Award-winning architecture firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), has a unique stylistic approach to design that sets them apart from other firms. With over 220 architects and designers, the firm has international recognition for a multitude of projects ranging from multi-family, commercial, and institutional. We sat down with Adam Lowenthal, Director of Digital Practice, and one of the firm’s partners, Johnny Cruz to get the skinny on what makes them stand out, their workflow, and everything in between.
The whole RAMSA team in SketchUp. From the left: Joseph Ortiz, Cassie Nozil, Morgan Jones, Adam Lowenthal, and Johnny Cruz.
Give us some background on your firm, your role, and the types of projects you take on.
RAMSA is a large, award-winning architectural firm headquartered in New York City and employs over 220 architects and designers. We work on an array of large-scale projects across the globe including mixed-use planning, multifamily and single-family residential, commercial, institutional and cultural.
Johnny: I am one of 16 partners at RAMSA, but I also assist with emerging design and collaboration technologies. I am a huge SketchUp advocate and have been incorporating it into my workflow for decades.
Adam: I lead the IT and Design Technology teams and am responsible for the implementation and adoption of design and technology software solutions. We use a wide array of software in our workflow so it’s key that our software plays nice with each other. Our Project teams rely on SketchUp for the fast-paced early stages of design.
How did you get started with SketchUp?
Johnny: I started out drafting with pens and watercolors and then became fluent in 3D software when it became available. I first tried SketchUp in 2005, so I was definitely an early adopter. I found it to be very intuitive and easy to use, especially during the conceptual phase when you are working with multiple design ideas. Ever since that initial experience, I’ve been a huge advocate of SketchUp at our firm and I encourage everyone to incorporate it into their process.
Early studies and concept design show two different sides of the building. Modeled in SketchUp and rendered in Enscape.
What’s your typical workflow within and out of SketchUp for projects?
Johnny: At the very beginning of a project, we set up two SketchUp models that we work on side-by-side throughout the conceptual design process. One model is a quick-and-simple massing model and the other is for detailed studies. We focus on testing the volume of space, formal relationships, and other high-level elements using the massing model. The more detailed model enables us to populate windows, doors, neighboring buildings, and other critical facade elements.
Throughout the conceptual phase, we use Enscape to render, share and explore design ideas with internal stakeholders. We like to leverage the live sync between SketchUp and Enscape for real-time fly-throughs with our internal team and then present photorealistic images to clients. We also use VR to study our buildings at human scale.
Another critical part of our process, and one that truly shows off our design style, is that we use clay to create physical massing models at multiple scales. Its tactile nature allows us to explore and demonstrate key design decisions in a unique way. As the design progresses, we start to iterate and develop different design options in clay, and in SketchUp. We sometimes print facade ideas from SketchUp, and paste them onto foam core, taking the design to another physical level. Once we are close to a final design, or if we have key features we want to focus on, we also model those at 1:1 scale.
Lastly, when the design is finalized and signed off on by all stakeholders, we replicate the SketchUp model in Revit for Design Development and Documentation.
Interiors using SketchUp and Enscape.
Clay massing studies.
Foam core with printed elevations from SketchUp.
Architectural detail profile.
What differentiates RAMSA from other architecture firms?
Adam: I believe our design process is what makes us stand out. Our design process relies heavily on research and collaboration and incorporates physical models made from clay, foam core, wood, and 3D prints. No matter what technology we incorporate, we will never get rid of physical models. I believe that some parts of the design cannot be adequately explored using digital mediums -- no matter what technology is out there.
Close-up of the clay model study showcasing different design options.
The model is shown in context to the surrounding buildings.
What are some best practices you follow when developing your SketchUp models?
Johnny: Our files can get quite large, so to reduce model lag, we only model what can be seen, not the volume thickness on windows, for example. We also make sure to purge all miscellaneous components and take advantage of any extensions that help reduce size, like CleanUp.
Another practice we follow is the use of a master file. We have several different teams working on different parts of the design in different software, so it’s important to have one file where we bring everything together.
What benefits does SketchUp provide?
Johnny: Because SketchUp is less complicated than other 3D modeling programs, we can quickly create different design options and iterate on those throughout our process. It enables us to work quickly and efficiently. Also, SketchUp’s learning curve is low, so everyone on the team knows or can learn how to use SketchUp.
Renderings showing lighting options using SketchUp and Enscape.
How did the COVID-19 pandemic impact your ways of working and how did technology support a pivot from physical models?
Adam: I will say that we will always use physical models to communicate design, having SketchUp during this period of remote working allowed us to pivot. We’ve also used rendering engines like Enscape more frequently to communicate and walk through design ideas.
We also relied heavily on Zoom. To run meetings, we’d all dial into Zoom, one person would model in SketchUp while others annotated on the screen. It was a great, innovative way to collaborate.
What other technology do you use in your design process, specifically for presenting?
Adam: We use a wide range of tools, one of those being mixed reality viewing. We were an early adopter of Oculus and use it for presenting interior and exterior designs. We are currently looking for new ways to leverage this technology. For example, combining our physical, clay models with virtual reality viewing -- specifically cycling through multiple design ideas on top of the clay model.
About Robert A.M. Stern Architects
Robert A.M. Stern Architects, LLP, is a 220-person firm of architects, interior designers, and supporting staff. Over its fifty-year history, the firm has established an international reputation as a leading design firm with wide experience in residential, commercial, and institutional work.