Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Google Sketch-up: Model your world?
Hana Loftus, 8 Nov 06
Article Photo

Researching for this article, I started to lose count of the number of times WorldChanging has talked about simulation, games, scenario planning and open source, in various combinations. Here’s Jamais on serious games, climate games, urban planning games, open source Civilisation and SimCity, to namecheck just a few of his fantastic contributions on this subject.

But surprisingly we haven’t touched on a development that I’m sure most readers are already aware of – the use of Google Earth and Google’s recent purchase of SketchUp to model buildings in cities, and allow any user to simulate the view from their window when that skyscraper goes up. Sarah touched on OGLE but this year’s architect dream-tool has gone unmentioned – so I’m correcting that.

A fantastic tool for a more participatory urban planning system, surely. Google SketchUp (catchphrase: ‘Model your world’) has a free and a pro paid-for version, alongside an online warehouse of buildings that people have already designed, such as the new Hearst Tower by Foster and Partners in NYC, as well as components like doors, cars, even standard house types. Many architects were already using the pro version to produce 3D images of their proposals for clients and planning committees, so it has unleashed a world of possibilities for open-sourcing this process, putting information in the public domain and allowing the public to participate, in a fully informed way, in urban planning issues. (At least, that section of the population that knows how to use Google Earth.)

So, instead of the heavily manipulated Photoshop renderings taken from flattering viewpoints (yup, I’ve done this too) to make big buildings look smaller, modern ones more ‘traditional’ or controversial ones more innocuous, in Google Earth anyone can spin 360 degrees around the site and find all the other views, the ones where that new block really does look ugly, block the sunlight, or constrain development on the plot next door. Here in London, we have something called ‘strategic views’ that are protected by law and any building that might affect them already has to be modelled in 3D as an official ‘accurate visual representation’ and shown to the authorities as if you were standing at a precisely defined position. When will the authorities start demanding that they be modelled in Google Earth and put genuinely in the public domain?

But there's a caveat. When anyone can quickly mock-up a new development in their neighbourhood, who’s to say if they’ve got it right? You hear that a developer is planning a 25-storey tower on your block, but as an amateur you might model it with the wrong floor-to-ceiling heights, or footprint, profile, texture, fenestration - all things that make a huge difference to how that building will actually look. Then you put it out there for all your neighbours to see and suddenly a bunch of people are filing complaints on the basis of bad information. Scaremongering has happened easily like this already, with opponents of new development putting out rival Photoshops that are as carefully stage-managed as any architect’s.

Still, on the more utopian side, there’s the possibility to model whole scenarios of urban or rural change – from floodplain simulations to the physical impact of greenbelt policies, public transport infrastructure or other acts of urban planning – and get them out there for public debate, quickly and simply. It will be interesting to see if Google Earth does become the common platform for this, replacing the current plethora of modelling and scenario-testing 3D platforms out there.

Bookmark and Share


I can see this being useful for proponents of wind farms. The NIMBY problem can be such a huge issue; perhaps a Google mock-up (along with video of actual existing farms) could win over some opponents.

Posted by: mazatec on 8 Nov 06

Thanks, Hana - I don't think that Sketch-Up was available at the time I was writing here, so I'm very pleased to see you giving it its due!

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 8 Nov 06

Great post Hannah. Perhaps much of Sketch-Up's value is the power it gives to create and discard mock-ups. I work with the pro version of Sketch-Up, with a CAD package called Vectorworks and with energy-modeling software called Energy-10. I feel that computer-aided drafting is no big deal, but computer-aided erasing is just great. The more iterative the design process - the more informed by feedback and revision - the better.

Posted by: David Foley on 8 Nov 06

Anyone wondering about the efficacy of GoogleEarth and SketchUp should open up GoogleEarth and take a look at the St. Louis arch with the 3d buildings layer turned on. It shows up as a big slab, not entirely like the one in '2001: A Space Odyssey'

Posted by: Paul Mitchum on 8 Nov 06

One of my lifelong accomplishments it to have introduced Sketchup and Ben Harper to more friends than I can remember! Yes. Sad but true.

Seriously — I love Sketchup ! I've been a big fan since version 1.0 (quite awhile before WorldChanging saw the light, Jamais...).

In contrast to publishing your designs to Google earth, the opposite is also interesting and powerful: modeling from existing images. You can see a very clear tutorial here

Amazing stuff.

Posted by: Serge de Gheldere on 9 Nov 06

Maybe it just wasn't available for the Mac at that point, Serge.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 9 Nov 06

The collaborative aspect is what is most interesting to me about this tool. It is a great example of how individual collaboration creates a greater whole some thing the folks at WC know a lot about. Check out this other really awsome collaborative tool MS is working one this one based on 2D Photography being represented in a 3D mash-up.

Posted by: Stiven (sustainableday) on 9 Nov 06



MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg