BOOK: The use of Animation (computer software) in Teaching Sustainable Architecture (Education for Sustainability) in Secondary Schools, with specific reference to the Sun.

This section includes research done by the author with secondary school students in a Design and Visual Communication class. The software Sketch-up (freeware) was used to explore animation, shadows and shading, deciduous landscaping,  and the decisions of students were analysed in the process. The objective of the research is to learn how to develop the sustainability concepts of students; how to improve their understanding of sustainable design principles as well as the consequences and effects of design decisions.       

Important:  Share and share alike license. You are not allowed to publish this research or any part thereof. Not for commercial use!   

Above Image: Typical Sketch-up Make model (freeware - design software ). Simple, sustainable house design showing shadows and shading to explain shading during the different seasons of the year (autumn season-no leaves on a deciduous tree). The intention is to Illustrate the use of a single deciduous tree to the north of the building. More trees and shrubs are required to make deciduous landscaping successful. However, this model illustrates the concept in simple terms. Location Southern hemisphere. See the arc with a movable light (round cylinder mounted on the bar) to the front of the building. The test can be done by moving the light or adjusting the arc's size or position (indoors application). The light represents the sun, and tests can be done inside a building with a mock-up or model without having a sunny day. Sketch-up has the tools to explore this function and includes options like seasons, time of day, date, and more.   Credit: W van Zyl   

Very short and simple tutorial showing shadow manipulation in Sketch-up. 

Book cover by the author (draft): Animation and Sustainable Architecture. Published.  

Link to the ebook: 

Research Title: 

The Implementation of Animation (computer software) in Teaching Sustainable Architecture (Education for Sustainability) with specific reference to the sun. 


The focus of the study is with secondary school students and the use of Sketch-up (computer aided software) exploring shadows and shading and the choice of sustainable building materials, the selection of sustainable components, and considering key elements. It includes decision making around maximising sustainable features and functions in architectural design.


In this study, the researcher has endeavoured to investigate and to explore how animation (simulation) could be used effectively to teach Sustainable Architecture in Secondary School (NCEA level 2, New Zealand). The student age ranged from between16 – 17 years of age in this study. The three-dimensional environment (testing shadows and shading) and the final result (sustainable restaurant) were used to measure, to critique, to evaluate and to analyse the design decisions made by students when designing their own sustainable restaurant. The “thinking processes“ (critical thinking) which eventually influenced design decisions, before and after a unit of work on animation was delivered to students in the Graphics class (Design and Visual communication), were investigated. This research analysed the data collected during this study, the results were assessed and disseminated, and some recommendations are made on how to use this technique or how to improve student’s design decisions techniques. The focus was specifically on sunlight and the impact thereof on the restaurant during specific times during the day, which included specific seasons (summer and winter). The two different seasons, for example, summer and winter, and the impact of the sun on the building were explored and studied during this research project. The result of the study showed an increase in understanding on how the sun impacts the building and the effect it has on the building when using simulation software. It was also clear that simulation developed the in-depth thinking processes of students regarding Education for Sustainability (EfS) and Environmental Education for Sustainability (EEFS). There was a significant change in the perception of sustainability before and after the unit on animation was delivered. The software, Google Sketch-up (computer aided design program) used in this study, was very successful in obtaining answers to the questions on the effect of animation on Education for Sustainability in general. Students were fully engaged and were able to change and manipulate several variables like the position of deciduous trees, the position of louvers, the size of windows, Trombe walls, choice of building materials, etc. From this study, it became clear that the software used contributed significantly to enhancing teaching, specifically “Education for Sustainability” (EfS). An increase in the interpretation and understanding of different areas regarding the choice of sustainable materials, sustainable systems, sustainable landscaping, and the impact of the sun on the building were achieved. The research did support the two research questions:

1. Did the unit of work on simulation and animation develop the critical thinking skills of students?

2. Did the unit of work improved the student’s abilities to make informed decisions regarding sustainability and did they make successful modifications to their initial design work to enhance the sustainability features and functions?

The research also supported the common thread of EfS and EEFS namely: relevance of EfS; holistic approach; holistic curriculum approach, the role of values; issue-based learning; environmental action; critical education; and the future dimension in teaching Education for Sustainability as addressed by Tilbury (1995). In this study, the animation was evaluated and assessed against the notion and threads of EfS and EEFS, and the research refers to these threads throughout this study. The unit of work on animation improved the skills of students and assisted them to make informed decisions. They were able to modify their initial design successfully into a viable sustainable restaurant displaying significant improvement of sustainability and improving their design skills during the process.

