Implementing Emerging Technologies in Interior Design Education: A Case Study Utilizing Rapid Prototyping

Implementing Emerging Technologies in Interior Design Education: A Case

Study Utilizing Rapid Prototyping

Scott Greenhalgh and Paul Schreuders

Creating physical models and prototypes has traditionally been a part of various fields of design and design education. These models serve multiple purposes, including providing a demonstrative form of the final project and feedback for revision and improvement within the design process. Models have traditionally been constructed by hand using a variety of materials.      

The use of computer-aided design or CAD has changed the design process, as many designers now think through the computer. CAD has been claimed to narrow the gap between representation and building (Ryder, Ion, Green, Harrison, & Wood, 2002). Also known as virtual models, the major drawback to CAD models is that the depth analysis is limited to the representation on the screen and may not include true perspective representation (Eggert, 2005; Ryder et al. 2002). In the 1980s, the manufacturing industry began developing what has evolved into rapid prototyping, additive manufacturing, and three-dimensional (3D) printing technology. This technology has provided the ability for designers and engineers to create 3D physical models from 3D computer models. Complex models and ideas can be formulated on the computer with the usage of three dimensional CAD applications. These tools allow designers to experiment with forms without requiring the use of a physical model. A key advantage is the ability of the software  to allow the comparison of concepts without having to create additional models from the beginning (Haik, 2003; Kvan & Kolarevic, 2002).

Rapid Prototyping Defined

Rapid prototyping is a broad term for a variety of manufacturing procedures that stem from information provided from a 3D computer model and manufactured through automated means. Rapid prototyping includes several methodologies separated by production techniques, processes, and materials. The term rapid prototyping includes the methods of layer manufacturing, additive manufacturing, stereolithography, selective laser sintering, fuse deposition modeling, and 3D printing. The technical differences between these methods will not be discussed in detail by this article, as they do not apply to the scope or intent of the study.

Layer manufacturing refers to automated model construction using additive techniques in a graduated layer system along the vertical relief.  These techniques are the most commonly used rapid prototyping technique in architectural and design schools and offices that construct models and will be the focus of this study.  One of these techniques borrows concepts from ink jet printer technology. This technique applies a thin layer of powder and then a liquid binder or a laser process operates to bind the particles on the desired area. After multiple layers are produced, the object is defined and excess powder is removed. In another common method, molten material is printed as a thin bead one layer at a time. Over time, this molten material, typically a plastic, solidifies into the final object (Dimitrov et al., 2006).

Although considered a better fit for design and architectural firms as well as for classrooms, due to their office-friendly nature, layer manufacturing production has been adopted more slowly in architecture and interior design than in other fields. This is partially attributed the lack of a strong link between architecture and interior design to the disciplines of engineering and manufacturing (Giannatsis, Dedoussis, & Karalekas, 2002). The use of 3D CAD models can  convert information easily into layer manufacturing files. One strength of layer manufacturing is the ability to  duplicate designs as CAD software allows for copying and mirroring of existing components (Modeen, 2005) Additional advantages include the ability to construct complex forms as easily as rectilinear shapes (Gibson et al., 2002). Recent developments, such as the ability to print models in multiple colors, improved speed and efficiency of processing, and lower cost may make rapid prototyping more appealing to architects and designers in the future. For this study, a layer manufacturing process was used on a Dimension 3D printer (model SST 1200, Stratasys Inc., Eden Prairie, MN). Although this particular process and method was used for this project, it should be noted that no single system or method has become dominant within either the manufacturing or the architectural user base (Wai, 2001).

Study Purpose

Prior to adopting rapid prototyping, many educators would like to see how it would impact their curriculum. It is often difficult to predict the effects of curriculum change without the experience of the changed curriculum. This qualitative case study is designed to give the interested educator (stakeholder) the experience of implementing rapid prototyping without the time and financial risk (Stake, 1995; Weiss, 1998).

The purpose of this case study was to compare traditional model building techniques to rapid prototyping in meeting design education objectives. The results are intended to provide educators data and insight into the impact of implementing rapid prototyping technology into design curricula. This study examined the specific research question: “what are the expectations and potential of rapid prototyping from the perspective of the instructors in the study, and how do expectations contrast to the observed events?”

