Wednesday, June 14, 2017

3D Printing in the Design Office

Surveying the complete field of architectural 3D printing, this week instead of studying structures large enough to walk through, we introduce two firms broadly implementing 3D printing across their offices. The Asia Times article is interesting for its insights into this transition, but also what questions it never asks which I think are important from my involvement with the field. Starting with a bit of context, while my architectural education jumped directly to 3D printing, I don't think architectural model-making is going anywhere, but it's important we keep the tradition in a proper modern light, recognizing what's good about scale models and why they're so helpful to the design process. Like many things, digital technology has changed the dynamics of what scale models can do for a design project.  

International architecture firm Aedas had the goal of introducing 3D printing to all of their offices in China. In their reason for establishing the goal Benny Chow, director of sustainability at Aedas, states “We are architects, and we love and understand design. But all customers do not understand design. By using 3D printers and models, we can explain and illustrate our thoughts. It makes it easier for our clients to understand and to make decisions.” Very true. The article goes on to state, "Cost-wise, the investment in 3D technology is minimal compared with the savings." Well anyone responsible for building design management will welcome cost savings in the design process because of better decisions earlier from the client. The characteristics of providing a professional service (as opposed to a consumer good) means the marketplace is also competitive on qualities not necessarily representatives in the cost alone, such as quality, which leads to my second point: 

Here my I go further than the Asia Times article, stressing the role a scale model can play in helping designers understand the complex 3D relationships of a form and different 3D qualities of the form, such as shadows and perspective. This helpfulness is, to a great extent, detached from how the 3D scale model was produced. Establishing a rapid iteration workflow with 3D printing combined with the superb communicative properties of scale models raises the quality of buildings. While Aedas seems to focus on 3D printing benefits to clients, B+H Architects' Toronto studio's piece talking about taking delivery of a Stratasys 3D printer comes closer to illustrating my second point, here quoting at length:

"Designers use scaled models to demonstrate the fundamental form of buildings. 3D printing models enable the possibility of presenting several options at once. For example, possible designs can be made to fit into a scaled contextual layout of the surrounding area (e.g. a city block) to understand how a proposal will integrate into its immediate environment. A physical model can demonstrate that a building will comply with view corridor restrictions and it can also show how a design will complement the neighbouring cityscape as it impacts form in the area.

Advanced tools and technology can multiply possibilities and create endless opportunities, but at the end of the day, the people using technology are integral to project success. Despite the many things that technology can do, people are essential to the curation of data during the process and designers offer a skilled eye for composition to understand what can and can’t be achieved. In the end, comprehensive design solutions are the result of careful curation where possibilities are vetted for sheer aesthetic and other criteria like material availability and cost. Designers can anticipate needs and intuitively connect with what makes the most sense for the context — and there’s no technology in the world that can teach that…yet."

So assuming your firm is humming along taking full advantage of all the benefits 3D printing's offers, there is one last reminder about 3D printers in offices worth repeating: Depending on the printer model, some are really not meant for indoor use. The types Aedas uses which are producing models 24/7 365 days a year require their own specialized room with upgraded ventilation. I'm keeping my hopes up for an environmentally sustainable closed-loop printer. But until then, office design will once again adapt to include an additive manufacturing suite in the design studio. 

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