Village of the Future: Climate Utopia

Maia Kumari Bree Chowdhury
7 min readMay 18, 2019

I am an architect who visualizes spaces into being. This week I had the opportunity to help with the crafting of an interactive climate change video game, in an ecovillage set hundreds of years in the future, in the Seattle, Washington area. I connected with a group already mid-stream in their creative process as part of the Pacific Science Center’s Seattle Indies Show & Tell and Games For Our Future Game Jam Showcase, and so my ideas piggy-backed onto theirs. I provided input through my favorite medium: SketchUp Pro. What I learned in the process will serve me well in the next steps in game development. If you’re into video games, SketchUp, climate change, or just love seeing fun visuals, follow along for a step-by-step of what I found worked, and what I will do differently in the next iteration. Thank you to Banging Rocks for the opportunity.

What will a village look like, in one thousand years?

My first step was to hear about the team’s work to date, and to ask questions that helped me to refine my understanding of the goals. Who is the game for? What is the desired feeling? How will someone interact with the spaces? Where should the ecovillage be located, even though spaces are already built? I had to let go of my current thinking and flow into the future-space which might be hundreds or a thousand years from now. With help from a friend in Seattle, I decided the space should be located near fresh water aquifers, close enough to the shore for boat access but not so close it would be underwater in a thousand years, and also not be too overly worried that I might be building right on top of someone’s present and beloved home. So, I chose a space that is currently almost 400 feet above sea level, in the Queen Anne neighborhood.

Seattle area elevations using the site

This ended up not really mattering in the end, because the video game is an abstraction of space. But, for my logical architecting mind, I needed to know that on some level, it could work, from a functional point of view.

My next step was to model some prototype structures, even though we had not fixed the layout in SketchUp yet. This had more to do with the fact that I needed to get some test-fit objects over to Daniel for him to pop into Unity, and for Beverly to pop into Oculus Go (with a quick stop in Maya and Blender, perhaps). There would be time for layouts later. Daniel Lindenberger and I have done this before, on the Tonglen project we created with Amy Dyck and Claire Roberts for the TED Conference’s Bigger Than Us VR Discovery Session in Vancouver.

Some first glimpses of form (and a pesky SketchUp Warehouse tree…pretty but too high poly!)

I knew I needed to keep my SketchUp model light, with no Scenes, no animation, and with an awareness that only surfaces and objects, not lines, would transfer into Unity with ease. I also knew from past experience that I needed to backsave to the oldest version of SketchUp, for simplicity of export/import into Unity.

Early structures: too much texture on the grass!
Laying out pathways using the arc tool

The next thing was to design the spaces and their relationship to the abstracted plane. We already had this diagrammed in sketch form, so this was a matter of translating into a site plan in SketchUp that would be easy to work with. I began with creating a 500’ radius circle, to make up our ideal village site of 1000’ diameter space. Simply, I added arcs and tailed them off with lines for ends, to create 10’ wide pathways. We were already set to use zones for permaculture, loosely interpreted here, and so those became circles as well. We began with the idea that there would be rounded edges in this future-village, and high tech advances but not a high-tech environment. My indulgence in this was to populate the model with a future-forward structural solar glass. It is the light transparent blue you see in the model.

Solar structural glass of the future, with UV filter for sleeping spaces
Solar structural walls are fun — easy to visualize 1,000 years from now. I envisioned the white parts as rammed earth but that remains to be detailed. Also, some kind of water collection system from the roof, integrated with columns, to be detailed in a future iteration.

The next steps involved a lot of copy-pasting of components. This was a fast build without much additional time for unique objects, and although it seemed the easiest at the time, it may have caused us some very glitchy transitions into Oculus Go. I’ll have to remember that as we evolve the game. I use Components all the time in SketchUp, and they have been more or less fine in the transition into Unity, but not so much into other modes.

I use a lot of extension lines when I copy and paste in SketchUp. This may or may not be a good thing, based on what I found with exporting to Unity and Oculus Go. SketchUp’s components are handled differently in Unity.

I found some trees and kayaks in the SketchUp Warehouse and imported them. Looked good to me, and they seemed to import with no problem into Unity. But what had I forgotten? They were high poly objects! And Oculus Go is all low poly! What is low poly? Simple, triangulated shapes that are easy and light to manipulate. They are not fanciful trees downloaded from the SketchUp Warehouse.

These high poly trees were nice while they lasted…

I rebuilt the trees and invented some sort of a kayak-canoe kayacanoe-boat which I drew in simple shapes.

Low poly trees and a much smoother export to Unity and Oculus Go

It seemed like we were just about done, save the last test fit run in Oculus Go. Uh oh! The model was too laggy! It was those textures I’d applied, that had seemed so easy and quick to apply in SketchUp to help define volumes and spaces and to give depth and materiality. They all had to go. I stripped down the model.

How to turn off textures
Textures turned off

I’m only running SketchUp (and AutoCAD, Photoshop and Revit) right now, not Unity, Maya, Blender or Oculus Go. Even though we are not using Scenes, Styles or Animation as I would normally do in SketchUp, I was still curious to see how the model would look as a real SketchUp sketch. So, I used Styles and made Scenes, and created an animated fly through, for myself. Because if we can’t play in SketchUp, then why are we using it at all? That’s my philosophy. So, here are the sketchy scenes from the animation, for you to view and to peruse. This is part of the game: there are also avatars, ambient music, storyline scripts, and many other aspects that others are working on too, that will come together to form this very satisfying experience.

Start of the Game (the present; kind of post-modern…)
Climate Utopia’s Communal Sleep Spaces
From inside the Community Hall, looking toward Sleep Spaces
From inside the Community Hall, looking toward the Children’s Gardens and Permaculture Veg Gardens
Sleeping on left, Community Hall in center, Mentor’s Garden on right
Boathouses, with rebuilt low poly boats — and Communal Kitchen spaces behind
Permaculture gardens (what will be our name for them in 1,000 years?)
Climate Utopia as seen from the Ocean

Did you think that was all? No! There is more. Our story angel Beverly Aarons and I got working on some fine-level tweaks that were blocking the flow from SketchUp to Unity and into Oculus Go. The beds and seats inside the buildings were not coming through in the right form. Had I exported the SketchUp model correctly? No! I needed to turn on some options in the .fbx settings. Note to self (and others doing this): it is very important to click the “Export two-sided faces” option!

Getting the Export settings right

I was so happy to receive news from Beverly that the new model importation worked. Next steps: seeing it afly and afloat in Oculus Go. And it is clearly time for me to learn Unity.

This is a game in process, and this is part of the process: figuring out what works as we play together in different worlds, in different spheres, and with varying degrees of materiality and transparency. It’s a good metaphor for life, and maybe also, for a village of the future.

It’s a world in progress.

Acknowledgements to the “Climate Utopia” team from the 2019 “Games For Our Future Game Jam: Creating a Green Tomorrow” event, hosted by Seattle Indies:

Beverly Aarons — Story, Project Lead, Voice Acting

Daniel Lindenberger — Programming

Tim Gargiulo — Music, Sounds, Narration Recording

Nabanita De — Programming, Voice Acting, Research

Geoffrey Smith — 3D Artist

Thank you everyone!

Maia Kumari Gilman, Architect



Maia Kumari Bree Chowdhury

Architect | Artist | Author #adaptivereuse #architecture #mixedmedia #ecofiction #solutionsjournalism