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SketchUp as a sustainable development platform? Yup.

What do SketchUp and sustainable development have in common? Well, before we can talk about that, let’s begin with an understanding of the word ‘sustainability’ because depending on who you talk to, you’ll likely get a different definition every time.

I spent much of my bachelor’s degree in natural resource management learning about that ambiguous (murky, elusive?) word and have refined it down to a practical definition.

Sustainability is a catch-all phrase for anything dealing with the long term viability of the world’s natural resources and how humans interact with and use those resources. Now, apply that definition to urban development specifically and you have a solid framework for sustainable development.

Unsustainable development river pollution

Unsustainable development resulting in harmful river pollution. Source

Why should we care about sustainable development?

Sustainable development aims to mitigate the adverse effects of urban development so often causes. It’s a planning process that considers what impacts development will ultimately have on land, water, and air quality in years to come through ways of habitat fragmentation, food production, water runoff, energy consumption, and air pollution (among others). In short, sustainable development begs the question: “What’s the best form of development that affects the least amount of stakeholders?”

Sustainable development begs the question: “What’s the best form of development that affects the least amount of stakeholders?”

How does SketchUp foster sustainable development?

Thanks to its API and general ease of use, SketchUp has been used (both directly and indirectly) as a design platform for sustainable development. One fairly direct way that SketchUp can help foster sustainable development is through energy efficiency modeling, also known as building performance modeling.

SketchUp is also the preferred design tool of the tiny house community. This is a movement that mitigates the negative effects of development by minimizing the footprint of new residences. These are two very different use cases of SketchUp, but they both have direct impacts on sustainable development. Let’s take a closer look at both…

Energy efficiency in buildings.

As buildings around the world continue to get bigger and bigger, so do their energy demands. Residential and commercial buildings require immense amounts of energy to heat and cool their interiors depending on the climate region they’re located in.

Average state summer and winter temperatures

NOAA's temperature data displays a dramatic variation between the average summer and winter temperatures in the U.S.

Depending on the geographical location, climate plays a huge role in the energy requirements and performance of a building. For instance, designers in Colorado must consider both scorching summer heat and frigid winter cold, while their peers in Florida only have to worry about the former. Building materials are another big factor constituting how energy efficient a building will or won’t be. For instance, glass buildings will be more heavily affected by temperature in areas with a lot of sunshine.

How SketchUp fits into sustainable development and energy efficiency.

Since the release of our API in 2004, SketchUp has welcomed third-party developers to tailor SketchUp to achieve their personal needs. Doing so has led to some amazing third-party extensions available on the Extension Warehouse. More importantly, it’s led to expanding the functionality of SketchUp in very specific areas, like sustainable development. We wish we’d thought of these extensions ourselves on our own, but we’re happy to give credit where credit is due.

In combination with some awesome extensions like Sefaira and IESVE, SketchUp is able to compute a building’s energy efficiency by factoring in things like building location, orientation, daylighting models, and building materials. These extensions can also calculate carbon emissions and they even support LEED analysis. With these analysis tools at their fingertips, architects can make highly intelligent decisions from the beginning of a development project through to the very end.

SketchUp running the Sefaira extension

Daylighting analysis in Sefaira, a real-time building performance tool that analyzes SketchUp geometry as its being modeled.

Tiny house, big movement.

As sustainable development focuses on making smarter development decisions, a parallel movement is occurring for houses that are smart, in part because they are small... tiny for that matter. If you haven’t heard of the tiny house movement, check out this article and see how it’s been sweeping the nation.

SketchUp spent the weekend at the Tiny House Conference in Portland several months back, and let’s just say the experience was sort of like showing up to a surprise family reunion. We’ve always known SketchUp is used to design tiny houses but had no idea it had become the unofficial “official” tool of choice. We left the conference with a new appreciation for a community we didn’t really know too much about, but they sure knew about us.

A row of tiny houses

A row of tiny houses on display at the Tiny House Conference in Portland, OR.

As this movement continues, more and more people are losing sight of the traditional American Dream House and are choosing to minimize their living space in order to maximize their lives in other ways. Whether their intention is to live a more sustainable life or not, smaller residential footprints have a real impact on resource consumption.

American Dream House

We continue to be blown away by the functions and features our users build into SketchUp through our API and SDK. We’re even more blown away with what our users actually design every single day. In this case, we're stoked there are people out there using SketchUp to design for sustainable development. We like to think we’re sustainable by riding our bikes to work on most days, but it’s our users who actually make SketchUp a platform for sustainable development.

About the Author

Stephen joined SketchUp in January of 2015 as part of parent company Trimble's Leadership Development Rotation Program. One of his big projects was helping create the spiffy new blog site that you see today.

Profile Photo of Stephen Grant