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Blender is a multi-platform open source 3d creation software; it supports the entire creative process: from modeling, rigging, animation, physics simulations, rendering, post production, motion tracking, video editing and even game creation (source: blender.org).

At the beginning, it was developed as an internal application by the Dutch animation studio NeoGeo. In the 1998 the main author, Ton Roosendaal, founded the company Not a Number Technologies (NaN) to go on developing and distributing it as a free proprietary software (freeware). The experience was unlucky and in the 2002 the company went bankrupt. Creditors, after receiving €100.000, agreed to publish Blender as a free software (under the GNU General Public License); Roosendaal could collect that money in a few months thanks to a fundraising campaign. Currently Blender is a very active open source project run by the Blender Foundation (source it.wikipedia.org).

As I said before, Blender has a lot of features that cover the entire creative process and that make it similar, by features and complexity, to other well-known commercial 3D graphic softwares; thanks to these features, it can deal with any subject, including architectural one: from snap functions, something familiar to people that used CAD sofware, to parametric editing (scale, translation, rotation, boolean operations, etc.); it also integrates a very flexible measurement system, adaptable to metric units. Blender comes with a large group of plugins (addons) that can extend its functionality even more; anyway more and more plugins (free and paid) are available on the web; among those I would like to reccomend:

  • Archimesh (addon) by Antonio Vazquez: tool dedicated to architecture; it creates objects such as windows, doors, stairs, etc .;
  • JArch Vis (addon) by Jacob Morris: tool dedicated to architecture; it creates objects such as windows, doors, stairs, etc .;
  • Mesh siding (addon) by Jacob Morris: tool dedicated to architecture; it creates panel systems;
  • Floor generator (addon) by Michel Anders: floor creation tool;
  • Snap Utilities (addon) by Germano Cavalcante: a paid tool to add advanced features to Blender snap functions;
  • Measureit (addon) by Antonio Vazquez: useful tool for measuring distances;
  • IES to cycles (addon) by Lockal S.: a lamp importing tool (intended as light sources, with relative real photometric curves);
  • Node wrangler (addon) by B.Skorupa, G.Zaal, S.Koenig: it’s not directly dedicated to architecture but this tool can make the work in the node editor a lot easier;
  • Pro Lighting skies (addon) by Andrew Price: paid addon that controls the scene lighting through the use of HDR images;
  • Assets management (addon) by Pistiwique and Pitiwazou: paid tool that manages objects, materials, HDRs and scenes libraries;
  • EasyFX (addon) by Nils Soderman: tool for fast post-production management;
  • Sun Position (addon) by Michael Martin: solar angle calculator, for a precise evaluation of shadows at any time of the day, every day of the year;
  • Filmic Blender (color management) by Troy Sobotka: this OpenColorIO configuration adds a closer-to-photorealistic view transform to our renders, with a better tone distribution, a proper desaturation behaviour and a gentle roll-off towards highlights.

Despite its potential, many people still think that Blender is not a “production ready” software, that it can’t be used by professional studios for commercial jobs and that it can only be used for “hobby”. In my opinion, Blender is a perfect solution for both small and medium architectural studios and for freelance professionals too; all users that possibly will buy expensive software licenses that in many cases will use at the least of their potential.

Like any other 3D application, however, Blender has its advantages and disadvantages.

First, Blender uses Cycles, an “unbiased” render engine, based on algorithms that try to reproduce the light behavior realistically. On one hand, Cycles allows you to modify the scene in a very flexible and almost real-time way and quickly visualize what the final result will be; on the other, this means high workloads for hardware and consequently very long calculation times. However, the problem can be solved by using the GPU as a compute device instead of the classic CPU, so both the preview view and the final computation will be considerably faster. Additionally, using the GPU also has the advantage of optimizing the costs of hardware upgrading: installing a second video card will split in half the calculation time; moreover if you buy a performing workstation today, in a few years it will be enough to upgrade video cards to get better performances.

The use of the GPU as a compute device also has some disadvantages: many of you may  doubt about the limited available memory that Blender can use to allocate scene data. However we should consider technological developments too: just think that cards with 12GB of memory are on the market, but you can buy 8GB cards at a more affordable cost as well.