This case study was approached as an instrumental case study; (that is, as a research on a case to gain understanding of another case; Carspecken, 1996; Silverman, 2005; Stake 1995), with the findings intended to be useful to design educators with a similar program and curriculum. Thus, this report includes the description necessary to identify the uniqueness and potential commonality therein. However, generalizations to other cases are considered to be best examined by those with intimate knowledge of those cases.  The report’s purpose is to provide the necessary data for the reader to do so. Several approaches and methods were utilized to collect data for this study.

To focus on instructors’ perceptions and expectations, the majority of data collection relied on interviews and interactions with the instructors using the methodologies outlined by educational ethnographer Phil Carspecken (1996). Additional insight was gathered through observations and interactions with the instructors throughout the study.  For the case description, the majority of the data collection was recorded as field notes using the methods of Silverman (2005). These field notes included observations by the researcher as well as those of the instructors. Artifacts and photographs were also collected to supplement the data.  The artifacts included are the instructional handouts given by the instructors, presentation lessons, and photographs documenting the activity. 

Role of the Researcher

It is important to understand the role of the researcher as the central instrument in the case study (Stake, 1995). Although this report will approach the case study from grounded theory perspective, the disposition and experience of the authors will impact the study and therefore be disclosed.  One of the researcher’s prior experience as a participant in the activity cannot be separated from the case study. Both researchers have experience in both traditional construction techniques (woodworking) and computer aided drafting and manufacturing. One researcher specialized in curriculum and instruction with experience in architectural and interior design, while the second researcher was an engineer with experience in educational research. The researchers value both aspects and did not intentionally favor one method out of a personal preference or bias.  Any bias may favor the combination of the strengths of hand construction and rapid prototyping techniques, with a slight skepticism toward the full adoption of newer technology, thus losing the strengths of traditional methods. The researchers assumed a participant role in the case study (Wolcott, 1999). This role encompassed acting as a guide to students as one experienced in rapid prototyping and model construction. In this role, one researcher attended the classes  and guided students in using the rapid prototyping and construction or manufacturing equipment outside of scheduled class times.

The data was collected in a longitudinal layout (Cohen, 2008; Gall et al., 2003; Gravetter & Wallnau, 2005), and analyzed using a two phase process. The first phase was the collection of instructors’ insights, perspectives, predispositions, and expectations. The second phase was the collection of data in the description of the events as they played out in the case, followed by questions asked to the student in a survey and in follow-up interviews with the instructors. The analysis of each phase follows the methods as described by Silverman (2005).

In the first phase, the major themes that arose were: expecting the technology to improve communication and increase possible designs, identifying student populations which may perform better with the technology, and identifying potential hurdles to curriculum involving rapid prototyping.

The second phase observed and noted  trends as a response to the first phase data. The trends identified included:  how design and design communication were affected by rapid prototyping and how student populations responded to the technology.   A description of the activities included in the project was also made in the second phase. In addition to the trends that were specifically observed and investigated, an l unanticipated trend and an unexpected observational set of facts emerged. These  included: enthusiasm for the technology and project combined with students taking an early initiative in the project, and indicators about the demeanor of the interior design program. Descriptions of the program and case study are necessary to evaluate the applicability to other cases and programs (Stake, 1995). This necessary data is provided below. Many direct quotations are used in this study with the intention of more accurately capturing the meaning, language, and perspective of the instructors. 

Project Description

To collect data for comparing rapid prototyping techniques to traditional model construction methods, a study of two sections of an interior design course were used.  The two sections were an interior design course at Utah State University titled “Interior Space Planning and Human Dimensions.” The classes were composed of interior design majors with a total enrollment of 46 students.  Each section was taught by a different instructor. Students from both classes were randomly selected to have access to the rapid prototyping technology with each student having approximately a 50% chance of being selected.

