How 3D Printing is Changing Construction

Categories: Construction

By Justin Porter and Tiffany Avila, BNBuilders


Without question 3D printing is revolutionizing the way new products are designed and manufactured. It’s rapidly permeating many industries – even appearing now on shelves at The Home Depot.

But 3D printing isn’t just for the land of design and manufacturing. It will soon be an important role throughout construction phases. At BNBuilders, 3D printing is making a profound impact on both our prototyping and communication with collaborators and clients. We readily admit that the construction industry can be slow in the uptick of new technologies.

With 3D printing we shouldn’t wait and here are several reasons why…

Rapid Prototyping – Even for Complex Building Elements – at 1/10 the Normal Cost

We’ve seen first-hand how 3D printing can quickly create prototypes for complex project parts in the preconstruction phase. During a recent project here at BNBuilders, the architect was working through the design on an ornamental stone staircase for a city project. The last element to consider was the profile for the staircase handrail itself. The challenge? It needed to be aesthetically pleasing and comfortable to the touch, as well as ADA compliant.  

Two different handrail design options and only three days until a final design review presentation for city officials presented the opportunity to utilize our 3D printer in a pinch. The architect had already finalized the profile for the balustrade, so we used Autodesk Inventor to design a custom tongue and groove connection between the single balustrade and the two handrail options. This connection allowed each of the options to be slid in and out as needed during the design review. This not only saved a lot of time, but also reduced the amount of material needed to produce these mock-ups. Within two days, we were able to deliver the full-scale section of balustrade and interchangeable handrail profiles for review.  



The tangible benefits of using 3D printing for this handrail model were astounding. Instead of an approximate cost of $3500 for our usual prototyping process with wood and about a week turn-around, we were able to model the design in two hours and print the pieces in only two days. Best of all it only cost $245 with $65 in raw material. The prototype was just as good, if not superior, to our usual version; and the client was able to make an informed decision.

From Prototyping to Prefab

When faced with an unusual waterproofing condition, we also turned to 3D printing. Using Inventor, we developed a custom, prefabricated “boot” (in this case, a soil-nail tie-back head) that would increase installation productivity by reducing the amount of time spent installing individual patches and provide a more dependable end product for the owner. When working with the waterproofing consultants and product manufacturer, we could now provide a 3D-printed physical example of the boot prototype, allowing everyone to instantly visualize and understand the concept and immediately provide input.

Another useful result of the 3D printing process is that the files, from which the prints are generated, can be sent directly to the manufacturer for fabrication feasibility studies. In the case of the boot, the manufacturer had the files needed for the study before even leaving the meeting and, having studied the physical prototype in person, was able to clearly understand the concept. Plus versions of the prototype could be printed for under $0.66 a piece, while more efficiently streamlining the review and coordination process, benefiting both the schedule and budget.

3D printing provides us opportunities for accelerated production and execution of our projects. This is just one example in which we saw an opportunity for prefab and generated a prototype in-house. Providing the basis of design to the manufacturer allowed for a faster and cheaper prefab product.

1.pngRenderings and 3D prints of the boot prototype, as well as the final fabricated boot being installed at the construction site.

Solving Complex Assembly Problems

Sometimes it can feel like architects and builders are speaking two different languages. Working together, we have found 3D printing can also provide a common ground for collaboration on a couple different fronts: assemblies and models.

While 3D printing has been extremely helpful for collaborating with designers to make important decisions, it has also proved to be very valuable for helping us plan and sequence complex assemblies.

In one of our latest projects, we had a complex structural glass connection that was slated to have utilities pass through it. Starting with 2D AutoCAD drawings from the design team, we created 2D Sketches in Inventor and extruded all of the parts of the assembly to produce a model. Once modeled, it was evident that the structural connection would need to be modified to allow the utilities to pass through it.

To share this information with the designers, we 3D printed a one-quarter scale mockup of the connection. The 3D print helped the entire team visualize the issue at hand and, more importantly, helped them strategize how the design could be modified to allow the utilities to pass through. The Inventor model, along with the 3D-printed assembly, also helped the team plan the installation sequence, which proved beneficial for deciding which elements could be pre-assembled in the factory.   

Say Goodbye to Fragile Conceptual Models

Architects have long employed scale models of their designs to communicate with clients. Traditionally, this process has involved a great deal of cork, balsa wood and toothpicks.  While often beautiful, these scale models tend to have a precious quality to them, due to the time spent by skilled craftsmen and the delicate nature of their construction. The models are increasingly becoming ill-suited due to the disposable nature of conceptual design, where forms must be quickly explored and discarded in favor of further design iterations. 


The use of 3D printing has allowed us to be an active participant with our design partners in design-build pursuits. 3D printing doesn’t deliver a model instantly, and still requires a couple days depending on the size. However, it’s much faster than hand-building models. And, more importantly, the resulting models in plastic, are perfect for tossing around on a table and moving around on a site plan in different configurations. 

Not Just a Movement, It’s Here to Change Everything

3D printing is one of the hottest and most interesting advancements today, and will continue to be a preferred tool for progressive minds in many industries. Here at BNBuilders we are finding new ways for 3D printing to help our company and work become more efficient every day. With the ROI we have already seen, we expect to see many more constituents picking up a 3D printer soon.

Justin Porter is a Virtual Design and Construction Manager at BNBuilders in San Francisco. With a background in architectural engineering and a passion for technology, Justin continues to push the boundaries of the digital tools currently available to the AEC industry.

Tiffany Avila is Director of Corporate Marketing & Communications at BNBuilders. Tiffany leads the firm’s overall marketing strategic vision and branding with a primary focus on growing BNBuilders impact as a West Coast builder.