Nearly as quickly as architects swapped their sketchbooks and pencils for CAD programs, traditional physical architectural models were also mostly replaced by interactive 3D digital versions. 

Because CAD programs have now evolved to include 3D modelling capabilities, architects can now design in 2D/3D synchronised modelling workflows and can produce a 3D digital building model that can be “walked through” from a computer.   

This gives clients, design review boards, investors and builders a better understanding of how the building might eventually look which aids architects in competitions for briefs, submitting council DAs and working with clients and builders in achieving a desired design result. 

In the commercial sector, this process has been quickened by the uptake of Building Information Modelling (BIM) software across the architecture, engineering and construction industries, which saw 3D digital models, that incorporated detailed data input regarding a project’s entire life-cycle and material composition, become the standard request from developers and property financers.

But what ever happened to those old miniature matchstick houses, tiny balsa buildings and chalkboard topography models? What happened to the concept of “haptic learning”, or understanding by touch, which drove the architect to create models for clients in the first place?


It seems that with the advent of 3D printing technology, the age old practice of architectural modelling could be making a comeback, albeit reinvented and now more aligned with CAD and BIM software programs, but nevertheless returning for the same reasons it began.   

Joseph Lombardo of Sydney architecture practice Heather Buttrose says that by using design proportion 3D models, as opposed to 2D drawings, his clients and design review boards are better able to understand his design.

However, the key to choosing whether or not to create 3D physical models is a matter of time and cost-effectiveness for Heather Buttrose and subsequently they outsource both the printing (Sydney) and file formatting (India) of their renders rather than print their own.

Ignore the marketing pitch and watch how an American architecture firm are incorporating 3D printing into their project workflow.

American architecture firm, Perkins + Will on the other hand uses their own MakerBot 3D printers to create “process models” for projects and to develop ideas.

“We come up with an idea and go between sketches to a physical model whether they are hand built, cut or 3D printed,” says Perkins + Will architect Scott Allen.

“The fact that we can really efficiently and rapidly prototype an idea profoundly changes our own process to where we can bring in all the models in that you printed overnight and look at them all and change a few things and have it keep going.”

Related: Perth’s first 5 Star hotel in 30 years revolutionise lean construction with true Open BIM workflows


However, Sydney based Graphisoft Consultant Nando Mogollon - Architect, OpenBIM Specialist, says that creating 3D printed models isn’t as simple as exporting an STL file to a printer and pressing print, like some want to believe.

“There are still a number of things to be developed,” he says, “like checking the watertightness of the solids, "normals" and other technicalities.”

Other considerations include balancing weight distribution, sizing and textures and understanding that most 3D printers can only print one material and in a limited range of colours.


A 3D render and physical model of Vancouver House by BIG. Images: supplied.

Mogollon recently collaborated with Bjark Ingels Group (BIG) on a project in Vancouver, Canada which saw 3D printing used extensively at different stages of the project. However, Mogollon notes that when it came to creating a larger detailed model, 3D printing was only used to create specific aspects that were difficult to create by hand.

“Vancouver House was developed heavily depending in 3D modelling/printing in different stages,” he says.

“3D Printing was used in the concept stage to check massing proportions and overall integration of the building on site. Later on, as bigger and more detailed models were necessary, only key pieces - balconies, furniture, and custom designed features - were 3D printed to complete the physical models, instead of 3D printing the whole building.”

The Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre by Henning Larsen Architects & Batteriid Architects in model and built forms. Images: 3DSystems and Henning Larsen Architects.

Developing a 3D printed model can take time and isn’t cheap, however architects such as Henning Larsen Architects (HLA) of Copenhagen, Denmark find them useful for creating complex design components such as double-curving surfaces and intricate elements like staircases that are otherwise difficult to make by hand.

"The machine has created a much closer link between the physical and the digital world, allowing us to print component parts in colour and construct models of buildings in 3D from the very beginning of the process, says Morten Steffensen, Engineer, Henning Larsen Architects.

“Thanks to 3D printing, our models are more refined and more precise, which gives us an advantage. There's no doubt that beautiful models help us win commissions."


<Click to enlarge a Revit to 3D Printing guide from Tech Shop architects.

Before 3D modelling capabilities were added to CAD software programs and became integrated with an architect’s workflow, some designers completely outsourced 3D renders of their projects to professional architectural visualisation services.  

Scott Ballis of Atomic3D heads one of the many architectural visualisation studios cropping up around Australia and he notes how a more BIM focussed Architecture Engineering and Construction (AEC) sector has seen architects become proficient 3D modellers and more involved in the 3D model rendering.

Similarly, until software for exporting 3D renders to a printer becomes easier and more integrated with architect workflows and BIM platforms, the 3D printing of architectural models will continue to be an uncommon or outsourced option for firms.  

Mogollon notes that in keeping up with the demand for more integrated and detailed BIM processes, software companies have placed 3D printing integration on the backburners for now, preferring to focus on improving their platforms in other areas.

“From the point of view of the software available, there's been only a shy development in 3D printing capabilities, and most of it happened more than five years ago.”

“The industry of the AEC software, especially BIM platforms like ArchiCAD, Revit and others have been focused on other critical aspects.”


3D printing is a viable replacement to architectural models for those who have the time and money to ready their files for print which includes balancing weight distribution, sizing and textures and getting a model watertight.

The lack of colour and composition options from the current crop of printers on the market means they are more commonly used in the massing and concept stages of projects where detail is not as important, however improvements are constantly being seen in this area. 

As the geometries of architecture continually evolve with aid from sophisticated BIM software, 3D printers could be a viable option for architects looking to make physical models of their design.