A major assignment within the course was the design and marketing of an original chair. As part of this, a physical scale model is required. The model was expected to be of high quality for the appropriate marketing of the chair. The quality of the model design and its craftsmanship were areas of grading consideration (educational objectives). There were no limits for material selection as long as the material reflects the visual intentions. 

The assignment took three weeks of the course’s curriculum. The first week was focused on design, the second week was focused on model construction, and the final week was focused on marketing of the chair. This was not the students’ first exposure to model construction. Many have been exposed to modeling in art classes, and all students participated in a modeling project earlier in the year.

Students chosen to build models using the rapid prototyping machine then proceeded to create 3D CAD models. Students creating hand built models proceeded to design their models in the method that suited them best.

Interior Design Program Description

To fully understand the case study, an appropriate awareness of the program setting and goals is requisite. The Interior Design Program is located at Utah State University. The faculty are quick to point out the differences between interior design and interior decorating: there are differences in : educational and professional rigor, professionalism, and interior construction knowledge. Interior designers are considered to design and create interior space. This view is also held by leading interior design organizations (CIID, 2005). In addition to educational and occupational differences, interior designers are required to take certification exams in many states and obtain licensure in order to practice. As of April 2008, this included 23 US states. (NCIDQ, 2008).

The Interior Design Program at USU has a great desire to continue to increase its  high level of professionalism and rigor, while at the same time creating the representation of the program as it is. One hope and expectation that the addition of rapid prototyping may bring to the program is evidence of the strengths, rigor, and quality of the program. One instructor notes the potential of rapid prototyping as a recruitment tool with potential students exclaiming, “Interior design students do that!”

Observation of the Design Activity

The case study consisted of two sections of the same course. Both sections were taught by female instructors in the same classroom using a nearly identical and synchronized curriculum. The first instructor’s class had 25 students with three male students, and the second instructor’s class had 21 female students and no male students. Observations began with activities leading into the chair design. Students in both courses appeared slow to react to activities and exhibited a minimal level of enthusiasm toward the project.

When the introductory presentation to rapid prototyping was given, this low level of enthusiasm continued. Leading questions were asked if students are familiar with rapid prototyping or three dimensional printing. Only one student in one class claimed to have heard of it and what it does. After several attempts to explain how the process works and what it does, it was clear that the students did not fully grasp the concept and any understanding was abstract at best. After the brief introduction, the class walked across campus to the rapid prototyping lab. At this point the enthusiasm exhibited from both classes remained less than anticipated.

Upon arriving at the lab, observing the rapid prototyper in action and examples of printed parts, the student enthusiasm increased. Students began asking questions about exactly how the machine worked, its limitations, and what they could do and what they had to do in order to use the machine. After the classes were dismissed by the instructors, several students from both classes remained to ask additional questions and handle the printed models. Both instructors stated that the students seemed very excited to use the rapid prototyper. 

As previously noted, one researcher, as a participant observer, attended both classes throughout the project to provide support. Typical student questions involved issues about  what was printable and about the projected cost. Even after design guidelines regarding minimal size, and file type and characteristics, students still wanted reassuring feedback that their design would print.

Students in the rapid prototyping group completed their designs using AutoCAD software (Version 2008, Autodesk, Inc., San Rafael, California) and were ready to print as early as two days after having an initial design concept. After this concept was identified, the students were allowed ten days to complete the final model. A steady stream of students began to start printing eight days before the model was due and all models, except two, were finished printing two days before being due. One of the unprinted models was due to file conversion difficulties, and the student redrew the model which was then printed the following day. The other late project was attributed to procrastination. It was observed that the printing process ran smoothly with only one model failing to print correctly. This model was reevaluated according to the printer’s requirements and was successfully reprinted.

One researcher attended all classes during the project to field questions as to the rapid prototyping process and as to hand construction techniques. The researcher directed hand construction students to woodworking and metalworking laboratories to receive support as needed, and directed himself rapid prototyping students regarding the necessary printing procedures. This support was made available to all students in order to address validity concerns relating to differentials in support between groups. The researcher had a woodworking and manufacturing background, and access to such equipment in the Utah State University Department of Engineering and Technology Education. Eight students using hand construction methods used the equipment of the Engineering and Technology Education Department. This included a table saw, band saw, scroll saw, disc sander, oscillating spindle sander, soldering equipment, and precision sheet metal bending equipment. All students were helped on a first-come, first-served basis.

