Monday, 1 July 2013

3D Printing Architectural Context Models

The availability in the UK of 3D city models from ZMapping and other suppliers has enabled the production of accurate, detailed 3D printed context models. At Lee 3D, I made some samples to look at different colouring effects that can be achieved.

How you choose to present a context model will depend on house styles and the purpose of the model. Some customers prefer not to see all of the clutter on top of each building while for others the parapets, chimneys and dormas help to express the texture of the city. A context model for a residential model for marketing purposes may need to be softer in tone than one featuring a multi-storey office building.

Tile 01
This 1:1000 sample was printed white but with grey roads. It also shows the site area that has been recessed to 9mm to enable 2 or 3 floors of basement to be represented on the removable plug.

Tile 02
In contrast this sample has buildings printed in light grey, roads a darker grey and the to ground a light brown and green to represent a grassed area. The result is a much softer effect than Tile 01 where the contrast between grey and white is more strident.

Tile 03
The neutral uncoloured model can allow the proposed building to stand out. Trees are printed as symbolically and roads are recessed very slightly to give an indication of their presence with out crying out for attention.

Tile 04
In this sample an aerial photograph has been projected onto the topography. This technique is probably least effective in an urban model with high buildings as building tops can loom over pavements depending on the angle of the photograph. However in more rural models with less geometric interest the aerial image comes into its own.


Colour can be used to as a tool to communicate zoning and indeed some of the most effective 3D printed context models are waterfront models where the water is coloured blue and the land is left a neutral white. Attempting to apply real colours and textures at a scale of 1:500 or smaller can lead to a muddy effect. It is usually better to work with a limited palette of flat colours.

Size is very much going to be determined by the purpose of the model being made. A context model where sensitive areas of historical interest are concerned may require a larger tiled model to convince a planning team of the merits of a proposal, whereas a speculative model designed to win the interest of a prospective client may just need surrounding streets to give the proposal some sense of proportion. (At Lee 3D our maximum tile size is 380 x 250mm.)

Scale is often determined by the function of the model. Data in this format can be successfully printed down to scales of 1:5000. A model at this tiny scale may need to be made to give assurances that sightlines to a distant landmark will not be affected. If the purpose of the model is to create a removable plug that represents the site/proposed design then the detail required will have an effect on the chosen scale. Scales of 1:1000 and 1:500 are typical for this kind of model.

Image showing Tile 01 with model makers trees and insert building added. 

Dressing models with model makers trees adds a final level of environmental detail. Larger trees do not 3D print well at 1:500 and larger scales. Adding model makers trees does add quite a bit of time to the process of 3D printing a context model but if time allows it is probably worth it.

Insert models could well do with an entire blog article of their own so I will not attempt to cover this here.

Aldwych 3D printed from ZMapping data at Lee 3D

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For more information about 3D printing at Lee 3D visit