The Multidisciplinary Applications of Digital Design, Print, and Fabrication with FormZ

By Robert Vander Poppen


The URV (Urbs Rollinsensis Vitruviana) Project undertaken with the ARH 315 Archaeology of Urbanism class tasked students with creating a digital model of a Roman city based on the architectural theories of the 1st century AD architect Vitruvius and informed by real-world examples from the archaeological record. Students each designed a city block from a hypothetical Roman city using FormZ software. In addition to rendering a digital model of their design, each student 3D printed their buildings using the Department of Art and Art History Ultimaker printers. The design process allowed students to explore Roman architecture in a hands-on way that forced them to engage with even the smallest details of how Roman architects solved structural problems.

What inspired you to implement this project?

There were two driving factors. First, in lower level classes (particularly those outside ARH) I have struggled to teach students about the spaces that Romans inhabited in ways that were exciting and really conveyed the nature of the structures accurately. Secondly, I was curious about how asking students to design would enhance their learning outcomes in an advanced architecture class.

What were the goals for this project?

  • Develop a set of training materials that would bolster student familiarity with FormZ.
  • Shepherd a cohort of students through the design process of creating a Roman city block in virtual space.
  • Print the digital designs on the 3D printers.
  • Hold an exhibition of the projects designed by the students.

Identify the tools used for this project.

Tools: Rollins College Instructional Design and Technology Team, FormZ 3D Rendering Software, Ultimaker 2 3D Printers

What pedagogical techniques, strategies, and/or philosophies did you employ?

I created a series of lab activities that asked the students to develop models that were relevant to the content they would be developing on their own. This required students to step through analogous tasks to those they would encounter in their own processes.

What were some of the lessons that you learned from implementing this project?

3D printers cannot run 24/7. They need time to rest and cool. This means that designs will need to be done far earlier in future iterations of the class. Also, students can do much of the software learning on their own, so long as there is a set of office hours for help with specific problems.

How did this endeavor change your teaching in expected or unexpected ways?

The process of modeling forced students to consider details of architecture in ways that were previously lost in the shuffle. When they had to design, they had to understand how a roof went together or how a moulding intersected with a staircase. They learned all of the architecture as well as the digital components.

What did you change (or would you change) the second time you implemented this project in class?

Earlier production deadlines; 3-day a week schedule; More-outside work for acquiring software competency; more pre-designed materials and labs.

Is there anything in addition that you would share with other faculty about this project? You can provide a quote that you would like to use to highlight the essence of the project.

Asking students to design a building rather than passively learning it about it from textbooks or slides compelled students to understand design as a totality and to engage with even the most minute details in a way I hadn’t expected. My students left the class having met all of the traditional outcomes of an architecture class, plus the ability to model and print architectural forms in 3D.

Robert Vander Poppen
Associate Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology 


Robert Vander Poppen is Associate Professor of Classical Art and Archaeology within the Department of Art and Art History. He received his B.A. Summa cum Laude from the University of Michigan in History and Classical Archaeology, and holds an M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in Classics – Archaeology. Professor Vander Poppen teaches courses on the art and archaeology of the Ancient Mediterranean including courses on the Near East, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. His focus in his teaching is to develop student facility in visual literacy and written communication, and to foster competency in techniques associated with the Digital Humanities, such as 3-D modeling, visualization, and 3-D printing. Professor Vander Poppen’s research considers the major social and political changes that occurred in conjunction with the rise of cities, and then later conquest of Rome within Central Italy. Past work has addressed the role that village communities played in these two changes, and he is currently authoring a chapter for the University of Texas Press on the development of urbanism and elite culture for a book on ancient Florence. Professor Vander Poppen has worked extensively in Central Italy and was a member of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s excavations at Torre di Donoratico. He also served as the Field Director for the Mugello Valley Archaeological Project, a project where he excavated for over a decade.