3D printing for architects and the architecture industry

Applications of 3D printing in architecture

There are two main applications of 3D printing for architecture:

  • 3D printers to create low-cost architectural models used as study models during the creation process.
  • 3D printers to build realistic and detailed architectural models, often used to promote a project by showcasing the final result in 3D, in a visually striking way.

What are the benefits of 3D printing for architecture?

Tangible scale models are paramount to many architectural projects, as a complement to computer simulations.

3D printing enables architects and designers to create low-cost 3D architectural models with a high level of precision, therefor they can present a tangible model to their clients to help them visualize the project.


3D printing low-cost architectural models

These low-cost 3D models are used in the design phases to test different architectural concepts. They usually require a high print speed for quick changes, a decent print resolution and a large build volume for urban planning models.

The Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) technology is well adapted for 3D printing basic architectural models.

A 3D printed model of San Fransisco

A 3D printed model of San Fransisco.

Higher productivity

The main advantage of 3D printing for this type of architectural models is the productivity gain.

3D printing saves time in the early design and creation phases by reducing the lead-time for architectural model production and allowing quick tests of concepts and iterations.

While it can take several days to build an architectural model manually using wood or foam, 3D printing can deliver results in just hours. A 3D printer can operate overnight for the larger models, which take longer to print.

Lower production costs

3D printing allows to easily test many concepts early in the project, and quickly identify potential structure issues, which would be harder to spot on computer simulations.

To assess volumes and general structure of the building, they need to be 3D printed using a single plastic material and a small number of colors, thus keeping the production costs to a minimum.

The 3D printer manufacturer Stratasys claims that modeling costs can be reduced up to 75% by using 3D printing.

A visualization of each layer of the building to show how the house really fits together

A visualization of each layer of the building to show how the house really fits together.

3D printing realistic architectural models

3D printing is often used to promote architectural projects by showcasing the final result with 3D printing models.
These models are presented in the final step of a project to visualize the exact structure that have been or will be built. Thus these very detailed architectural models require:
•    A fine print resolution
•    A wide choice of 3D printing materials and colors
•    The ability to manufacture complex structure
The SLA (Stereolithography) technology is usually the best fit, along with the Polyjet technology, or even the FDM technology.

3D printed model manufactured by a ZPrinter. Image Credit: The Realization Group – Z Corporation/3D Systems

3D printed model manufactured by a ZPrinter. Image Credit: The Realization Group – Z Corporation/3D Systems

A 3D Printed Home Model. Image Credit: WhiteClouds.

A 3D Printed Home Model. Image Credit: WhiteClouds.

Aiding visualization to make a strong impression with 3D priting

Such architectural models allow visualizing the final version of a building or any architectural project in 3D with many realistic details.

Some advanced 3D printers can even print outdoor terrains and render various textures and colors, for awe-inspiring results.

Showing a beautiful architectural scale model of a building usually helps promoting a project and getting new clients by making a strong impression.

Manufacturing complex structures

Thanks to 3D printing, it is now possible to create architectural models of complex structure such as domes with arches, which are almost impossible to produce by hand.

MX3D recently announced a collaboration with Dutch construction company Heijmans, to 3D print an actual metal bridge in Amsterdam. They will use an innovative 3D printing system, which extrudes melted metal (see video on the right).

However, 3D printers are not intended to replace designers and model makers, but to empower them by adding a new powerful machine to their toolbox.


3D scanners and 3D software for architects and the architecture industry

3D scanners for architecture

3D scanners are an important part of the 3D printing ecosystem.

They have applications in architecture, such as interior design. It is possible to map a room in 3D using a 3D scanner, and get the 3D model on a computer.

This virtual 3D model can then be edited by the architect using 3D software, or can be used to simulate the addition of a new piece of furniture.

A 3D scan of a room with the structure sensor, a 3D scanner for ipad.

A 3D scan of a room with the structure sensor, a 3D scanner for ipad.

The Sketchup 3D software by Trimble.

The software Sketchup by Trimble.

Some architects push even further the boundaries of 3D design by creating their own 3D software.

As an example, star architect Frank Gehry developed Digital Project, an ambitious architecture 3D software tailored to create highly complex structures, impossible to design with traditional 3D software.

 3D softwares for architecture

No matter what type of architectural model you want to 3D print, the first step will be to have a 3D model of the building on your computer.

Some architecture software already offer 3D printing features.

For instance, 3D models made with Autocad (Autodesk), SketchUp (Trimble) or HomebyMe (Dassault Systemes) are compatible for 3D printing.

However, some specific 3D printing features are not yet available in all 3D design software (colors and textures for instance).



Case studies : The Sagrada Familia & HLA

The Sagrada Familia

According to the BBC, 3D printing could allow the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, Spain, one of the most ambitious buildings in modern architecture, to finally be completed more than a century after the beginning of the project.

Given the complexity of surfaces and shapes of Gaudi’s original project, working in 2D makes no sense from an architectural point of view” said chief architect Jodi Coll.

Thus, architectural 3D models are created using 3D printing, with speed and accuracy.

A 3D model of Sagrada Familia. Image Credit: Expiatory Temple of the Basílica de la Sagrada Família

A 3D model of the Sagrada Familia. Image Credit: Expiatory Temple of the Basílica de la Sagrada Família.

Henning Larsen Designs Lush Green Heart For Herlev Hospital Expansion.

Model of the lush green heart for Herlev hospita’s expansion by Henning Larsen Architects

Henning Larsen Architects

Henning Larsen Architects (HLA) is a Copenhagen architectural firm, which created projects such as the Danish Embassy in Riyadh.

To push the boundaries of architectural design, HLA has recently invested in 3D prototyping technologies.

This machine has created a much closer link between the physical world and the digital world by allowing us to print color elements and build 3D models of buildings from the beginning of the process” says Morten Steffensen, an engineer at HLA.