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Dozens of new buildings are springing up on the Spokane and Cheney skylines, but residents probably haven’t noticed unless they use Google Earth.

Downtown Spokane structures, from the historic U.S. Bank Building to the Spokane Convention Center, join dozens of Eastern Washington University and downtown Cheney buildings in an online database of 3-D models viewable through Google’s mapping program.

Other models depict non-building landmarks, including the oversized red wagon in Riverfront Park, the Monroe Street Bridge and the Vista House on Mount Spokane — all set against the terrain where they actually sit.

The models’ creators aren’t architects or developers: Using Google’s free SketchUp modeling software, three local men have created the renderings for personal reasons, ranging from fun to job-preparation and advocacy.

Whether people are interested in urban planning or just modeling their homes, almost anyone with a few spare hours, a reasonably fast, Web-connected computer and a digital camera can join them by adding to the digital downtowns of Google Earth.

“When I first saw them, it was like, wow, this is cool,” said Jason Wong, a senior at Mt. Spokane High School. “Once a big area gets built up, it will look like a virtual Spokane.”

SketchUp, released in August 2000, aims to offer an intuitive approach to 3-D modeling, although users sacrifice some of the advanced capabilities of pricey modeling software.

Like many users, Wong began by rendering his house. Then he tackled Red Lion Hotels’ headquarters.

“It wasn’t really that hard,” Wong said. “Google had a lot of video tutorials.”

Modelers use SketchUp’s drawing tools to create the basic structures or objects, tying them to geographic locations in Google Earth. They then paste digital photos of building faces onto them as “textures.”

Some modelers, like Cheney resident Ron Hall, use high-resolution photos and add features like trees and benches, making models that take longer to load. Semi-retired Spokane resident Gary Morton, 63, has modeled dozens of buildings, including the Review Tower block and the 18-story Wells Fargo tower.”I want to start with buildings that are prominent that everybody who comes to the city notices fairly soon,” he said.

Only models that meet Google requirements load automatically in Google Earth. To see them, users must check the “3D Buildings” layer boxes in the lower-left toolbar.

Other models must be manually imported from Google’s 3D Warehouse, an online model catalogue.

In Spokane, modelers work largely independently. Wong’s SketchUp experience last summer helped land him a job modeling houses for a small Spokane Valley architecture firm, he said. He plans to study architecture at Washington State University.

For 54-year-old Hall, who spent decades designing golf courses, SketchUp presents opportunities for “web advocacy.”

Last year, critics worried a proposed tower would overshadow a massive solar array on the remodeled Saranac Building in downtown Spokane. Hall’s intricate Saranac mock-up could be used to model that, he said.

Hall modeled dozens of buildings at Eastern Washington University, where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in computer science and urban planning, through Google’s “Model Your Campus” competition. Through an internship with the City of Cheney, he modeled much of its historic downtown.

He predicts more municipalities will turn to Google Earth. Planners, for example, could see how buildings elsewhere would fit in their cities.

Local architects also use SketchUp as a quick way to convey ideas. The Web site of Spokane-based Nystrom, Olson Collins,, shows renderings of proposed retail and condominium projects modeled with the software.

“We use it a lot for pre-design,” said principal Matthew Collins. “We can show them what their proposed project is going to look like without spending a whole lot of time.”

Modelers here chat through e-mail to make sure they don’t duplicate efforts. The “best model trumps,” Hall said.

“A lot of times when I tell people what I’m doing, they think I’m a geek, because it’s just kind of like they’re more interested in video games,” Wong said. “It’s actually like brain candy for me.”