Google’s SketchUp Goes to Work for Green Buildings

Michelle Kaufman's mkLotus design in SketchUp

Back in 2006, when Google acquired startup @Last and its 3-D modeling product, SketchUp, most observers saw it as a nice add-on for Google Earth, perfect for “hobbyists and enthusiasts.” But since then, the SketchUp program has blossomed into a tool in its own right, used by design professionals to fashion everything from consumer products to urban landscapes to country homes.

Green design professionals are particularly taken with the program. Widely praised by architecture and design community for its “intuitive” nature, SketchUp, one of the few 3D rendering programs on the market, is also by far the easiest one to use. And its integration with Google Earth and the Google 3D Warehouse have elevated the program from a simple design tool to a location-based, product-inclusive architectural design powerhouse.  As a result, SketchUp is nurturing a growing ecosystem of green design startups.

Begin at the beginning
Getting energy, water and carbon information into the design process early on was once a costly, if not impossible, endeavor. But the sooner modeling and analysis tools are involved in the process, the bigger the questions are that designers can ask, and the more impact they can have on the final design.

“The software tool you choose is always going to arise from the question that you’re asking,” says Chris Meek, a University of Washington professor who heads up the Integrated Design Lab in Seattle. “What role do these tools have in their design process? What’s it going to affect in the design?”

Out of the box, SketchUp offers some great features for green design, which the cleantech-happy Google has been quick to promote. Because it integrates smoothly with Google Earth, SketchUp users can punch in the actual latitude and longitude of their project site to visualize buildings in their real-life context. That not only helps designers communicate to their clients how the project will look, but allows them to accurately model how nearby landscape features and structures will cast shadows over the building — useful for fine-tuning a building’s site orientation or window placement to cut energy use, or for positioning solar panels.

The proof is in the plug-in
A handful of startups (and even the federal government) are working to soup up the SketchUp toolbar with energy analysis plug-ins that support even more detailed information about materials used and spatial relationships within the building. For the startups, it’s a way to raise visibility for their own proprietary tools.

Integrated Environmental Systems Solutions (IES) offers VE-Ware, a free energy and carbon analysis tool that benchmarks designs against the energy reduction goals of the Architecture 2030 Challenge, as a free Windows-only plug-in. The professional versions of IES’s Virtual Environment software can provide more detailed analysis and its consulting practice can help make sense of the data analysis for those new to the world of green building design.

Demeter, an energy analysis plug-in from Greenspace, lets users dig deeper into how much energy their design might use by taking into account details such as surface materials. By gathering this kind of information, the program allows architects to quickly export the model to Green Building Studio, a sophisticated analysis program developed by Greenspace Green Building Studio Inc. that was acquired by Autodesk (s ADSK) in June, and run a complete energy modeling analysis report. (Since it requires users to export their data, this plug-in isn’t available for those using the free version of SketchUp. The Pro version, which integrates presentation tools and allows users to export their models into other design programs, costs $495 a pop.)

It’s what’s inside that counts
With a growing number of green designers using SketchUp, green building product manufacturers have gotten into the game as well. SketchUp integrates seamlessly with the Google 3D Warehouse, and as architects pull together models of their home designs, they can stock their models with everything from paint to doors to dishwashers from its reserves. Need a toilet for your bathroom model? Find one in the 3D Warehouse and download it into SketchUp.

For the many startup companies marketing green building products, SketchUp can be an inexpensive way to break into the market. While not every green building product manufacture is already SketchUp savvy, the easy-to-use program lowers the bar for learning. If that’s still too much of a challenge, Blue Marble Project is one startup aiming to get green building product companies into this market. Started by the guys who launched Go2School, an educational podcast series on using SketchUp, Blue Marble Project creates models of a company’s products with information about their size, shape, surfaces, environmental properties and even their SKU numbers. The company, launched in 2007, has been gradually adding new clients, including Whirlpool and West Elm, according to co-founder Mike Tadros.

While integration with Google Earth allows SketchUp to position digital models in the real world, the 3D Warehouse lets green design move the other direction as well.

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