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Transforming Industry: 3D Printing in Architecture

3D printing in architecture are rapidly transforming the industry by making the building design process faster, easier, and cheaper.

Neil Sewell

September 25, 2023

From the pyramids of Egypt to today’s steel-and-glass skyscrapers, every great building began as an architect’s model. 3D printing in architecture are rapidly transforming the industry by making the building design process faster, easier, and cheaper.

Building architectural models by hand can take days or even weeks, while 3D printing a detailed model can be completed in a matter of hours. With a wide variety of technologies, there’s an additive manufacturing solution for every step of the design process.

In this article, we’ll explore the reasons why 3D printers are becoming architects’ best friends.

3D Printing in Architecture

Why Architects Should 3D Print Architectural Models?

Although a beautiful, painstakingly handcrafted architectural model will always be a work of art, the fact stands that manual model-making is slow and laborious. 3D printers streamline not only modelling but all parts of the architectural design process.

Here are the five key benefits 3D Printing in Architecture.

1. Faster Modelling Process

As we’ve mentioned (several times now), manual modelling is a time-consuming process. 3D printers make producing intricately detailed models of large buildings or entire neighbourhoods much faster. 

A 3D printer can complete a high-detail building in a couple of hours, depending on the technology and the size of the model. In the best-case scenario, an architect can go through multiple design iterations in a single day. 

This will naturally make the building’s commissioner much happier, as well. With rapid modelling and prototyping, you can shorten the lead time to the final design, allowing construction to begin faster. 

2. Lower Production Costs

Traditional modelling not only requires time (which is money, as we all know) but a large toolbox. Conventional reductive work processes can also result in large amounts of wasted materials. 

3D printers deposit material only where it’s needed, reducing material consumption and therefore costs. Although some additive manufacturing methods require post-processing, 3D printing helps keep material costs to a minimum. 

Additionally, with compact desktop 3D printers, architects can produce intricate models in their own offices. They can avoid outsourcing costs and delays and potential damage resulting from shipping models.  

3. Increased Model Accuracy 

Virtually all architects these days create building designs using various 3D modelling and CAD software, such as SolidWorks. 3D printers directly use CAD data in the form of STL files to print models. 

They convert the digital 3D model directly into a solid model or prototype. Working directly from the CAD data allows architects to create significantly more detailed and accurate models. 

High-accuracy 3D printing methods, such as SLA, can produce details as fine as 10 microns in size. Architects can rely on even the most intricate features printing accurately for their models. 

4. Enhanced Design Freedom

3D Printing in Architecture can enable architects to produce more complex and innovative models. Some geometries, like interlocking parts or overhangs, may be difficult or impossible to create through traditional modelling methods. 

With 3D printers, it’s possible to create highly complex and lightweight models by using 3D modelling principles like support structures, thin walls, latticed interiors, and more. 3D printers can bring architects’ visions to life in novel, innovative ways. 

5. Improved Communication

A good architectural model is worth a thousand blueprints. 3D printing can enable architects to communicate their ideas to clients and colleagues quickly and efficiently. 

Accurate 3D prototypes allow architects to showcase and explain their design concepts as they would eventually appear in the real building. This eliminates miscommunications and misunderstandings and helps speed up the design process. 

3D Printing in Architecture 3D Printing Technologies for Architects

3D Printing Technologies for Architects

3D printing isn’t a monolithic manufacturing method, and there are multiple technologies under its umbrella. Many of them can be useful for architects in various parts of the design process.

Here are the three most common technologies of 3D Printing in Architecture.

FFF: Fused filament fabrication (FFF) printers lay molten plastic onto the print bed in layers to create the final geometry. FFF is a cheap and fast method that produces relatively rough details and surfaces, making it ideal for initial basic concept models. With large-format 3D printers, like BigRep, it’s possible to print huge building prototypes — or a model of an entire park — quickly and cost-effectively. 

SLA: Stereolithography (SLA) uses high-powered lasers to harden liquid resins into solid models. It is the most accurate and detailed 3D printing technology, tailor-made for intricate final models. SLA printers, like the Formlabs Form family, are available in many sizes for varying needs.  