Another weak point in Blender is the creation of internal views due to the excessive “noise” of the image: this problem forces users to search for optimized rendering settings or use a larger number of samples, with longer calculation time; however, Blender and Cycles are in constant development: in few months, we will deliver high-quality and professional results thanks to a new denoise function (NB: this feature is currently available only in “daily build” versions, namely Blender beta versions; I’ve tried it and I find it already awesome).

Many complain about the lack of professional libraries of ready-to-use materials/objects: their use of course would speed up workflow and would optimize costs because, remember, the main goal of professional 3d artist is to provide high-quality and competitively priced services (static views, animations, walk-trhough, etc.), rather than creating a whole scene with all its contents from scratch. There’s a solution to this problem too: there are more and more websites providing quality libraries at affordable prices; and if we consider that Blender is a cost-free software, investing a certain amount of money to increase its capabilities is a reasonable and reccomended decision. Among all the resources available on the web, I would like to suggest these:

  • Chocofur: objects and materials for architectural views; one of the best (if not the best) Blender objects library that I know; most of the resources are paid, but costs are affordable;
  • Lucrea3d: objects for architectural views; the site, which offers its libraries for free, has born some months ago, it has good quality items and it’s constantly expanding its offer; If you are interested, I have already talked about it here;
  • Dimensiva: design objects for architectural views; it offers most of its library for free, some months ago it has expanded its offer with paid items; its library is not available in * .blend format, so objects must be imported and their materials must be rebuilt; if you are interested, I have already talked about it here;
  • BlendSwap: objects, materials, plugins,… of all kinds; the site offers its libraries free of charge and under Creative Commons licenses;
  • Poliigon: one of the best digital image archives for creating any kind of PBR material (i.e. physically based); most of the resources are paid, but costs are affordable;
  • Textures: digital image archive for creating any kind of material;
  • Grass essentials: paid particles library for creating, as its name suggests, meadows of all kinds;
  • Cycles Material Vault, aka CMV: paid library made of about 100 high quality materials ready to use in Cycles;
  • Blender Market: plugins and other resources, all paid, exclusively dedicated to Blender; costs, more than affordable, include a percentage that is donated to Blender Development Found to support software development;

We can make similar considerations about the lack of an official customer support channel: it is possible, at no cost, to refer to Blender online community, which is constantly growing and includes high level users; or it’s possible to invest some money to purchase tutorials or professional resources. Among all the resources available on the web, I would like to suggest these:

  • Blender Cloud: paid Blender Institure web service, containing textures libraries, HDRIs, tutorials …;
  • Blender Guru: a mine of high quality tutorials; some paid professional resources, very useful for architecture, are available too;
  • Francesco Milanese: high quality and partly free italian tutorials; recommended for italian beginners;
  • Creative Shrimp: high quality tutorials, mostly free; recommended for those who want to add an artistic touch to their compositions;

Despite its utility and potentiality, there are still many international forums where architectural views are mainly created with commercial software, contributing to reinforce the idea that Blender is a low level program used by a segment  of “hobbyists”. Moreover the burden of being an open source program for many professionals means “not suitable for professional use”. These beliefs can be unmasked by our work too: if we improve the quality of our products and “advertise” them across those who do not know Blender and its capabilities, it will be recognized and considered as one of the standard tools in architectural and other fields.

In the end I can say that, beyond the architectural area I mainly deal with, there are unlimited ways of making 3D graphics today and Blender can really satisfy the needs of every kind of 3d artist/worker.

 

Bibliography:

  • “Blender (program)” by Wikipedia
  • “Is Cycles Ready for Professional Use?” By Chocofur
  • “Why you can not afford to be a cheap artis” by Andrew Price
  • “Drastically Reduce Rendering in Blender Cycles (New Denoising Feature)” by Zacharias Reinhardt
  • “How to survive as an independent freelance artist” by Mike Pan

About

Laureato nel 2006 presso la Facoltà di Architettura del Politecnico di Bari, ha collaborato con numerosi studi di progettazione; si occupa dal 1998 di grafica 3d ed utilizza Blender come principale strumento di lavoro dal 2011; attualmente 3d Artist presso Vida Systems.

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