Ever since I can remember, I have enjoyed interacting with nature, and working with nature to help her along. With a long background in computing, including designing intricate fault tolerant systems, it is second nature for me to also enjoy the challenge of using technology as a tool for solving problems. So when it comes to applying permaculture to my designs, I couldn't help wonder if I could find some IT tools to help me with my designs.

Now it has to be said, that my drawing and artistic skills are somewhat lacking, so what better place to start than looking for a drawing program.  It is clear however that 3-dimentional representation can give a better picture and helps to spot design flaws more easily than a 2-dimention drawing. So I set out on a challenge – to see if something in cyberspace could help me and others in a similar position.

All of my computers run the Ubuntu Linux operating system (aside from it being free of charge, it’s also in sync with permaculture ethics) so whatever I find, must run in this environment. It’s also my preference that it’s open source so it’s an ethically cheap solution for all… no craked illegal software here…! Although I’m computer literate, I found professional Computer Aided Design (CAD) software not at all intuitive and way to difficult to get to grips with, without significant amounts of research and training.

Then I found Sketchup. Okay, it’s not open source (currently owned by Google) but it is free, and there is a good open source community developing addons and generally helping to move the product on from a user perspective. Sketchup runs on Windows and Mac, but not Linux, so I had to install it under the wine windows emulator.

Initial feeling was that it seemed very intuitive, and I was quickly up and running. Then I realised as I progressed, simple things became long winded and frustrating, and there were many things I was constantly repeating. A quick google search, and then I realized that there are lots of hidden tricks to sketchup. These tricks are well thought through and make many tasks easy. For example; drawing a square of exact size is just a case of drawing the shape and then typing in the dimensions after. This works for many things, such as resizing objects, moving objects, etc

If you eally want to get to grips with sketchup, a very important thing to master is making sure things are on the right plane. Working in 3D can get a little confusing but once you get your head around it, it’s fine.

One examplee of its flexibility, is that it allows you to grab a google map and import it along with its topology. The first obvious advantage is it sets your location and orientation automatically. Setting orientation and location is useful as you can then get accurate shadow overlays for any time of year, setting a time lapse to show sun/shade movements!

With time and experience you can very quickly make a basemap for your designs (see light centre basemap on the left, which I made instantly as people were giving me measurements). My helpers were shocked when 60 seconds after reading out the last measurement, they came over to see I had completed a 3D map of the space.

Other useful features, for permaculture designers is making layers (overlays). By switching layers on or off you can show selected details (ie seasons, text labels, project implementation phases, etc..).

Once you get into making your designs, you realise many tasks can be repetitive. Luckily, the chances are someone else has already had the same problem and found a solution or made a plugin to fix the problem. Often these solutions are shared for free as plugin modules (some of the more complicated solutions, you may need to pay for). A good example of a free plugin, is to address if you want to place a particular object (i.e. a plant or tree) 5 meters apart along a contour, or place a given number of water butts in a row. To achieve this you can use the copypath module. If your needs are a little more complex and you want to place a series of plants or any other objects on a the surface of a non flat surface (i.e. A huglekulture or a hillside) use the drop plugin.

Learning sketchup is quite simple, as there are lots of online videos covering the basics as well as more advanced features; there are many web tutorials, books, etc, covering more or less everything you need to know.

So my advise would be to go out there and play, experiment, try making simple designs. Have fun with it.

Life is also made easy for you as there are many ready made components of trees, shrubs, buildings, ponds, etc, all of which are free to download.

However there are some hhortfalls. There is a distinct lack of Permaculture plants for a temperate climate in the sketchup repository. And those that are there are often too detailed, which takes up memory and slows app down.

Hence I would like to propose a solutions/collaborations
. We get together to make up a repository of simple temperate climate appropriate Permaculture plants and structures
. We can also make plants with in built layers, so you can show what the landscape will look like in full bloom, when fruiting, in winter (depending on if it is evergreen or not), etc.
. If you want to be very flash, you could even label the layer according to time it flowers or fruits, so you can step through month by month to see how the landscape changes

If you are a bit more geeky, and you find a feature that you need does not exist. Then why not write your own plugins. Sketchup makes use of the ruby programming language, which is very neat and useful if you know how to use it.

. Free for now
. Works on windoze, Linux and Mac
. Easy to learn, but needs a little time to master it
. Lots of help on the net
. Making 3D can be time consuming, so start designs in 2D, play with element connections in 2D, then once you have some basic pattern then spend time making it 3D if necessary


Have fun with it


Rakesh Rootsman Rak