Themes Identified by Students

In a survey, students were asked two open-ended response questions. The first question asked students: What was the most positive aspect of creating a model? Coding identified two major and four minor themes as determined by frequency counts reported. All students responded and two student responses contained multiple themes.

The first major theme identified by students as the most positive aspect of creating a model was having a physical representation of their design and ideas. Eight students identified the satisfaction of the finished product to be the crowning moment of the project. The second major theme identified was the design process. Six students identified aspects of the design process ranging from the preliminary design stages through revising and construction as the most positive aspect of creating the model. The quality of rapid prototyped models combined with the ease of construction was identified by two students. Three students identified the project as being easier than expected, two students used rapid prototyping techniques, and one student used hand construction techniques. Two students identified learning aspects such as ergonomic and construction techniques as the most positive part of the assignment. One student reported a change of pace from the typical projects found in the program to be the most positive aspect of the project.

Conversely, students were asked: What was the most negative part of creating a model? Two major themes emerged. There were frustrations in construction or CAD and with the amount of time invested into the project. All students reporting frustrations in CAD were students who used rapid prototyping, while all students who reported frustration in construction techniques used traditional hand techniques. Related to frustrations in construction, two students reported not being selected for the rapid prototyping group to be the negative aspect of the project. The amount of time and / or money invested into the project was reported by both rapid prototyping and hand construction students as being a negative aspect of the project. Two students identified frustrations associated with design revision as being the most negative aspect of the project.

Themes identified by Instructors and Observations

Six major themes and expectations were identified through observations and interviews of the project’s instructors. In many cases, the initial expectations of the instructors were supported by follow-up interviews and observations. Only in a few cases did the observations display a different experience than was expected by the instructors. 

Rapid Prototyping as a Tool To Improve Communication

One of the most difficult tasks in design is clearly communicating what one person visualizes. According to one instructor, the strongest expected effect was that of improving the communication potential for the assignment and program. This communication breakdown resulted from difficulties in implementing  student cognitive visualization in an appropriate representation.  The rapid prototyper also has strong potential for bridging the gap between dexterity and construction skills of the students and their visualizations. The second instructor shared her insights:

“I hope that they will be better able to communicate their ideas. Because I know that they know what it looks like in their head, and to them it’s perfect, and every time they try to build a model it doesn’t come out right—unless we have some fantastic model builders, which are few. And so, they will have some amazing ideas, and they literally don’t show. They don’t come off across as well as they need to. And we can go ahead and in our heads try to make the connections of what it should have been from what it actually looks like.  I am hoping that this will take care of a lot of those issues, we’ll have a lot better models, and more of them that look really good, and just communicate well…. So if you have a bad idea, and you carry it out, and your model’s bad and everything is bad, and you then have this horrible project that you wish would die. I don’t know if there is really a way of changing that, but there may be a better result of this that makes them more pleased with their own work.”

The observations showed students were pleased with the outcome of their modeling efforts. The quality of the printed models was exceptional, and both students and instructor were very pleased with the outcome. Rapid prototyping has also been shown to be a strong tool for bridging the information and communication gap between designers and their audience.

Creating Possibilities for Students with Limited Exposure to Model Construction

With the high expectations for quality and precision, the assignment to construct a model can be a daunting task, as made clear by one instructor. Instructor two stated:

“Those who don’t build models well, hate building models.  They dread it. They have done their tiny house, which they built with foam core and kind of understand foam core now. Now they are asked to deal with all these various materials that they don’t know how to deal with, and they don’t have a lot of time or room for error.”

However, observations showed that students who used rapid prototyping displayed little hesitancy in their design to model activities. As was anticipated, several students asked questions as to the limits and possibilities of the rapid prototyper. Several students, which came as no surprise to the instructors, created designs that would require themselves to use the rapid prototyper to realistically create their models. These designs exhibited a stronger sense of organic design.

Opening Possibilities for Design

One instructor pointed out a trend for designs to be modified as the assignment has proceeded in the past. This trend starts out with design being wide open and students responding with intricate, creative, organic, and exploratory shapes and designs. As the reality of constructing a model approaches, the students simplify their designs out of lack of experience with difficult construction techniques. Further, these simplifications may inhibit students from achieving their design objective. The first instructor pointed out:

“When they first start designing, it is wide open, and they come up with some really clever designs, but when they start building a model and looking at how it is going to be constructed, they start to back off to designs with straight lines.” 

 This idea of a filter restricting designs is shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1.  Visual representation of the instructors’ expectations of technological impacts on design. Part A represents the expectation or assumption that a filter limits what students can do in the assignment according their skills in constructing models by hand. Part B represents the expectation or assumption that freedom from the difficulties of construction techniques will act an amplifier that excites students by testing what new technology (rapid prototyping) can do.

 The expectation stated by both instructors was that not only will this filter be removed, but will be replaced by an amplifier. This amplifier can be seen as a challenge presented to the students to test the capabilities of the new technology.  By presenting state-of-the-art technology to the students, the response may be to push designs to new heights. The second instructor stated:

“Those who may lean toward the more contemporary or modern funky things may lean more towards the rapid prototyper. I think there may be some who set out to use the rapid prototyper. I think some may be pumping us and say, ok, what do you think can be built on the rapid prototyper?”

The first instructor added to this idea, “I think that is one of the things that I am most excited for, is to see how they will challenge it—especially the ones that are not afraid of technology.”

The Effects of Rapid Prototyping on Student Populations

It is clear that technology will affect various students  differently.  The question is simply which students will be most impacted and how will it affect them? The simplest and obvious answer was that students and their level of technical inclination would determine the impact.  The authors considered it intuitive that students with an aptitude and enjoyment for new technology would embrace rapid prototyping, while students who struggle with and are less familiar with technology will face more difficulties in rapid prototyping.  Thus,  indicators were sought that would identify students inclined toward using new technology as opposed to those averse to using especially new technology.

One strong indicator may be in what attracted students to the program.  Many students are attracted to interior design through their exposure to interior decorating. This exposure can come in many forms, with the most common being television programs. Students who enter the program with this expectation of interior decorating and less exposure to the other aspects of interior design may resist or struggle more in the technical aspects of the activity. The first instructor pointed out:

“I think it depends on how our students came into the program. If they watched a lot of television shows like HGTV and were more interested in the decorating, I think the technology will be a little more frightening to think that they actually have to do this design.  I think that design is fascinating because with design you have to incorporate the artistic portion, innovation, and construction.  I think that when they realize that, it seems like a lot.”

Along similar lines, the ability to design with 3D CAD programs, the strength of design skills, and comfort with design and taking risks in design will play into the performance of students when faced with rapid prototyping. The second instructor pointed out:

“The pressure is going to be that they have to be awesome at 3D, and hopefully, there are always those that are, and they are going to be well prepared, and then there are going to be those who don’t get it. They are going to have a hard time building it and getting it to be really what they want it to be. Students who perform best will probably be those who feel comfortable with CAD, and feel comfortable with their design skills, because they are more comfortable with those aspects. They will be more comfortable in taking a risk, and go out on a limb and try something new, more than someone who is not as confident with those other things. That’s my guess of who will be more successful with this whole process.”

Synthesizing from these two perspectives suggests the following: students who are better prepared for the design program, more experienced in aspects of the design program, and naturally better designers will have better success with an activity involving rapid prototyping. 

No clear distinction was found between students choosing or hesitating to use rapid prototyping, when the materials fit their design appropriately. Nearly all students in both classes showed interest in using the technology. This may be due largely to the ease of product production that the machine presents to the students.  The effect of rapid prototyping on the students was noticeable to both instructors, as well as to the researchers. Students with a higher aptitude for design seemed to breeze through the design and the products emerged with a strong sense of clean, proportional design.

