Using Blender to win large Engineering jobs

an interview with Tyler Disney

Today I'm bringing you something a little different: an interview with the Lead Visualization Engineer at the Integral Group, Tyler Disney.

Johnson Martin
Tyler Disney

Tyler has been a very active Blendergrid user for the last few years. He does some pretty interesting and elaborate visualization work and has some great info to share about his experiences using Blender in the industry. So without further ado, let's hear from Tyler!

Hi Tyler, to start off, could you tell us a bit of who you are, and what you do as a Visualization Engineer?

Hi, definitely. I'm actually a mechanical engineer by training and worked a few years as a project engineer, designing building systems (cooling, heating, ventilation, electrical, and plumbing systems). I joined the industry right at about the time we were switching over from 2D drawings (using Autocad) to 3D models (using Revit) to produce our work. I became our Oakland, California office's Revit expert, which eventually led me into the world of rendering and animation.

Typically what I'm doing now is one of three things: I'm either trying to help us win a job in an interview, trying to explain an idea we have for a project that we need buy-in from the client or architect, or I'm explaining some cool project that we've already completed.

You're probably familiar with architectural visualization. What I do you might call "engineering visualization for buildings" - but very, very few other engineers in our industry are doing the sort of visualizations that I am, so I'm very much making it up as I go along. It has a different emphasis than arch viz, which is often focused on making the building look as beautiful and attractive as possible. I'm more focused on explaining how the complex systems actually make that building function work, so that people can make better decisions about those systems.

I started trying to figure out how to make those images look less terrible

Could you tell a bit about the time when you first started using Blender, and why Blender?

Back in 2009/2010, I was really just tinkering with different 3D programs for fun, and as a creative way to solve some of the problems, I needed to figure out at work. My boss would look over my shoulder and ask if I could take a screenshot of a 3D model to put in a report because it would impress the client, and so I started trying to figure out how to make those images look less terrible, which led me to investigate various rendering platforms.

Honestly, I started using Blender because it was free and I didn't have to bother with trying to get my company to buy me a license, it meant I could learn on my own at home, and I've always been a supporter of the open source movement in any way I can.

I worked non-stop through the weekend to finish it on time

The first "real" job I did with Blender was to make an animation for a job interview for a huge Silicon Valley tech company office building, which we won. (It makes me cringe to watch it now!) My boss came up to me on a Thursday and asked if I could make an animation for the interview on Monday. Up until that point, I'd only ever really tinkered with Blender, so I worked non-stop through the weekend to finish it on time.

How do you use Blender in your workflow? And more specifically, how do you Blender in conjunction with industry software? (AutoCAD, Revit)

Blender is more than 95% of my workflow. Typically I'll have access to an architectural Revit model, which I export to .fbx to bring in to Blender. Sometimes I'll have a Revit model of the mechanical systems which I'll bring in as well, but often not.

Typically I'll model all of the mechanical components in Blender, do all the animation in Blender, and then upload to Blendergrid for rendering the drafts and final animations.

I also do all video and sound editing in Blender.

I get to work with the best and brightest folks in the green building industry

You currently work at the Integral Group, which has done some pretty high-profile projects in the past. What's it like working for such a large firm and seeing your designs being built in the real world?

It is so cool getting to work on such a variety of awesome projects. Every project is something really different from the last one so I'm always engaged - and for me, each animation is trying to tell some unique story to some unique audience, and thinking through how best to do that is very rewarding work.

Also, since I support all of our offices spanning from the US and Canada to the UK and Australia, I get to work with the best and brightest folks in the green building industry.

The Integral Group has a major focus on sustainable design. How has that influenced your work as a Visualization engineer?

I took a minor in Sustainable Environments in school, and I've always been very passionate about sustainable design.

The sustainable element of our work is central to what I do specifically, because often the "sustainable" design choice isn't the normal way things have been done. So when we have an idea for a more sustainable approach to a design, we have to explain what we want to do and how it's going to work, so that we can get buy-in from the team to move forward with it. And a lot of these designs aren't very intuitive, and they're related to all the other systems in the building in this very complex way that isn't easy to understand even if you do have a technical background.

