Left to right: Piet Meijs, senior 3D expert, Rietveld Architects; Kaz Adachi, model shop manager, FXFowle; and Wesley Wright, associate, Pelli Clarke Pelli.

To3DorNot3D_03.jpg(220)Dimension SST 1200es ($30,000–$40,000)
New York firm FXFowle made a relatively modest investment in the Dimension SST 1200es printer, which uses fused deposition-modeling technology to melt strands of plastic to form the model’s printed layers. The firm also augments its printing by outsourcing to the 3D-printing service NRI (see “Sticker Shock?” below). “It depends on what kind of model we want to show the client; the budget and time frame also always matter,” says Kaz Adachi, who heads the firm’s fabrication shop. “We use the Dimension sometimes for presentation purposes and sometimes for study purposes. It’s decent, but it’s not great if you want to go less than 1 millimeter or 1/32 scale.”

To3DorNot3D_01.jpg(220)OBJET Eden350 (about $150,000)
The New York office of Dutch firm Rietveld Architects decided to invest in the top-of-the-line Eden350 printer despite the fact that a third party could likely produce the same models for less money. “You can only reach the maximum results if you are as close to it [the printer] as you can possibly be,” says Rietveld’s senior 3D expert Piet Meijs, Assoc. AIA. “If you send it out to a service, you will always play it safe. It doesn’t allow you to experiment. When we make a model, we can have as little as 10 percent done and send it to the printer for evaluation. And we can print many different versions.”

The best models require experimentation, Meijs says. “When you create a model of a building, you have to scale it down 1,000 times or 500 times. So what you do as a model-maker is create a caricature of the model. A mullion 2 inches thick, in reality, has to be 3 feet wide to be readable. We have to be able to experiment with different designs for the model.”

To3DorNot3D_05.jpg(220)Objet30 Pro ($20,000)
Pelli Clarke Pelli’s main office in New Haven, Conn., has four printers at its immediate disposal: the Objet30 Pro (formerly named the Objet Alaris 30U); 3D Systems’ Spectrum ZPrinter 650 ($70,000); 3D Systems’ Spectrum Z510 (now discontinued); and the Dimension SST 1200es. “Every project demands lots of study,” associate Wesley Wright says. “The more avenues we can take to evaluate a design problem, the better.”

The Object30 Pro appealed to the firm because of its ability to produce transparent plastic model pieces that can simulate windows. Meanwhile, the Spectrum ZPrinter 650 uses a gypsum-powder composite to create finely layered models, which are acceptable for study and display. As a more automated 3D printer than others, it also requires less input and, thus, less time to use, Wright says.

Sticker Shock? If your firm can’t justify forking over the cost of a new car—or five—for a 3D printer, then you have two affordable alternatives: outsourcing to a 3D-printing service or buying an entry-level 3D printer.

“A large part of being a designer is spending the time doing the design and not other things,” says Justin Levitz, a New York–based manager of 3D technologies at NRI (, one of many online companies that specializes in printing 3D architectural models; other service providers include Lgm ( and Solid-Ideas ( Brick-and-mortar shops exist, too, such as Solid Image 3D ( in the greater Los Angeles area.

The lower-end 3D printer market is becoming a more viable option for architects. Though the level of detail and refinement is lower than their costlier counterparts, these entry-level printers may be suitable for study models. For example, MakerBot ( offers the Replicator for about $1,750.

But lower-end models can also require extensive trial and error, says Geoff Sosebee, a designer for Portland’s Boora Architects and the former head of the fabrication lab at the University of Oregon School of Architecture. “Architecture firms don’t necessarily have time for that. That said, a couple new printers are coming out that are sub-$5,000, which I think will change the market. The output will be more controllable and of higher quality, with less up-front investment.”