6 tips for building physical architecture models

Physical architectural models are a beautiful thing – they can be used as a learning tool to study massing iterations during the design process, or as sexy presentation centerpieces to sell your audience on your proposal.  Fabricating them isn’t necessarily as easy task, however, so here are some tips when building your next scale model:


1 – Know your end goal – are you building a study model to explore subtle variations in form, or for your final thesis presentation?  Know your end game and adjust accordingly – study models can be simple and loose; cardstock, paper and clay might be enough to get the job done.  Final studio models will require a much higher level of detail and care in fabrication, not to mention time to build.  What is it that you can people to focus on?  Highlight that element and eliminate things that don’t contribute to the goal.  An empty shell of a model with a detailed façade will garner a different conversation than a model that mimics the interior structure of your project.  Use your model to steer the conversation in the direction you want.  Maybe you don’t even have to build the entire building, perhaps focusing on a particular section or detail will have more of an impact and reinforce your narrative.

2 – Avoid realism – you’ll never pull it off anyway.  Models that aim to be realistic but miss the mark even a little end up looking terrible.  Substitute simpler materials as stand ins for the real thing – they’ll be cheaper, easier to work with, and you’llavoid distractions.  Remember, the entre model is a representation… you don’t need a tub of water if your site is beside a lake or real grass on your green roof.  You can create incredibly striking visuals with subtle variations on a single material. section-model3 – Add some context – you’re always in a rush and the temptation is to fabricate your building and nothing else, but remember:  every building sits somewhere in the world.  Adding some simple topography or neighbouring buildings can go a long way to place your building in space, and you’ll have the added bonus of seeing how it reacts with the site and how it helps shapes the spaces ‘in-between’.  Along those same lines, add a handful of scale-sized people.  This will dramatically help viewers register the intended size of your project.

4 – Plan ahead – physical models are literally 3D puzzles.  I’ve seen and built some models that have hundreds of intricate pieces and take days on end to put together.  Have a game plan in terms of materials, budget, assembly, weight, transport and time.  Don’t forget to account for the thickness of materials – at small scales a few extra millimeters can easily alter things like floor heights or throw off assembly joints where different materials are coming together.  Also, if you have hundreds of pieces to assemble, be sure to label them ahead of time!  This can save you hours of frustration in the long run.  Also, whatever amount of time you’re planning for the actual build… double it.  Seriously.

5 – The devil is in the details – sanding down burnt laser- cut edges, being diligent with the glue gun, engraving textures and floorplans, allowing the roof to pop off to see a finished interior, these will all add that extra dimension to your model.  There is no substitute for time and effort, and people will notice the work you’ve put in.

6 – Photograph the final result – after hours of precision cuts and painstaking glue jobs, be sure to photograph the end result!  Models won’t last forever, and as pieces fall off they’ll only look worse over time.  After the critique, spend half an hour setting up some good lighting and taking lots of quality photographs, you’ll thank me when it comes time to build your portfolio.


Finally, don’t hurt yourself.  I’ve seen injuries ranging from deep Xacto cuts to an entire thumb lost in the woodshop chop-saw, no joke.  No one wants to see blood on your presentation model from a 3am mishap…

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