Using 3D design visualization tools with Jacobs

With a background in architecture and a passion for visualization, it’s no surprise that Jim Kessler, Director of the Visual Media Group at Jacobs, a global solutions firm, relies on SketchUp and a wide range of rendering tools to communicate project design and processes. Read along as we detail his team’s visualization process, which has earned several awards of excellence from the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI).

Award-winning imagery from ASAI. Project: Tyndall Air Force Base. Date: 2020.

Tell us a little bit about your background, company, and the way your group is organized.

I studied and started off my career in architecture. I practiced for several years before I found my passion for visualization. I love being able to use electronic design tools to advance the visual communication of ideas.

I joined Jacobs 22 years ago and have been able to build my career and focus on the aspects of design that I enjoy the most. Jacobs provides innovative solutions and bespoke communications for a wide range of industries including everything from aerospace to architecture.

After identifying a critical need for holistic media solutions for Jacobs, I created the Visual Media Group. We are responsible for introducing the company to new technology, visually communicating a design or telling a story, and generating compelling visualizations. I like to think of our group as the “turning the light bulb on” team helping clients communicate a project’s intent and impact on their constituents, team members of broader communities.

Communicating project details using SketchUp and 3ds Max. Project: Fort Bliss town center in El Paso, Texas.

I manage 20+ employees that work all over the globe. We focus on bespoke communications for companies and try to tell design stories through an artistic, visual lens. My group has three service lines:

3D visualization: This group handles the modeling of a design, the integration of BIM models into a design, the creation of renderings, and real-time game engine development. We are actually considered the premier AEC partner for Epic Games.

Videography: This group handles everything from developing the script, storyboarding, filming, and we even have some FAA-certified drone pilots.

Interactive media: This group delivers on web development projects, virtual and augmented reality, digital real-time solutions, and mobile app development.

I also just accepted an additional role as the Global Technology Leader for XR (Extended Reality) where I will be incorporating immersive/augmented reality tools and experiences for future projects.

Normally these groups would be siloed or disparate at other companies, and I didn’t want that. I think the most impactful solution for a client is to have a holistic approach.

How did you get started in SketchUp?

I’ve been modeling throughout my entire career — even before SketchUp was around. I used to use one of the original Macintosh-based 3D architectural modeling programs from the 80s. It allowed you to do native 3D modeling in sections. Like I said before, I’ve always been interested in the use of computers in the design process.

I picked up SketchUp around the time it was originally released. It was so easy to use and the learning curve was really low. The ability to quickly model design options was unlike any other tool I had used before. I actually advocated the use of SketchUp to several of our Senior Principal Designers because I knew the positive impact it would have on his team’s workflow. Jacobs has one of the largest groups of licensed architects in the United States, many of whom use SketchUp as a key tool in their design process.

One of the first 3D models I created in SketchUp. This is now used in the SketchUp Help Center.

Tell us a little bit about how you currently use SketchUp and your workflow.

Because our group’s responsibilities encompass everything involving visualization, we rely on a wide range of tools — one of those being SketchUp.

SketchUp used in the Fort Bliss town center project.

Our normal workflow involves the architecture group developing the foundational design in SketchUp. Then, our group exports the 3D model and cleans it up. We strip out all of the entourage and unnecessary components. When we are done, it’s just raw geometry that is left. Our team then imports it into 3ds Max or TwinMotion so we can use tools like V-Ray tune for textures on flat surfaces. We remodel it in other software so we can show imperfections easier like rust on a metallic surface. At this stage, we add entourage back in from our large render-ready, in-house content library. All that’s left at this point is to run a high-quality visualization export. To support this, we have a render farm of about 30 dedicated computers.

A high-definition render. Project: Fort Bliss located in El Paso, Texas.

Tell us a little bit about the award you won from the American Society of Architectural Illustrators using SketchUp & Photoshop.

Every year we submit a visualization project to the American Society of Architectural Illustrators (ASAI) Architecture in Perspective Competition. This last year we submitted our designs for the Tyndall Airforce base and we won an award for excellence. The foundation of this design was in SketchUp and then we rendered it in 3ds Max. Our style was based on hyperrealism — a notch above photorealism, and a current theme and style in the industry. This style is very mood-based. For this particular image, we focused on a rain shot. We were trying to capture a torrential downpour in the Florida region at around 3 p.m. You will notice stark reflections and shadows that help tell this story. We also incorporated basic design principles such as having a foreground, and background and applying the rule of thirds.

Award-winning project from ASAI: Tyndall Air Force Base.

How do you pick a style for the projects you work on?

It really depends on the project. I enjoy non-photorealistic renders (NPR). These styles allow a designer to communicate early-stage designs before many key architectural decisions have been made. I think SketchUp is an excellent tool for this. For every project, I develop a custom style in Style Builder. For example, on a project for Fort Bliss (located in El Paso, Texas), I focused on a pastel watermark for the skyline and worked with desert colors like the tinge of sand to get a feel for that environment.

NPR-style image showcased. Project: Dudley Square.

I put forth that if you are designing in SketchUp one should think critically about not only the design but how one communicates the intent through the customization of the stylized representation. I feel as though you need to think critically about how you present ideas to clients. This can be very meticulous and you have to go color by color in a design. This can take a lot of time, which is why a lot of people won’t do it.

Using custom styles to communicate project details. Project: Military Barracks.

Why do you enjoy NPR-type visualizations the most?

At the early stages, when a design is in flux and conversations with the clients are taking place, a photorealistic rendering signals completion of the project and that design changes are no longer possible. Whereas an NPR visual suggests a sense of flux and has a huge artistic element to it, which architects gravitate towards.

More NPR-style visuals.

Are there specific rendering tools that you prefer?

We use a wide range of rendering tools depending on the stage of the project and what we are trying to accomplish. As you’ve seen, we rely on rendering engines and tools that can really improve the quality of output. Some of these are Unreal Engine, Unity, V-Ray, 3ds Max, TwinMotion, Substance Painter, Quixel Megascans, and for post-production, we use the entire Adobe Creative Suite.

About Jacobs

At Jacobs, we’re challenging today to reinvent tomorrow by solving the world’s most critical problems for thriving cities, resilient environments, mission-critical outcomes, operational advancement, scientific discovery, and cutting-edge manufacturing, turning abstract ideas into realities that transform the world for good. With $14 billion in revenue and a talent force of approximately 55,000, Jacobs provides a full spectrum of professional services including consulting, technical, scientific, and project delivery for the government and private sector. Visit and connect with Jacobs on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

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