3D printing in 3D printing in architectural design

3D printing in global architectural design and engineering

When presenting ideas to a client, architects need to communicate both the form and function – explaining how the finished construction will look and operate. Up until recently, this was achieved with blueprints, site plans, and 2D CAD elevations. However, thanks to 3D printing technology, architects can now not only view design geometry, but also analyze, test and modify in a fraction of the time. Renderings are brought to life, and animated fly-throughs can be created literally on the fly.

HOK: 60 years of innovative design

HOK is a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. Through a network of 23 offices worldwide, HOK provides design excellence and innovation to create places that enrich people's lives and help clients succeed. DesignIntelligence consistently ranks HOK as a leader in sustainable, high-performance design and technology innovation.

For such a high-profile architectural company, it’s especially important to be able to use tangible mock-ups – models that can communicate ideas, and ensure both client and architect are on the same page throughout the process.

Up until recently, producing physical models took considerable time and money. Over several days, expert model builders would construct a scale model using cardboard, wooden blocks, foam boards, polystyrene, and a host of other materials, to demonstrate how the designs would look in physical form. The end product they produced was called a massing model, and it was used to help clients to see how the building would look from different angles.

Whilst there were specialist model services and industrial rapid-prototyping tools to speed this process up, the costs were still prohibitive, which limited its use considerably. Trey Lane, Architect and Design Technology Manager at HOK, elaborates: “We find sometimes that the client has a hard time wrapping their mind around why a particular design has certain relationships or costs associated with a site. A massing model helps us communicate that quickly and clearly.”

Concept visualisation with 3D printed models

Speeding up the model making process

It goes without saying that scale models are a vital part of the architectural process. A basic working model often develops into a full-scale presentation piece, with every tiny detail included, such as doors, benches, and even trees. It’s here that 21st-century technologies and materials come into play.

Desktop 3D printing can be used to create scale models in plastic, using digital plans. This lets designers rapidly iterate a model in hours instead of days (or even weeks), and eliminates the need for laborious assembly. The ability to create these rapid iterations means clients can study the interaction of volumes and explore new ideas.

HOK was keen to maximize the potential of this new approach. After researching many digital fabrication solutions, they chose a suite of Ultimaker desktop 3D printers for their offices in Kansas City. Lane found that the main benefits were:

  • Better visualization. Clients, collaborators, and marketers could all easily view the ‘finished’ product, which meant less miscommunication and misunderstanding.
  • Rapid prototyping. If a client requested a change, this could quickly (and easily) be addressed in a further iteration.
  • Reduced time. Models now take just a few hours to make, rather than several days.
  • Reusable designs. HOK can create a library of reusable designs, speeding up the process in future projects.
  • Testing and refinement. Being able to cheaply produce several iterations means designers can assess, analyze and test results, and make improvements wherever required.
  • Reduced waste. Problems are discovered early on in the process, which means less time, money and materials wasted further down the line.
  • Less assembly. 3D printing virtually eliminates the need for time-consuming assembly post-printing, leaving the team free to get on with other important tasks.

Industrial vs. desktop

Trey Lane and his team had originally explored high-cost industrial additive manufacturing tools in the $20-60k range. However, they felt they couldn’t justify the costs, especially when there was a far more reasonably priced solution to hand.

Lane already had experience using a 3D printer, having built one himself in the past, from a kit. He immediately recognized the potential that the machine offered, and as a result, invested in a cluster of Ultimaker printers for the company. The 3D printers offered them the same high quality of the more expensive machines, plus a higher output volume, and all for a fraction of the cost.

HOK felt that Ultimaker’s printers matched their style so well, they even chose to display them in their lobby for clients to see.

3D printed architectural prototype

How does it work?

Project teams at HOK use a variety of software to create their models, often in tandem with one another. Simple massing models are usually created from Sketchup or 3DS Max. Rhino3D is used to prepare models for STL output, and HOK Product Design uses SolidWorks. Additionally, Revit is used as documentation software and helps with visualization.

Flexibility is key – and thankfully, Ultimaker Cura accepts output from any program for processing, which means designers can print without restriction. Once the initial models are made, the HOK team then tests and develops them – and over time, simple massing models are transformed into detailed designs; such as stadium bowls or floor-by-floor prints.

HOK’s goal is to create an in-house workflow – enabling them to move from initial design to print as quickly and efficiently as possible. Ultimaker’s printers, materials, and software are helping them to achieve this.

HOK uses Ultimaker 2+ Extended in their architectural projects

Changing the future

Ultimaker’s 3D printers have enabled HOK to create both simple massing models and detailed scale representations alike. Mistakes and issues are easily identified and rectified, and multiple iterations can be created in a fraction of the usual time. The technology means the modeling process also wastes far less money and material – and it strengthens the communication between client and architect.

As HOK continues to master and perfect the process in their Kansas City Office, they’ll be looking to share their experiences with other offices across the globe.