From concept to a final model: How 3D printing can make your architectural design process more efficient

Be it unleashing the full potential of your creativity or improving your communication skills, introducing 3D printing in your architectural design process can bring a big value to your architectural firm. But often the problem is not the purchase and investment of a 3D printer itself that prevents architects from using this technology but rather the lack of knowledge and doubt on how to implement it.

Adopting a new tool often seems complicated, time-consuming and costly, and the benefits it might bring are never certain. What if no one uses it? The key is, unsurprisingly, knowledge. 3D printing is relatively old technology, but its adoption is still not as widespread as it could be, especially in architecture. But with the right knowledge, the value that 3D printing can offer in architecture is immense.

The design process with a 3D printer isn’t crucially different than a traditional one — just less time-consuming. In this article, we’ll go through a possible design process of an architect, from pre-design to a finalized design — and point out stages where you can implement 3D printing and how this makes your overall process easier, faster and more efficient.

Concept Design — Massing studies, tangibility and easier iterations with 3D printing

Based on competition requirements or client wishes regarding the concept, and a 3D site model created in the Pre-Design Stage, an architect starts schematically designing possible concepts. In the Concept Design stage some architects prefer a clean 2D drawing and sketching including a site plan and floor plans. Some analyze possible shapes and masses on computer simulations creating code analysis, envelope possibilities, relationship of functions and overall massing studies.

 Code Analysis and Envelope Possibilities. Source:  BUILD LLC

Code Analysis and Envelope Possibilities. Source: BUILD LLC

 Relationship of Functions, Site Considerations, Massing Studies. Source:  BUILD LLC

Relationship of Functions, Site Considerations, Massing Studies. Source: BUILD LLC

Already in the Concept Design stage, the value of physical models for massing studies and communication is uncontested. Many people utilise simulations — they can be extremely helpful in creating several accurate concepts in a relatively short time; but it is still just 2D on a screen. While relying on computers is the norm today, your sensory organs, touching and seeing, are still trustworthier to gain an organic feel with your design concepts.

Models offer tangibility in design; they can help you develop a concept that interconnects perfectly with its surroundings in mass and shape. That tangibility also helps communicating your vision to your client in a comprehensible way. At this stage, different people interpret early stage ideas in very different ways — a model eliminates misunderstandings and biases arising from interpretations.

The design process is iterative. Numerous iterations can lead to inconsistencies in design that can be hard to detect from a screen—printing a model at each iteration can help to determine how the design changes you make influence and interact with other elements. A model also helps you inspect your design on a bigger scale — examine how your project will fit in its surroundings, and how it will influence them in an intuitive way.

By testing and experimenting with physical models in the early stages you can avoid costly changes later on — however, traditional models are most often made only in the final stages of the design process. Despite the benefits, producing a model at every iteration is just too time-consuming. Luckily, 3D printers can ease this process and enable you to create as many models as you need, at every stage. You can combine the speed of digital 3D simulations with the tangibility of models and just print every possible shape and mass of your design.

 The development of the scheme of the Node in Aerotopia was enhanced by the use of 3D printing. Source:  Seankbpark+

The development of the scheme of the Node in Aerotopia was enhanced by the use of 3D printing. Source: Seankbpark+

Showing physical models of your massing studies along with floor plans and perspective drawings gives your client the possibility to understand different concepts intuitively. This leads to more efficient communication, resulting in saved time and more satisfied clients. In a competition setting, providing models of different concepts can help you convince your potential client: presenting a model already in the concept design stage can be a game changer if competition rules allow it. Showing a concept design supported by a physical 3D printed model can make a lasting impression and lets your design stand out from the rest.

Developed Design — Validate and test your ideas with 3D printing

Once you agree on a concept, you start refining the details, shaping the design and testing ideas. The Developed Design is a key phase — it’s the last opportunity for a client or you to refine the overall nature of the project before more detailed planning commences. More importantly, it is the stage where changes are still affordable and feasible. Therefore, it is crucial to test as much as you can.

With physical models you are able to test different variations of details and their interaction to each other in the most effective way. Try out different facades, furniture layouts, comparative material options or segmentations of floors and room — modeling these physically helps you understand and feel their overall connection to each other. Models make giving immediate and constructive feedback for every variation easy — ensuring that you, your team and your client are always on the same page. In this stage a 3D printer can ease your process by providing high accuracy, speed and cost-efficiency for your models.

 Experiment with different layouts. Source:  i.materialise

Experiment with different layouts. Source: i.materialise

 Test different surfaces and materials. Source:  Note Design Studio

Test different surfaces and materials. Source: Note Design Studio

Another benefit of using a 3D printer in this stage is a continuously updated scale model of your changes made digitally. In other words, all your 2D documents, made on your computer, and digital 3D model always match with your physical model. In architectural projects, changes are often made until the end. 3D printing gives you the possibility to easily create a fully updated scale model at every step.

Detailed Design—3D printing for easier communication with contractors

Once the decisions regarding materials, floor sectioning and other details are made, your contractors assess the full scope of the project. At this stage, creating a presentation model of your finalized design allows contractors to easily understand the idea behind your design. In addition to helping contractors, a finalized model lets your clients fully picture how their future building or urban planning will look like. Lastly, you and your team can use the model for marketing and project management purposes.

 3D printed presentation model for the proposal of Malmö Concert Hall by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Source:  Radiiinc

3D printed presentation model for the proposal of Malmö Concert Hall by Studio Daniel Libeskind. Source: Radiiinc

Do you want to start simplifying and visualizing your projects? Our 3D printer for architects can help you. Learn more and don’t hesitate to get in touch with us—and remember to follow us on Facebook or sign up for notifications on our development.


Julio Tiusanen