CU-Boulder environmental design class prints 3-D model of campus

June 6, 2013 •

Sara Bryant didn’t touch a piece of paper or even an Exacto knife for her model-building course last month.

The junior in environmental design and her classmates used the latest software and machinery to build prototype models of the CU-Boulder campus. Their tools included a computerized router, a laser cutter and a brand new 3-D printer.

Learning to use the modern, mostly digital equipment was not about safety, though Bryant has a number of small scars on her fingers from previous work cutting designs by hand. Rather, the objective of the course and its high-tech emphasis is to prepare students for a resurging use of models in the design world, with early experience using state-of-the-art systems.

“Having innovative model-building skills is really important moving forward,” said Bryant. “People are more likely to be on board with your project when they can see an efficiently made, accurate scale model. They’re more likely to fund it.”

The students crafted a variety of model designs, from contoured topographies that serve as bases, to campus buildings like the Center for Community and the Wolf Law Building at a 1-inch-to-100-foot scale. They experimented with levels of detail, different materials and colors, and making the model easily updatable. They mulled how to represent elements like the campus’s bodies of water and historic trees.

They also had the real-life opportunity of working with a client. CU-Boulder’s Facilities Management department commissioned the project and supported it with the purchase of the 3-D printer. Initiated by David Jacobs of Facilities Management, the project is intended to replace the current campus model, which was created in 1988 and lacks many of the newer campus features.

“This has been a really dedicated team,” said Tom Goodhew, a CU-Boulder facilities planner. “It’s probably been the most successful project I’ve seen from a student group.”

Tasking a class instead of a commercial firm with the campus model project saved Facilities Management tens of thousands of dollars and broadened the possibilities, according to Goodhew. He says the students were limitless in their creativity and drive to become experts on the machinery and try different approaches.

“Our task is to take care of this campus and to keep it beautiful,” said Goodhew. “This tool will be used in our office as we think about the future, designing new buildings and outdoor spaces, or remodeling buildings.”

The CU-Boulder Police Department, snow removal crews and other campus entities also use the model.

The class, which was held during Maymester, is called Model Building: Reimagining a New Campus Model. Environmental Design instructor Jade Polizzi, who led the course, hopes to offer it again next spring.

“The integration of technical savvy, artistry and professionalism that I saw from students was remarkable,” said Polizzi. “I think we took a journey together and realized that we weren’t just printing the physical makeup of campus, we were communicating an important thing -- part of the identity of campus.” 

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