Issues of Machine Scheduling

The instructors hypothesized that models will be adjusted up to the due date, and students will procrastinate to the final moments of the project. This expectation stems from prior experience with the students in this project and other projects. These fears resulted from the fact that the rapid prototyping process has a limited capability for production. It was estimated that one rapid prototype machine could produce three to four models per day. This had the potential to result in a bottleneck with 20 students trying to print in a two day window prior to the project due date. Although the students were scheduled to have 9 days between the end of the design stage and possessing a completed model, the expectation remained that the majority would wait until the last few days.

This expectation was the largest misconception of the case study. The researchers as well as the instructors fully expected a bottleneck and frantic rush to produce the models in the last 2-3 days of the assignment, with multiple models not being printed until after the due date. However, as stated previously, all of the models with a few exceptions were printed a full 48 hours before the deadline. The students began to print the models sooner than expected, and did so in an unexpectedly orderly manner. This was in comparison to previous years, where the students built their models without rapid prototyping. Previously, most models were not completed until the final days of the assignment with several models not being completed until after the due date.  The researchers and instructors frequently warned the students of the potential bottleneck throughout the early stages of the project and credit  these warnings for the unusually quick response by the students. The instructors noted that repeated warnings of this caveat inherent to the technology was a key component to successfully implementing rapid prototyping into the curriculum. 

Students Will Look to Rapid Prototyping To Correct Design Flaws

Analysis-based design is, in practice, an iterative process. However, no adjustments (i.e., reprinting of the models after being initially printed) were made, even by those with clear design flaws and incorrect proportions. It has been noted in model construction that students are hesitant to revise models once they are constructed (Alley, 1961; Denzin & Yvonna, 1998; Frampton & Kolbowski, 1981). Through the study it was also clear that students were conscientious of the cost of the prototypes, with the average and median cost being between $32 and $33.

The first instructor shared her fear that “students may see the machine as magic, and they can cut corners on the design and the machine can build everything for them. They won’t be as diligent on the design, the scale, or the construction methods.”  This attitude had potential to be detrimental to the activity. If this occurred, the outcome would have had an adverse effect on the program and the educational objectives as the activity is designed to teach the analytical aspects of design. The use of rapid prototyping also had the potential for students expecting the technology to compensate for poor design.

These expectations displayed a major shortcoming of the implementation of rapid prototyping and were an area of concern for future projects with the rapid prototyper. During the project, several CAD drawings were not examined as closely as they should have been and many contained design flaws that carried over into the printed model. The common flaws included the following.

1. Incomplete transitions from one part of the model to another, which resulted in the poor joining of parts. This was common in parts that were assembled as separate solids in CAD, such as chair legs, back supports, and chair arms.

2. Proportional and strength related issues that would also surface in hand built models. While these issues can be addressed in a CAD model, they are more readily corrected during the creation of a hand built physical model.

3. An expectation that detail printed by a rapid prototyper can prevail over poor design. The impressive accuracy and detail resulting from rapid prototyping cannot supersede the need for good design principals and theory.

Additional Observations

The level of enthusiasm exhibited by the students exceeded the expectations of the researcher and the instructors. This enthusiasm was easily displayed in how the students reacted in completing the project early, their demeanor upon seeing the projects printed, the number and types of questions posed, and excitement in seeing their own designs appear to come to life.

Additionally, the instructors noted how smoothly the project flowed. This surprise was in part due to expectations that adding a new dimension to the curriculum typically requires some troubleshooting and in their relief in the limited discussion and revision of otherwise difficult construction materials and methods. The project has been successful in the past, but always had a strong sense of adaptation and troubleshooting.


As stated above, the task of making connections from this case study to other possible cases is best done by one intimate with the program considering using rapid prototyping. However, it is worth noting that the rapid prototyper will be used in additional projects for students continuing on in the program and will continue to enrich projects for years to come. Several concerns such as design analysis will be changed in the focus of succeeding projects and courses. A stronger measure will examine how the technology will impact the curriculum over time. As the instructors become better acquainted with the process, and as students have examples from past students to build from, what direction will the project take in the future? Will the project become known as “the rapid prototyping project” and hand built models moved to projects better suited to that method?



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