Keywords and key phrases:

Google Sketch-up



Sustainable Architecture

Education for Sustainability (EfS)

Environmental Education for Sustainability (EEFS)

Shadows and Shading

Sun and Sustainability

Position of the Sun

Harvesting the Energy of the Sun

Deciduous Landscaping

Size and Position of Windows

Building Materials and the Sun   





Action research: The practitioner and the respondents

The action research in this study gave the researcher a sense of empowerment and fulfilment. The fact that the researcher could be actively involved in the process of developing critical assessment and evaluation skills of students, gave the researcher a sense of making a contribution towards sustainable practice in an educational setting. 

*Action research: "Can be described in short as studies carried out in the course of an activity or occupation, typically in the field of education, to improve the methods and approach of those involved.

Carr and Kemmis (1986);Grundy (1987) as cited in Cohen et al (2007a) claims that action research is strongly empowering, and emancipatory in that it gives practitioners a ‘voice’. They further state that the participation in decision-making and control over their environment and professional lives empower research practitioners. Respondents had full control over the environment (sustainable restaurant) they created. The self-reflection of students on their initial design and the impact the modifications they have made after the animation unit was multi-leveled. Not only did they consider aesthetics, design era, and an influential architect, but the challenge was to maximise sustainability in the restaurant design. They were challenged by fundamental environmental issues while mastering the animation tool in Google Sketch-up. It is this consciousness and awareness to sustainability and the attitude towards the environment that teachers are interested in to instil into students. The values and culture of students are shaped and refined in the process. It is the hope of the researcher that these activities would shape and cultivate responsible leadership and citizenship in our world.

Conclusions and Implications of the study

1. Did the unit on simulation and animation develop the critical thinking skills of students?

The delivery of the unit on animation to students and the practical implementation thereof showed a significant improvement and awareness of sustainable design practice. Students were able to improve on their initial design dramatically. The animation tool highlighted many possible sustainable features, sustainable materials and sustainable systems that could be implemented or improved by students. The most obvious in the animation was the position and the size of the windows. Students were able to see the shadows and the shading on the inside of the building. This allowed them to think about the materials on the inside of the building like the floors and interior walls. The critical thinking skills improved for most respondents. Overall there was an improvement to all initial designs from respondents. Ratings by students for improvements on their initial design ranged from 10% to 80%. Interviewee 1 had an average of 60 -80% improvement rate. Interviewee 2 showed an average increase of 10% to 40%. Interviewee 3 showed an increase of 10% to 40% and lastly interviewee 4 showed an increase of 10% to 40%. This is a clear indication that the animation increased the critical thinking skills of most students. The observations and documentation support this conclusion. The question which showed the biggest improvement was on sustainable landscaping (deciduous trees and shrubs). When students used the sliders (shadows) they realised that the building would be very hot during summer. Deciduous landscape design was the obvious solution to this problem. The animation software made students aware of this fact. The improvement rate reported by students on this specific question was 50% to 80%. In general, most aspects as discussed in the literature review were evident during this study.

2. Did the unit of work improve the student’s abilities to make informed decisions and modifications to their initial design?

After the students completed the animation, assessed their designs, and had some peer feedback, there was a significant improvement to their initial design. When calculating the difference (improvement) of the 4 interviewees before and after the modifications to their initial design, there was an average improvement ranging from 20% to 80%. This is based on their self-review and the data collected from the questionnaires. Calculations were purely based on the information of the questionnaires. Percentages were calculated by comparing the self-review before and after the unit on animation were delivered. This shows a very strong improvement and shows that the animation program of Google sketch-up had a direct and positive impact on this specific respondent. It gives an indication of how the respondent perceived his/her skill development compared from before the animation to after the animation. The average overall increase, if expressed in percentage was 46%.

Although some of the results of the questionnaires show weak perceptions of respondents regarding the improvement that took place, it is possible that respondents realised after the unit on animation that the new improved design could still improve. Observation by the researcher showed that the four students in the interviews support this idea. During the interviews, students had their improved design in front of them on the computer screen and they could reflect when answering questions by the researcher. Students who answered the questionnaires online (all 7 of them) only had the questions in front of them when they completed the answers. This indicated that there could have been a lack of in-depth comparison between the initial and final design, as the interviewees have indicated. It could have been beneficial to have included copies of students the work (before and after) when they answered the questionnaire online. The possibility of students comparing the two images with each other could have influenced the outcome. The researcher thinks that this could have given a more accurate rate of the perception of students (questionnaires) on their improved design and the impact of animation. The interviews allowed for more reflection by students and more reflective and in-depth answers were given by respondents, hence the most detailed analysis given by respondents.

The refining of in-depth reasoning, reflexive techniques, and critical evaluation techniques of students were evident in the research process, as the observation and documentation of the interviews shows.


Google Sketch-Up is a relevant, useful, user-friendly and effective tool to teach sustainable architecture in secondary school. Simulations and animations in Sketch-Up are relevant and contemporary tools for teaching  the concepts of sustainability in secondary and primary schools. At the same time, animation software encompasses a holistic approach and guides students into the realm of multi-disciplinary research and investigation to solve a design brief (sustainable architecture). Animation teaches students values about sustainability and architecture. Students are prompted to think outside the square and are challenged by environmental issues regarding sustainability and architecture. For example, when choosing building materials, they have to consider the efficiency of the heatsink properties, as well as the possibility of recycling the building materials. Are the building materials renewable, in other words, can the recycled material be re-used and re-purposed (e.g. crush concrete and concrete blocks - use as hardcore filling or additive to new concrete). The software acts as a bridge for students to take action. In this setting, they have the opportunity to venture out and make some changes to their own design work based on their assessment and the stakeholder feedback. Students are challenged to be actively involved in the renewable and sustainability processes. For example, when they move the slider (Sketch-up Make Shadow Tool), they have to consider the impact on several areas simultaneously. Is the sun heating up the concrete floors and Trombe walls? Are the louvers effective to screen out the sun during hot summer days? Are the windows large enough to allow the sun into the building? Are the windows positioned correctly to the north (located in the southern hemisphere) or south (located in the northern hemisphere)? Are the deciduous trees tall enough, dense enough, close enough to the building, are the trees or shrubs grouped correctly to maximise the shading effect?  When the leaves of the deciduous trees are shed during the fall will it allow the sun to filter through the branches to successfully heat up the building (passive heating)?  

The animation tool develops critical thinking skills for developing concepts for sustainable architecture. Once the slider is moved the student is confronted with an ‘cause and effect’ situation. For instance, the student could realise that deciduous trees are a solution to screen the hot sun from a building during the summer months.

The program also guides students towards other subject areas, to investigate, and to explore. Hence the technical and social nature of the design brief, students are prompted to investigate the influence of other subject areas like, mathematics, science, biology, social sciences, to name a few. This holistic approach is a comprehensive strategy to research and investigate sustainable architecture and the many facets it entails.

In this study, the animation program develops and explores a future dimension in EEFS. Within the computer program, the student has the ‘power’ to make informed decisions which will influence the outcome in future. The program indirectly prompts the student to think about the probable future or outcome and the effect of the decisions made now will have in future.

The program also develops student’s geographical sense of time and space. Once the student chose the location (anywhere in the world) he or she has to investigate the climate and the weather. It means that students have to investigate climatology and weather patterns of a specific region in the world and tie it to their own design solutions.

Animation and simulation support the involvement of students ‘hearts, heads and hands’ for EfS. Although it is only a simulation, students are challenged to take action within their own design work. They are challenged to think pro-actively and come up with a solution.

Recommendations to secondary school teachers: Design and Visual Communication

Google Sketch-up and the simulation/animation tools is a very user-friendly option and easy to use for design work. This program could be implemented very effectively to teach Visual Design Communication (Graphics). As discussed, it lends itself to develop critical thinking skills and prompts reflection on design work. The challenge to educators, however, is to reflect constantly on their teaching practice and pedagogy, to maximise efforts in Education for Sustainability. 


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Van Zyl, W.N. (2016). The use of Animation (computer software) in Teaching Sustainable Architecture (Education for Sustainability) in Secondary Schools, with specific reference to the Sun. Published to on August, 13, 2016.