My latest obsession doesn't have anything to do with writing. While I still read lots of politics and history stuff, I've found a new hobby that has kept me interested and entertained for far longer than I originally anticipated. My latest timewaster is the creation of dozens of 3D computer models of buildings in another town.
If you're not already familiar with the digital globe software, Google Earth
, you need to stop reading this right now and spend some time playing with Earth. Briefly, it's a virtual globe, so you can see anywhere on the planet with a few flicks of the mouse, but it also lets you zoom in close enough to recognize cars and houses. Elements of geography are represented, so hills and valleys are shown clearly. It also ties to a great deal of information in Wikipedia, travel sites, photo galleries, and custom sets created by volunteers and enthusiasts for weather, traffic, historical references, and more.
One particularly cool "layer" (as they're called) of Earth shows, in some locations, 3D buildings in place of the otherwise flat satellite image that covers the globe. These buildings have each been created by volunteers and enthusiasts. What I recently started using is a pair of software applications provided by Google to create these 3D models: Building Maker
Building Maker is a web-based application that enables anyone to create a basic 3D model from Google Earth images. It has some very basic shapes and orienting functions and asks the user to indicate where the building is on a series of satellite images. The software combines this information to create a 3D model viewable in Google Earth. The results of this tool are impressive given the minimal amount of skill needed to use it. The buildings are all saved in Google's 3D Warehouse, so I can work on my models anywhere I can get to a computer.
For intricate elements and better facing (that is, better images on the face of each model), the downloadable tool, Sketchup, is used. This is a free CAD program that could be used to design anything from a nail to a rocketship, but I use it to modify my Building Maker models with details like door and window frames, improve the face textures with Street View images, and fix any errors created by Building Maker.My first building
was a simple, rectangular metal building in Bastrop, Texas. I had to use Google Maps to figure out what it was: the Sisters of Charity Thrift Store. It took a couple of tries to get the basic rectangle for the building aligned correctly, and even longer to correctly affix the gabled roof element. Once I did, the result was surprisingly realistic.My next model
was a convenience store behind the thrift store. The store was a basic flat square, but the front had this large fake roof feature that proved difficult to reproduce in Building Maker. This was my incentive to learn about Sketchup. Fortunately, there is a series of tutorial videos that explain the workings of Sketchup in increasing detail. I was able to watch videos for an hour, and then reproduce the very roof element I needed.
This was when I learned I could use Sketchup to put Street View images directly onto my model. The satellite images are nice, and they're great for estimating size and location, but the resolution is really pretty poor. Street View images, on the other hand, are literally what you'd see from being on the street next to the building. After putting these on my corner store, I went back to my first model and refaced it, too! It makes a big difference in the final model.
From there, I proceeded to build a model for each building on the block, and then the buildings on the corners, and the buildings next to them. As I progressed, I became more adept with the Sketchup tools, creating better models, with more detail and even occasionally approaching accuracy. After having done several manufactured buildings, and a few stores, I felt ready to take on some new challenges. I did a Very Large building, an auto parts store
that appeared to be on the front of a distribution warehouse.
After that, I did a couple more smaller buildings for fun, before taking on another challenge: the new Bastrop City Hall annex
. This building takes up most of a block, and had several intersecting roof lines. It also had a lot of really good Street View imagery, so I was able to reproduce it very closely, although it took several sessions to complete.
After doing very challenging buildings, it is soothing and enjoyable to do smaller, simpler buildings. But after not very long, I was ready for another challenge. I took a Street View tour of Bastrop until I came upon the First United Methodist
building. It's a grand building, with some interesting design elements in front and around the top. Getting the roof correct in Building Maker took several tries and finally had to be rebuilt in Sketchup. I went ahead and did the whole complex, with the bell tower
and the annex
. This church was the first model that I had impressed myself with.
This was about the time when I first noticed my ratings. A couple of my buildings had been given top level, 5 star ratings by a pair of reviewers. Since a quick check revealed that each only gave out 5 star reviews, I wasn't sure what to think, although I took it as a compliment, anyway. I had to imagine that there must be folks who just look at new models every day for fun, and if it's worth rating, it gets 5 stars.
My next challenge was the City Library building
, which is four pairs of parallel rectangular prisms, with a ninth rectangular prism intersected perpendicularly through the center of the pairs. It also was built in a natural depression, so there was a lot of terrain that needed to be built up, and some very thick concrete footings built -- none of which were part of the Building Maker model. With this model, I learned how to create supporting terrain in Sketchup, so now the library doesn't float. (Yay!)
Next to the library was a pretty church, Bastrop Christian
, so I built that model next. A block over is the Post Office annex
building, and I thought it was going to be a good "relaxation" model. It turned out to be a lot more trouble that I'd anticipated. It's not one of my better models.
Across from the post office was another pretty church, Calvary Episcopal
. It has a variety of detail elements, besides a complex roof, a tower, faux flying buttresses, and convex bulges on two walls. Although I was able to do good work on the model, I'm disappointed that I wasn't able to reproduce the flying buttresses, or the elements at the top of the tower. As it was, I had already created a very large model for my 25th building.
At this point in writing, eighteen of my buildings
are available for anyone to view in Google Earth, probably tripling the number of 3D building models in Bastrop. Of the 25 I have created, eleven have received five-star ratings, including the post office annex (?!), the city hall annex, and all three churches.
I don't know how much longer I'll be doing this. At the moment, I'm always finding the time to make more models, so I guess as long as that's true, I'll keep making models. I'll also probably stay in Bastrop for now, just because it's relatively undeveloped. Austin is almost completely modeled already, so I'll have to look for another small town to do next.