Creating amazing looking structures using SolidWorks… Many doubt it, others toy with it and still others know just how to blend the capabilities to make it possible.

Project Frog, out of San Francisco, CA, is one of the later. They’ve got sweet looking, highly efficient, modular building systems down in a big way. They do it all in SolidWorks and have even extending it to use with Luxology’s modo preset and rigging capabilities. From concept to construction each piece of structure is designed to fit together perfectly. Ryan Olson, Product Design Engineer for Project Frog was kind enough to provide the specifics of how they take on architectural structures and explains exactly why it works.

At Project Frog ( we design and build modular, energy efficient buildings for schools, communities, and other applications. Our product is our building kit, and I am part of a team of product designers working alongside architects and structural engineers in the development process. My team’s main design tool is SolidWorks, which we use to translate details and concepts from the architects and engineers into an optimized kit of parts which can be flexibly combined into a wide variety of different possible building configurations. We’ve developed a library of building modules (SolidWorks assemblies) for elements such as structural steel frames, wall panels, roofs, etc., all of which fit together in a prescribed way. (We did try using Mate References to help codify this, but unfortunately that particular SolidWorks feature seems to work best with simple geometry such as fasteners, and bogged down when subjected to the complexities of an entire building with hundreds of parts). Having everything modeled precisely in SolidWorks allows us to fully test every connection in the building in a 3D environment, at a level of detail far exceeding what the typical 2D drawings from the architects and engineers allow. This model data can then be used to generate precise shop drawings for our fabricators, as well as provide clear 3D views for our installation instructions that go to the general contractor.

One of the key strategies in our workflow is to avoid in-context relationships between the various building modules. This might seem counter-intuitive at first, since one of the primary objectives is of course to make sure that everything fits together right. However, if you think about our building kit as a Lego set, in which various blocks can fit together in multiple ways, you don’t want the definition of a specific block to rely on its context in only one specific assembly–in other words, I don’t want my wheel piece, which I’m now using to build a truck, to rely on the car that it was originally a part of. Instead, we use a master guide sketch part, which contains the key gridlines for all the basic building connections (for example, the relative position of each possible wall panel with respect to the steel frame). We then include that guide sketch part (which contains only sketches and reference geometry) at the top of each actual assembly, and use that to locate parts in space, align holes, terminate surfaces, etc. That way, each module can live on its own with no external references, and any change to the master guide sketch part will propagate to all the assemblies that contain it.

I should throw in a word for Luxology’s modo as well, since I rely heavily on modo to generate renderings of our buildings and try out various design and finishing concepts. I’ve imported all the main pieces of our kit into modo from SolidWorks and arranged them into a library of presets, which I can draw from to assemble a building model very quickly. I’ve even experimented with modo’s custom user channels and rigging tools to emulate some of SolidWorks’ configuration functionality, for example to reposition or selectively show and hide parts of a mesh as required. Working in modo is definitely a lot of fun, and its rendering capabilities far exceed the stripped down version found in PhotoView 360.

The Project Frog modo library
The Project Frog modo library of structure presets

A very big thanks to Ryan for bringing us through the process. Taking on large structures, or large assemblies for that matter, with the approach they’ve developed makes working with them in SolidWorks that much easier.

This is part 1 of a series that show how people and companies are using 3D modeling software to create amazing structures. If you know of something exceptional or would like to share a process, just shoot us an email!


Josh is founder and editor at, founder at Aimsift Inc., and co-founder of EvD Media. He is involved in engineering, design, visualization, the technology making it happen, and the content developed around it. He is a SolidWorks Certified Professional and excels at falling awkwardly.