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The Lowdown on Sketchup

Create a full 3D model of your property with Google’s free 3D drawing software

By Christopher Thompson

Unfurling the much awaited architect’s plans is a defining moment in any Self Build project. Your dream home or extension leaves the world of imagination and becomes tangible - well, almost. Two dimensional plans are great for showing layout; the lounge leads to the hall; the bedroom has two windows etc. Visualising three dimensional concepts of space, volume and proportion from two dimensional plans, however, demands a little mental gymnastics of the reader. So not surprisingly it’s easy for people to end up with a slightly distorted vision of how large their property will look or how much space they’ll have. Indeed, following a build, I often hear one or other partner say ‘It looks bigger than I thought it would’ or ‘I wish we’d made the lounge a foot longer, we’ve got more space than I realised’.

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With the recent introduction of Google Sketchup software, ‘virtually’ building your house on your PC first may well be the answer. The software is free, great fun to use and surprisingly easy for any average ability computer user. Using Sketchup is like building your house for real, just a lot quicker, less messy and much less hassle if you what to make a change. You can make your model as realistic as you wish, add detail and texture and spin your model around to view it from any angle so you really get a feel of how it will look in all three dimensions. It’s a kind of Pixar Self Build.

With the recent introduction of Google Sketchup software, ‘virtually’ building your house on your PC first may well be the answer. The software is free, great fun to use and surprisingly easy for any average ability computer user. Using Sketchup is like building your house for real, just a lot quicker, less messy and much less hassle if you what to make a change. You can make your model as realistic as you wish, add detail and texture and spin your model around to view it from any angle so you really get a feel of how it will look in all three dimensions. It’s a kind of Pixar Self Build.

It’s simple to get started. If you have access to architect plans in Autocad .DWG or .DXF format, you can import the CAD file into Sketchup and literally build the walls straight up from the plan. If not, simple line and dimension tools will have your ground floor plan to scale in just a few clicks, and your virtual build can get underway.

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With a little imagination, you’ll find Sketchup a useful and versatile design tool. Starting with a quick, low detail model, for example, is great for visualising the external proportions of your build. I created the model in picture 3 in less than ten minutes, and decided that the proposed extension (shown in white) looked too large and visually overpowered the main building.

Once you’ve settled on your design, it won’t take long to add a little more detail and a few pre-created textures to turn your simple box model into an impressive life-like house. I used printouts of such a model to show neighbours and Parish Councillors. Because they saw exactly what was proposed and didn’t have to interpret (possibly wrongly) complex technical drawings, I managed to reassure my concerned neighbour and prevent a planning objection.

Further benefit from creating your life-like model is that friends and family will take a much greater interest in your project. Your Mum, your Granny or your mates may quickly glaze over when faced with daunting technical plans to decipher, but a series of realistic pictures will capture their imagination and instantly show them what you’re planning to build. Or, with a few more clicks of the mouse, where you’re building because your 3D model can integrate with the Google Earth satellite map – in situ and orientated accurately. (Don’t worry, not everyone will be snooping because only the people you allow will be able to see your model in Google Earth). However, email a link to friends or relatives, particularly those that aren’t local, and when they zoom into Google Earth on their PC, they really will see your house on the map exactly where you’re planning to build it.

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But such effort isn’t just for friends, family and neighbours. In the same way that Sketchup proved a useful tool to help you visualise space, it will also help you when considering light - arguably one of the most important but neglected aspects of design. Once you have your map orientation set correctly in Google Earth, Google Sketchup software will accurately plot the sun position for any time of the year. Your model will cast accurate shadows, so whether your proposed patio is going to be in full sun all day or whether the new extension is going to throw long shadows over your vegetable plot no longer needs to be a matter of guesswork, you can actually see for yourself before your first brick even goes down. If you want to know if the new patio doors you’re proposing are in the best place for catching the sun when you have your breakfast at 8am on March 15th, Sketchup will show you.

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Of course, internal spaces can be created just as easily as external. Creating every room may be a little over the top, but kitchens and bathrooms really do benefit from careful consideration. Creating your kitchen can reassure you that it really is going to be big enough to fit your table, dresser and island without being too cramped.

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And you don’t even have to spend time modelling kitchen units, dressers, chairs or fridges as there is a free online library of common models that, with a few clicks, will jump straight into your Sketchup file where you can re-dimension them and move them around at will to try different layouts.

By utilising a few Sketchup models in your design process you can take your plans into another dimension, literally, and previously hard to visualise concepts of space, proportion and light will become as easy to understand as layout. By building your home in the virtual world you can be sure there’ll be no surprises waiting when the walls go up for real.

I’ve found Google Sketchup easy to use, exceptionally useful and great fun too. It’s free, so you have nothing to lose if you fancy trying it out. If you want to get started,  click here to follow my getting started video tutorials.