James McSweeney is the Senior Compost Specialist at Highfields Center for Composting where he helps design and establish composting systems across Vermont. Highfields Center for Composting is one of the many non-profit organizations to which we’ve granted SketchUp Pro Licenses as part of the SketchUp for Nonprofits Program. We chatted with James recently to learn more about the work done at Highfields.
Can you give us some insight on the mission at Highfields Center for Composting?
Originally named “The Highfields Institute”, our organization was conceived in 1999 by former dairy farmer Tod Delaricheliere. We research, educate, and provide technical services for composting and comprehensive food waste recycling programs. The mission at Highfields is to close the loop on community-based, sustainable food and agricultural systems in order to address things like soil health, water quality, solid waste, farm viability, and climate change.
What kinds of projects has the organization taken on?
Highfields has supported community composting programs throughout Vermont, from working with individual elementary schools to help them compost on-site, to developing regional food scrap collection programs and composting operations.
LayOut file illustrating materials flow in composting system
When did Highfields start using SketchUp?
Highfields had done a lot of design but it was mainly on graph paper—we weren’t using any computer design technology when I started about 5 years ago. I had played a little bit with SketchUp but I was just using the free software and found it to be really intuitive. I picked it up and brought it with me as a skill.
It was really time consuming to take the 3D models and turn them into a design from which someone could build. I would have to export these 2D .jpg files and put it in another program and then go back and fix it—and it would have to be this three step process any time I would need to change a small detail… or maybe even more. When I found out about SketchUp Pro I was like “I need to have this!” As a non-profit with a limited budget we found out we might be able to get it.
A customized composting site model
Highfields Center for Composting seems to work a lot in education and schools. Can you tell us about some of these programs?
With SketchUp we created the “Designing a Bin System for Hot Composting” tool. This school design tool was a new thing for us in a lot of ways. The idea is that it’s like an open source design guide. Schools are different sizes and they have different needs. It’s a guide that’s there to help someone at a school create an on-site composting system themselves. It has the basic design elements, how to size the system and the things to think about as they’re designing the system—but a school is generally going to work with a volunteer (a parent or teacher who is able to build) to create their own custom design plan.
Standardized hot composting model used in an open source design guide for schools
The guide allowed us to not jump in and have to develop custom plans—it was something free that someone could download and develop custom plans for themselves. Our goal was for more schools to compost rather than get a bunch of contracts to design custom systems for everybody—that can be really time consuming.
Then we have the Close the Loop program which is there to assist the school from start to finish. We have the technical services side of Close the Loop which is really the composting system guidance and then we have the education program which is where we go in and train the schools on implementing the program in the cafeteria and the classroom.
Are there any features in particular that make SketchUp useful?
The biggest thing looking at SketchUp Pro is being able to work in SketchUp while also in the 2D LayOut and the way that it will be presented to the client. It helped us make our work really user friendly as well as aesthetically pleasing.
Compost recommendations for Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home bin compost system
[The ability to document our designs] expanded our market and our ability to educate folks and represent composting in a much more professional looking manner. It also just added a lot of efficiency to my work. It’s definitely saved me many many many hours on my work...and frustration. And it’s really fun to work with.
Without SketchUp, we would be doing the same work by hand or paying a contractor, which would be much more time consuming and we would have less control over the end product.
Learn more about the Highfields Center for Composting and help them continue their work by donating here.
Posted by Sophie Shephard, SketchUp team