So in a very real way, the purpose of my work is to communicate the sustainable approach we want to do so that we can turn it into a reality.

I heard that you were working out of Greece for a few weeks using nothing but a mobile phone for an internet connection. Could you tell us little about what that's like and how you managed it?

I've worked remotely for the past 2 years and I love rock climbing, so I moved to Kalymnos, Greece for 2 months because it is this amazing climbing spot. I'd wake up early, go climbing for a few hours, and come back and do my work for the day. But the internet in the apartment wasn't working, so I had to either use my cell phone as a hotspot (with a data plan that throttled at ½ GB per day) or go down to a cafe, which also had pretty slow internet.

It actually worked out really well, because the only thing I really *need* the internet for is to communicate with whoever I'm making an animation for, and to up- and download from Blendergrid. Since the internet was off most of the time, I wasn't able to distract myself with social media or any of the other things we waste our time on the internet on, so I was just very, very focused on my work.

(I also wasn't able to stay current on US politics, which was nice while it lasted.)

Before Blendergrid came along:
Babysit the computers all night, taking short naps. It was zero fun.

How is Blendergrid helping you in your work as a Visualizer?

Before Blendergrid came along, when I was working in an office, this is how I would get an animation rendered:

  1. Wait until everyone in the office leaves for the night.

  2. Go around and install Blender on half a dozen computers.

  3. Dropbox the .blend to all the computers, and have each one render some portion of the frames.

  4. Babysit the computers all night, taking short naps.

  5. Hope that I get everything rendered by the time people start coming back to work in the morning.

It was zero fun. And we're an engineering company, not a rendering studio, so we don't really have the expertise or overhead to set up our own renderfarm.

I also often have only 3-4 days from start to finish for animations. So if I had to render on my own hardware, there's no way I'd ever get it done in time.

Blendergrid literally is the reason I'm even capable of delivering on those projects, which are my bread and butter.

I am constantly blown away by the incredible work of the devoted digital artists out there, and I have far too much respect for what they do to put myself in their league.

I see from your website that you consider yourself to be an artist as much as an engineer. How do these two genres of work intersect for you?

I would say that I'm an engineer by training and an artist by aspiration, and am creating a niche for myself that suits that intersection. Any game, VFX, or arch viz studio would laugh me out of an interview if I managed to trick them into giving me one. I am constantly blown away by the incredible work of the devoted digital artists out there, and I have far too much respect for what they do to put myself in their league.

Blender Solar Panels
Blender Wood Fan
Blender Workshop
Blender Forest Flowers

But if I were 100% engineer, I wouldn't be able to communicate and tell stories about what I'm trying to do very well. I'd just use a bunch of charts and graphs and things, and bore everyone to death. It's a common problem among engineers who are trying to accomplish something important - we don't know how to convince other people we've got good ideas.

And if I were 100% artist, I wouldn't have the grounding in the particulars of engineering -- the thermodynamics, fluids, heat transfer, building systems best practices, etc -- that are required to tell a story that is rooted in the reality of getting buildings built. These things are actually pretty complex -- I struggle to understand them even dimly, and I spent half a decade in engineering school.

So, to conclude, what has been most challenging for you as an engineer/designer? And how have/are you overcoming it?

The fact that I have zero artistic training and am trying to self-teach modeling, lighting, rendering, animation, use of color, composition, and all that, while telling compelling stories about really complex systems to non-technical audiences, is probably my biggest challenge. I have to keep a really disciplined program of self-learning going every day, and it's easy to get frustrated with how good I want to be vs. how good I am at the moment.

As to how I'm overcoming this challenge -- all I have to say is Blenderguru, CreativeShrimp, CGCookie, the amazing Blender community, coffee, and an alarm clock. I'd be lost without them.

Thanks Tyler!

You can find out more about Tyler at his online channels:

Author
Johnson Martin
Johnson Martin

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