SLS: Selective laser sintering (SLS) also uses lasers to solidify plastic powders. Unlike FFF and SLA, it requires no support structures while still having high detail, making it a good choice for showing off complex geometries like interiors. SLS printers, like Formlabs Fuse 1+, can also produce parts strong enough to actually incorporate into built structures. 

3D Printing in Architecture Limitations of 3D Printing in Architecture

Limitations of 3D Printing in Architecture

3D printing can be a powerful solution for improving architectural workflows. Yet, it has some inherent limitations that can make it less-than-suitable in some use cases. 

The primary limitation is print volume. Although large-format printers exist and smaller parts can be assembled into larger models, all 3D printers may not be suitable for producing particularly large models. 

Architects used to traditional modelling will need some additional training and know-how to use their new tools effectively. Although 3D printer operation is relatively simple, beginners may encounter common 3D printing issues that can ruin models and waste material. 

Finally, although 3D printing makes architectural modelling much faster, it likely won’t eliminate manual work completely as most prints still need post-processing to remove supports or smoothen surfaces, for example. However, various post-processing tools for SLA and SLS printing can streamline the process. 

Showcase of Architectural 3D Printing

So far, we’ve explored what 3D printing can (and can’t) do for the architecture industry in theory. But what are architects doing with the technology practice?

Here are a few examples of innovative and fascinating architectural projects utilising 3D printers.

3D Printing in Architecture Renzo Piano Building Workshop

Renzo Piano

Renzo Piano Building Workshop (RPBW) is an Italian/French architectural studio that makes as much use of Formlabs Form 3D printers in each project as possible. By employing the 3D printers in conjunction with traditional modelling, desktop CNC machines, and other tools, RPBW’s 110 architects produce expansive multipart models. Thanks to 3D printing, they are able to create intricate components, like trees and pipework, in hours instead of weeks.  

3D Printing in Architecture Valoptim mock up flats and home

Valoptim

French property development company uses 3D printing to create 3D prototypes and mock-ups of new flats and homes for buyers. Thanks to the models, Valoptim’s clients are able to instantly visualise their new homes, give feedback on the designs, and begin planning for the big move. Edouard Pellerin, Valoptim CEO, said the technology not only allows the company to create the models quickly, but it has also improved the customers’ experience and strengthened Valoptim’s business case. 

3D Printing in Architecture Ecoalf-Nagami environmentally-friendly retail

Ecoalf/Nagami

Eco-fashion company Ecoalf partnered with design studio Nagami to develop an innovative and environmentally-friendly retail space. All surfaces — from walls to shelves and tables — of the Net Zero boutique in Madrid, Spain, were 3D-printed using 3.3 tonnes of recycled plastic. The store demonstrates 3D printing’s role in both interior architecture and redirecting non-biodegradable waste from landfills. 

3D Printing in Architecture Matt Architecture - Ilona Rose House

Matt Architecture

British architectural studio Matt Architecture employed Ultimaker 3D printers when designing multiple high-profile building projects in London, including the famous Ilona Rose House. With 3D printers, they were able to reiterate their designs in rapid succession to communicate design ideas to the site’s planners. Not only that, they 3D printed prototypes for the building’s façade panels, which were ultimately used to cast moulds for producing the actual panel tiles. 

3D Printing in Construction

Additive Houses — 3D Printing in Construction

Additive manufacturing and 3D printers aren’t just architecture’s future — they’re already an everyday reality. Architects around the world are using 3D printers in new and innovative ways to design ever more fantastic structures.

So, where do we go from here? How about 3D printing entire buildings?

As we mentioned, Matt Architecture created the moulds for casting Ilona Rose House’s exterior panelling. Yet, many companies are developing concrete 3D Printing in Architecture, which uses gigantic gantry 3D printers to extrude malleable concrete to form exterior and interior walls.

For example, ICON built House Zero, a 3D-printed three-bedroom home in Texas in 2002. NASA, on the other hand, is exploring 3D-printed structures that might provide housing and a home base for future astronauts on the Moon. 

Space-age 3D-printed houses are still far off in the future. Yet, it’s undeniable that 3D Printing in Architecture has permanently transformed the industry — and will continue to do so. 

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