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Hello, Boston.

A crowdsourced model, CityPrint’s 3D tiles will reflect a 21st-century Boston and perhaps even its complex challenges

RENEW Jan-March 2020

City Print Hero Sk 08

CityPrint at last November’s ArchitectureBoston Expo.

Photos courtesy of MakeTANK

Looking like floating urban icebergs, four 3D-printed squares lie on the surface of a giant asymmetrical map of Boston, from Kenmore Square out to the most distant harbor island. These bluish-white tiles roughly align with a faint grid on the map, a waist-high expanse at the far end of the show floor at last November’s ArchitectureBoston Expo, or ABX19, the annual convention for the architecture, engineering, and construction (A/E/C) industry.

“We’re crowdsourcing a 3D-printed model of Boston,” Felipe Francisco, an architectural designer and fabricator at Sasaki, explained to Gary Mendoza, a principal at Alfaro Mendoza and Company, who was examining a plastic swatch of Boston’s Financial District and Government Center.

Someday this 3D-printed 10-square-inch tile hopes to be one of 212 tiles that make up CityPrint, the most ambitious project to date by MakeTank, a Boston Society of Architects (BSA) committee that seeks to interject maker culture into the design process.

After a brief pitch by MakeTank cochairman Francisco, and a mind meld on Rhino, the 3D modeling software that will be used for the project, Mendoza’s interest was piqued. “Maybe I could model my Dorchester neighborhood,” he said.

If enough architects like Mendoza and other related professionals commit to modeling a piece of Boston, the city will soon have a brand-new, updated—and updatable— citywide model under the green staircase on the first floor of BSA Space, the center for architecture and design in the Atlantic Wharf building on Congress Street in Boston. The project could even be bigger than that, said MakeTank founder Brad Prestbo, director of technical resources at Sasaki.

“CityPrint will evolve to be more than a model,” he said confidently. “It will be a platform.”

Pressed for specifics, Prestbo predicted that CityPrint will push participating professionals and students to explore advanced frontiers in graphic technologies and design. When it’s completed, the model can also be used as a display medium via projection mapping, a technique that can turn objects, such as city models, into display surfaces for video projection.

We could projection-map complex data sets on the model to show things like sea-level change, census data, transit patterns, and crime rates

Brad Prestbo

MakeTank founder

“We could projection-map complex data sets on the model to show things like sea-level change, census data, transit patterns, and crime rates,” Prestbo said.

The digital files at the heart of the project will also be made available for the public to use for free.

The CityPrint project has signed up some high-profile partners: the Boston Planning & Development Agency; spatial intelligence firm pbc Geographic Information Services; 3D services provider BluEdge; education technology lab advisers and builders AET (Advanced Educational Technologies) Labs; architecture firms Payette and Sasaki; 3D-printer manufacturer Stratasys; and CAD software community GrabCAD.

But a lot of work still needs to be done before Boston’s new model city starts rising, layer by layer, inside a pair of 3D printers. True to its roots, the MakeTank team wants to crowdsource the new digital model. So it is recruiting makers within the Greater Boston A/E/C communities to claim one or more “tiles”—each one is roughly 1 square kilometer—and translate any existing digital models into a 3D-printable model that will be 3D printed and notched neatly into CityPrint’s new Boston grid.

To further the cause, the team is planning to pique curiosity about 3D printing and online gamification.

This winter, two industrial Stratasys 3D printers, each the size of a soda machine—both fused deposition modeling (FDM)–style printers, using ASA (or acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) plastic filament, for you 3D-printing geeks out there—will be installed at BSA Space. As any visitor to a makerspace can attest, it’s fun to watch 3D prints rise inside a printer. Each machine is capable of producing one 10-inch-by-10-inch tile every 24 hours, which will then be added to the model. Day by day, a new city model will grow where the old one once stood.

A running online tote board of top tile producers is already displayed on the project’s website as a way to gamify some friendly competition and one-upsmanship between area professionals and firms. Interested parties can easily claim a tile from the same webpage.

“The ABX crowd got it,” said Jay Nothoff, fabrication studio manager at Sasaki and a founding member of MakeTank. “It didn’t take a lot of explaining before people started thinking about the tiles they might want to claim.”

The online CityPrint map that displays the firms committed to producing tiles reflected the quick uptick in interest. By the end of the conference’s second day, 29 tiles had been claimed and put on a path to a fresh 3D print. Sasaki, for example, committed to creating five 3D-printable tiles, including one that contains the Christian Science Center, the site of one of the firm’s projects.

The Boston office of Wilson HGA raised its hand for five tiles. Firm project coordinator Joe Saporetti and architect Emily Bell claimed them after visiting the CityPrint display and a MakeTank workshop at ABX19. Four of the tiles contain Wilson HGA projects: Education First in East Cambridge, and buildings at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts Boston, and Boston University.

One of CityPrint's 3D printed tiles.
Photo courtesy of MakeTANK

“Plus we claimed the tile that has Fenway Park, just because it’s Fenway Park,” said Saporetti with a laugh. Saporetti, 29, and Bell, 26, said they are perceived as “makers” within their office and are frequently consulted on 3D printing and laser cutting, so they see the CityPrint project as a great excuse to do some outreach within the firm. “We’re always looking for opportunities to evangelize 3D printing, and this seems like the perfect vehicle,” Saporetti said.

“There are some people who still regard 3D printing as magic,” said Bell. “So a 3D-printing project that includes representations of our firm’s work, and a well-known icon, will make it easier to understand.”

Others that have jumped on the CityPrint bus early include Leers Weinzapfel Associates (two tiles), Moody Nolan (one tile), and Boston Architectural College (one tile).

According to Francisco, a new Boston model will materialize quickly if MakeTank can reach two important groups: younger computer-savvy people who can work with the models, and older principals at local architecture firms who can champion CityPrint and green-light an in-house project that allows staffers to devote work hours to it.

If all this comes together as planned, the MakeTank team is hoping that a new model will be completed by the end of 2020. At that point, the initial 3D print will be finished, but the project won’t be over.

Nothoff predicts that the newly upgraded files, which will be freely available, will be downloaded and 3D-printed by a wide variety of organizations all over the city, possibly even the world. “We are hoping that all sorts of people will grab files and print them out for their own use.”

A high school or college makerlab may, for example, 3D-print the tile that contains its location. A real estate developer can print out the tile that contains a planned project.

CityPrint installation at the BSA Space
Top left photo courtesy of Susan Greene. Other photos courtesy of Maia Erslev.

Whenever a new building or development is completed or modified, Nothoff said, the project team could download the available file and revise the geometry. Printing the tile could be done by BluEdge, the project’s 3D-printing provider. The 3D-printed tiles are “semi-precious at best,” according to Nothoff, so it will inexpensive to replace them.

Fresh content can also be projected onto the completed model.

“As soon as I saw the display at ABX, I thought, ‘This is going to be amazing,’” said Susan Israel, founder and president of Climate Creatives, which produces projects on climate-change issues. “A 3D model of Boston will be a great tool for envisioning climate-adaptation scenarios,” she said, “much better than anything you can do in 2D.” For example, Israel said that future water levels could be projected on the 3D city model to illustrate possible climate-change impacts. Israel is already planning to lead envisioning workshops for 2020 using the new CityPrint 3D model.

Israel was not the only attendee inspired by the CityPrint project. “We heard many ideas that caused us to say, ‘Yes, of course, we’ve got to do that,’” Prestbo said, as he leaned against the map toward the end of ABX19. “It’s turning into a behemoth, a bit of a snowball.”

The MakeTank founder did not look unhappy with that prospect.