to make a framed piece of art that says, ‘There's an extension for that!’ There are so many extensions and they're so useful — they save me so much time.”
Do you use LayOut as well?
I use LayOut quite a bit, especially for quick turnarounds. We have InDesign and Illustrator, all those tools, but there are projects where I don’t have to open any of them. I'm able to stay inside the SketchUp ecosystem and go directly from a SketchUp model to drawing sheets with scaled drawings in LayOut. It saves me a ton of time.
LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield, RI. Overhead plan rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
For a neighborhood study or a planning study, if I know we're going to share site plans or renderings, I'll create a site plan scene using the default views in SketchUp. I plan those scenes and set up tags, then I can just click “Send to LayOut.” We have sheet templates in LayOut to show drawings at the correct scale and styles to turn on shadows.
“If people aren’t using LayOut, they should really spend some time with it. It takes 10-15 minutes to make templates and once they’re done, that’s it — they’re always there for you to use. Anybody who doesn’t use LayOut is missing out.”
We used to do just one hero shot, a site plan, and some floor plans. Now, it’s never just one rendering — we want site plans, floor plans, and site elevations; we need three views of four different buildings. Ten years ago, that would have taken a couple of weeks; now, we can do it all in a couple of days.
LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield, RI. Series of conceptual interior renderings; use the navigation in the image to see more. Images courtesy of DBVW Architects.
Now, we can stay almost completely inside SketchUp. With tags and an organized file, we can render the site plan using the SketchUp model and send it to LayOut. We do elevations and sections the same way with organized scenes and tags. For renderings, we might take the SketchUp model into Photoshop, but we're adding those images to the LayOut drawing set as well. It’s the quickest way to create a small drawing set.
Any parting thoughts?
LaPerche Elementary School in Smithfield, RI. Entry color study and conceptual exterior rendering. Image courtesy of DBVW Architects.
I've been using SketchUp for almost 20 years. People always ask, “Oh, you did that in SketchUp?” Nowadays, you can render the same kind of stuff that people are rendering in 3D Studio Max. It’s a super exciting time because things have matured to the point where all those things I dreamed about — like, “I wish I could render grass” — I can do those things now. It’s a fun time to be doing this professionally. I feel like I get to play all day long.
“SketchUp changed my career path and makes my life easier every day. As a designer and a professional, seeing what it's become in the last 10–15 years, I’m able to do things I never thought I would.”
Make SketchUp your own
Ready to harness the flexibility that makes SketchUp so powerful? Whether you’re a beginner looking for low-barrier, intuitive 3D modeling or an industry veteran looking for professional software to make critical decisions and communicate more effectively with clients, SketchUp is the tool. And just when you think it can’t do more, just remember Matthew’s words, “There’s an extension for that.”
Test out all of Matthew’s favorite tools with a free trial, or if you’re ready to subscribe to the most robust version of SketchUp, upgrade to Studio today. If you haven’t heard, SketchUp also unlocks opportunities beyond the desktop. Take your designs mobile to create and collaborate wherever inspiration strikes on SketchUp for iPad. See what’s new on iPad or download the app to try it today.
Matthew Valero, Director of Visualization at DBVW Architects
About Matthew Valero
With his extraordinary computer rendering skills and his keen design sense, Matthew breathes life into DBVW Architects' designs through 3D computer visualization. Matthew’s renderings are an invaluable tool for advancing projects during design development, helping DBVW Architects' clients visualize designs and building community support in public forums. Matthew is a member of the American Society of Architectural Illustrators and has won numerous awards for his rendering work. Learn more at DBVW.com.