We spent a while testing out house-design drawing packages with limited success – most seemed to be either full 3D solid-modelling CAD systems with a learning curve like the North face of the Eiger or trivial little 2.5D* “My new home designer” software that would limit you to little more than a simple box.

Then a post on a forum somewhere lead us to Sketchup. We downloaded the free trial (full program, limited to 8 hours use), watched the training videos and were just amazed by how powerful and yet easy to use it is. It’s not a full CAD package – rather (as the name implies) a 3D sketching tool but it’s so versatile and intuitive to use that true 3D models just grow before your eyes!

Nice as the interface is, the real killer app for us is the shadow generation – enter the location of your property (longitude and latitude), choose a date and let the program instantly calculate the sun’s position through the day. Drag the time slider across to see how sunlight and shadow change from dawn to dusk, or set a time (eg. noon) and watch how the sun’s position changes through the seasons. After seeing this, how could anyone attempt to design a passive solar house without it?!

To be honest we were a bit reluctant to get too attached to it at first because the purchase price for the full version was Au$705 – high enough to make us think twice! – but in the context of designing and building a new house well worth it. So back in March we went ahead and bought a copy… and at almost exactly the same time Google bought the company (@Last Software) for “an undisclosed sum”.

Now I see Google has released a new version, like most Google products free for personal use: Google SketchUp free. If only we’d waited a little longer! Oh well, it was worth it, and the price of computer hardware and software is falling all the time (not usually quite that fast though!). And perhaps the free version is limited in some way. I’ll install a copy on the laptop and find out…

I’ll be putting up some screen dumps of the Sketchup design, and the model file itself if anyone’s interested. Here’s a preview:

Sketchup model house design as at 18 June 2006
* 2.5D – Two and a half dimensions – ie. you can draw out the layout of each floor, set a ceiling height and stack the floors on top of each other. The problem is: what if you want different parts of the floor at different heights, or voids with windows extending up two storeys, or indeed anything vaguely out of the ordinary…

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