3D printing will not substitute building models by hand in architecture

We said it. And we’re a 3D printer company for architects.

Models are an integral part of architecture — both for architects and everyone else. A model makes a design idea a reality that can be grasped. For architects, they can act as a communication and design tool. For the rest of us, models provide mesmerising three-dimensional visualisations of buildings and spaces. Put a scale model in the middle of a table and see how everyone forgets all about the sketches, drawings and digital modelings. Humans were meant to perceive the world in 3D — it is natural to us.

In architecture, a model is not just a model, but an added dimension, a material felt, a form grasped, a mass understood, a spatial relationship distinguished. These dimensions are attained both from examining ready models, but also from building the models. That is why 3D printing will never totally substitute building models by hand. We as humans want to feel things with our hands.

Porsgrunn Maritime Museum and Science Center by COBE architects + transform. Image from Designboom.

Porsgrunn Maritime Museum and Science Center by COBE architects + transform. Image from Designboom.

For architects, feeling these dimensions is especially important. That is why renowned architects such as Juhani Pallasmaa advocate for the importance of all senses in architectural design:

“Computer imaging tends to flatten our magnificent, multi-sensory, simultaneous and synchronic capacities of our imagination by turning the design process into a passive visual manipulation — model-making puts the designer into a haptic contact with the object or space.”

This haptic contact with objects and space let’s the architect regain a touch with architecture, and overcome the visually dominated aspect of design. This is where the process of building models by hand comes in. Models have been traditionally built by hand, from cardboard, chipboard, foam core, museum board, basswood.. you name it.

The process, while time-consuming, is rewarding. One of the things that actually makes the building process itself beneficial is the time-consuming nature of it — When you spend hours upon hours cutting foam, bending sticks and carefully combining elements you inevitably gain a feel with your design and start understanding it in a whole new level. When modeling buildings on a computer, you’re able to change huge elements at the click of a mouse. This enables wonderful design freedom, but does it take away from actually grasping what you are designing? In the hectic pace of working today, our efficiency might make us lose important design dimensions without even realizing it.

Building scale models by hand is like so many other time-consuming but beneficial things — you always say to yourself that should do more it, but you just never have the time. What 3D printing will never do is facilitate the intensive examination that is imminent from building models by hand. While it will never be able to fully substitute the benefits of building models by hand, 3D printing can provide a helpful tool to ease and better the process of hand-building models.

Complexity, flexibility and accuracy

One of the beautiful things about 3D printers is that they do not discern between simple and complex forms. While an arch might look elegant and effortless, bending it just right from some wooden sticks might require hours and hours. At some point, fighting with complex shapes by hand does not bring added value in learning — at that point, 3D printing can bring immense value: Print the complex and time-consuming parts of your model, and add them to your hand-built model.

When creating complex models by hand, a degree of accuracy is inevitably sacrificed. However, when you print from exact specifications you ensure total accuracy, effortlessly. With the help of 3D printing you can overcome impossible parts of building models by hand — let your printer take care of it and focus on working on those elements that benefit you.

While the core benefit of hand-building models is not really about flexibility, the added flexibility of 3D printing can help diversify your building process. Want to test 5 different façades but don’t have 5 hours to complete each? Print them out to supplement your hand-built structure.

Different tools for different purposes

The architectural design process is a long one and different tools serve different purposes and phases. At the best cases, new tools open up new realms of creativity and efficiency, ultimately supporting each other. Only combining and trying out different tools let’s you discover your ideal way of working.

While efficiency dominates our lives today, it is important to remember that architecture can at its best simultaneously address our senses and articulate the experience of being in a space. This sort of life-enhancing architecture requires creating designs beyond just visual attraction. Dedicate a whole day to build a model. Revisit those school days where you’d spend hours poring over them. Rediscover a slower learning.

The benefits of using models in your architectural process are widely known — We’ve written about them here and here. Regarding those benefits, 3D printing can prove a valuable tool that both saves you time and elevates your creativity. However, models in themselves and building models are two distinct things, with their respective, while often intertwining, benefits.

Are you curious to start your new architectural projects with 3D printing but you have still questions or concerns? Talk to us! We’re currently developing a 3D printer for architects — Join the discussion on Facebook or sign up for notifications on our development.

Julio Tiusanen