Model-making has always been an important part of architecture, from the large, room-sized models of Eero Saarinen to the smaller handheld models that you can find in a college architecture studio. However, over time and with the introduction of technology, these models have become less central to the design process because of the amount of time required to create a quality, handcrafted model. But digital fabrication and the development of newer technology have allowed model-making techniques like 3D printing to become not only a possibility, but practical as well. Models that would have required significant cost and time can now be produced much more efficiently.
3D printing is an additive process, meaning an object is created by laying down successive layers of material until the object is complete. Each layer is essentially a thin cross section taken from the model which allows the printer to understand the object and how to print it. 3D printing has applications across a variety of industries—from automotive to healthcare—and it has also found popularity in the world of architecture.
3D printing has revolutionized the way we approach model-making, and has allowed the workflow digital and physical modeling to become more seamless. The integration has been best felt in the early stages of a project, allowing design teams to utilize the printers in a rapid prototyping phase where multiple models are printed out for evaluation by clients and the design team to help make decisions more quickly.
Beyond massing models, 3D printing offers opportunities at the Design Development (DD) and Construction Documentation (CD) levels, as well. At the DD level of the design process, prints can be used to help flush out design options on areas of a project, or to take a massing model further and begin to represent the early detail refinement. At the CD level, specifics like looking at complex casework or scaled room layouts allow the client and the architect to discuss and make changes.
3D printing opens many opportunities for furthering design. For example, printed models can be combined with typical model-making techniques to create dynamic models that are both multi-material and colorful, allowing for an extra level of detail. Another benefit to 3D printing is having the actual model-making process happen simultaneously as a project is being developed. Printing physical models from the same digital files that are already being designed and built on the computer saves hours on the project and allows the firm to move along more efficiently. Finally, hours that would have been spent on model making can be used elsewhere while the printer happily runs on its own.
3D printing has a bright future. With technology developing every day, and more of an emphasis being put into modeling as a design tool and not purely a presentation tool, 3D printing can bring model-making back to a central position in the field of architecture.