Google SketchUp for Site Design

Daniel Tal, RLA, ASLA, recently published “Google SketchUp for Site Design: A Guide to Modeling Site Plans, Terrain, and Architecture” (Wiley & Sons). The 350-page how-to tutorial covers everthing from drawing lines to developing “expressive” models through SketchUp’s modeling process. SketchUp, a 3D modeling program developed by Google, is often used by designers and planners to construct graphic illustrations for detailed site planning. SketchUp can be used to create detailed site plans as well as videos of site plan walk-throughs.

Those who buy the book also get links to SketchUp exercises, and free downloadable SketchUp models. The tutorial can accomodate all levels — from beginner to expert SketchUp users.

Daniel Tal incorporated the work of two independent landscape architects, Carol McClanahan and Natalie Vaughn, as pilot tutorial users. (Also, check out an interview with Daniel Tal on Google SketchUp).

The tutorial has four parts:

Introduction to SketchUp provides a “basic understanding of the SketchUp concepts,” from how to generate lines, create shapes, forms, and objects, to using tools and adding components. Also included is a section on how to use Ruby Scripts (aka Rubies). Custom tools developed by SketchUp and other program users are either offered for free or for a nominal fee. There are instructions on how to download.

Introduction to SketchUp Process Modeling is “a methodology for working with SketchUp.” The method is organized into three processes: “constructing a model in a logical order, adding detail by using available resources, and organizing a model to maintain computer performance and a clean 3D workspace.” A basic understanding of process modelling is critical before delving into more advanced model techniques.

The section begins by simply focusing on surfaces and objects and changing models from 2D to 3D scales. Later sections in “Introduction to SketchUp Process Modelling” focus on developing detailed site planning by adding details that can portray the built environment and turn a flatwork base into 3D. In addition, details such as textures, materials, and shadow effects, can be added. Customized items, including lighting, signage, window display, and other architectural elements can also be included.

Sandbox Tools “are powerful versatile tools for creating organic geometry,” and “refer to edges and faces composed to simulate the appearance of irregular forms and objects.” Sandbox tools enable users to add vertical depth to models, from gentle to overarching slopes. This section is complex and difficult to master — users need to be able to construct digital elevation to represent terrain. However, the use of this tool may stimulate the development of more intense graphics. It’s useful, especially for landscape architects, because users can display grade changes to show ramps, driveways, walkways, and other slope changes. In addition, the sandbox tool enables the use of various geometric shapes, including walls, building, and other structures. It also enablers users to create complex canopies and architecture surfaces and building details.

AutoCAD to SketchUp shows how to utilize these two design programs efficiently to create 3D models. Files from both programs are highly compatible, which enables users to develop detailed site modeling. This part introduces how to organize and import/export files and how to transform and convert files. Organizing files is a crucial yet time-consuming process when working between these two programs. However, with well-organized filing structures, storing and editing plans can make the process much easier. Some parts of the process “rely on five custom Ruby Scripts that are essential when working in tandem with both software platforms.”

What the tutorial lacks (and to be fair this is not it’s primary intent), is a detailed set of instructions on how to use and incorporate sustainable design tools. Some tools already exist. For instance, earlier this year Google Earth added CO2 emissions data from Purdue University’s Vulcan project into its interactive maps.  Google also just announced a new set of layers and video tours for Google Earth that demonstrate the potential effects of climate change.

However, as far as we know, other tools don’t exist. A good next step for sustainable landscape architecture would be tools and applications that are both compatible with Google and Autodesk and enable sustainable site performance analysis.

Currently, there are building performance software that are compatible with AutoDesk and can be used to assess and evaluate energy and water usage. Sustainable site performance software should also be made available to assess and evaluate site design during the actual design process. Useful tools could track a site’s ability to conserve water, clean air, sequester C02 emissions through soils and plants, increase biodiversity, create resiliency through plant diversity, and measure financial rates of return on environmental investments. These applications could inform designers of site environmental constraints prior to site construction while maximizing energy and water efficiency.

In terms of building design, Autodesk is already investing heavily in adding sustainable building design capabilities into its software. Fast Company recently spoke with Dawn Danby, a developer of Ecotect Analysis and Green Building Studio, Autodesk’s performance modeling software, which can be used to model and evaluate energy emissions and water usage. Danby said: “Whole-building energy analysis has to date required a huge amount of time by an expert who looks at a 3-D model after it’s been designed, then tells you how the building is going to operate and how much carbon it will produce. But after you’ve designed something all the way through, it’s hard to tweak at the end. Ecotect lets you do a pretty quick pass on a building when it matters, at the beginning, based on a running analysis of how the shadows fall and the wind moves through that space.”

Review research conducted by Elizabeth Lee, ASLA 2009 Advocacy and Communications Intern.

Image credit: Daniel Tal

2 thoughts on “Google SketchUp for Site Design

  1. Matt 09/24/2009 / 10:48 am

    Good information – Thanks for the post!

  2. Rosheen 09/30/2009 / 11:36 am

    Google did not develop Sketchup. They purchased the product from the original developers, a small company out of Colorado.

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