As a community development worker, I’m always looking for new tools that can help bridge the gap between donors, technical experts, policy makers and communities. At the same time, I have a strong belief in the principles of Appropriate Technology and try to keep my work as low-tech as possible for fear of alienating people because of unnecessary complexity, excessive cost or technical skill required for completing a particular task. As a person who has used GIS for nearly 20 years, I have found more times than not a simple hand-drawn sketch map can accomplish the same or more in less time than a scale map overlaid on high resolution satellite images – especially in a community workshop setting. Nonetheless, there are times when accuracy counts and clarity matters, such as when communicating with government agencies or policy-makers. Additionally, one could argue that the longer the design process remains the hands of stakeholders the more satisfied they will be in the end product.
Recently, I have discovered a new tool that I believe could find a good home among community development and relief workers. Sketchup (formerly Google Sketchup) is a software program that makes it easy to create and share 3D models. It’s is available as a freeware version (SketchUp Make), a paid version with additional functionality (SketchUp Pro) and a free beta online version at http://my.sketchup.com. It’s compatible with Mac and PC and can be run on Linux using Wine (a MS Windows compatibility layer). Professional engineering/drafting program such as Autocad will set you back about $380 per year and comes with a much steeper learning curve. Sketchup on the other hand is easy to learn, thanks to millions tutorials on YouTube (1,800,000 to be exact) and you can’t beat the price (free).
Autocad is designed for creating blueprints for buildings, airplanes, toasters, etc. Sketchup on the other hand focused on creating the easiest way to draw in 3D. I have found Sketchup to be an excellent tool to work between end-users and engineers and architects by providing end users much better means to communicate their vision. It allows end users the ability to visualize, think through and adapt many design problems on their own and saves the time and expense of having engineers and/or architects thinking through all these details.
I’ve been using the freeware version for the past couple of years and have found it able to do most of things I want it to. Connected to Sketchup is an extensive database of millions of user created and shared models including houses, cars, plants, lights, animals, people, furniture, industrial equipment, etc. All it takes is a few clicks to add any model to your Sketchup project. Sketchup also makes it easy to create scale models of existing buildings through its connection to Google Earth which allows you to import a scale basemap of any location on earth. Once in the model it’s easy to quickly reproduce buildings and the layout of entire communities, trees, plants and all! Once created you can export your 3D project as an real-to-life image or as a Google Earth KMZ file which can be opened and viewed in 3D in it’s proper location on the earth. Sketchup models can also be printed using a 3D printer.
Wind turbines created in Sketchup and modeled in Google Earth. Source: http://stigmergist.blogspot.com/2013/06/modelling-windfarms-with-sketchup-and.html
Now that you have a better idea what Sketchup is all about, below are some ways I feel Sketchup can be used as a tool by community development and relief workers.
1. For collaborative design, using it to build consensus, work through problem and generally “bring-to-life’ the ideas expressed by community stakeholders that can then be shared with donors, policymakers, architects, engineers and contractors.
Sketchup can greatly facilitate collaborative design efforts by giving people a more accurate and “true-to-life” representations than hand-drawn sketches, it can also give community members more control over the design process by enabling them to work through more of the nuts and bolts issues that can more readily be revealed with a 3D model such as issues with access, functionality, maintenance, wear and tear, etc.
Above: A model of a biogas latrine built by EWB at Shirali Primary Primary School in Kenya. Still under construction. Model will change a bit. (click on model to enable 3D view)
2. For communicating with donors and policy makers
Sketchup can be a powerful tool to express community needs to donors and policymakers by making outcomes more visible and tangible. It also creates greater accountability by giving communities and donors a clearer, more measurable expectation of outcomes.
Above: Plan for community gardens located at the Genesee Valley Farm Discovery Center. (click on model to enable 3D view)
3. For Development Communication and Education
Sketchup can be a great tool for development communication and education by empowering community workers to model realistic scenarios related to public health, community dynamics, visioning, etc. With the millions of models available in Sketchup’s 3D Wharehouse one can easily drag and drop latrines, hand wash stations, wells, farm animals, cars, etc. for use in educational slides, posters, handouts, videos, etc.
4. For planning temporary facilities and shelters in relief situations.
Sketchup is an excellent tool to plan temporary facilities and shelters in a relief scenario because of the ability to situation Sketchup projects to-scale in Google Earth. This combined with the ability to drag and drop “pre-designed” models for tents, latrines, water tanks, offices, etc. makes it possible to literally drag and drop to-scale models on an exact location on the earth, facilitating both rapid collaboration and design.
Above: Model of Italian army refugee camp. (click on model to enable 3D view)
Whether you’re a community development/relief worker or not, I recommend trying out the free Sketchup software and share your experience in the comment section below. If you’re interested in topics discussed in this post check out our online class “Technology and Community Development” which is part of our online certificate program in Sustainable Community Development.