A Case for Building Architectural Models

February 1, 2016 — 42 Comments

When architects are in school, they build a lot of models during their coursework. I don’t have an actual count but I bet that over the 6 years I spent in school that I built a few hundred models. That’s what architecture students do, they build models. Cardboard, chipboard, foam core, museum board, basswood … you name it, I’m pretty sure I used it to build a model.  Fast forward 20 years and I look around and think:

“What happened to all the architectural models?!?”

Architectural Models on display

We still build architectural models in my office, but not that many – and far fewer than I would like to see built. We probably average about 1 or 2 a year, but we don’t build them for the same reasons I used to crank out models in my school days. As we become more and more dependent on our computers, physical architectural models are becoming a lost form of communicating design ideas. In school, I would go through loads of chipboard and more #11 X-Acto blades than seems reasonable, to create massing and assembly models. While most of the models we build now are still in the Design Development stage, they represent a fairly resolved concept by the time we build them.

[cue all the computer architects telling me that 3D renderings are better and then double cue me not listening to them]

Please make a mental note as you start thinking about how physical models are a throwback to the good old days and that technology has evolved to a point where we can do so much more during the design process with just the click of a button, that I don’t care for  that argument. It’s like trying to debate whether pizza or cheeseburgers are better. They are both terrific and both have a role to play; I receive enough emails relating to hand sketching (old architects) versus computer drawing (young architects) that I think I have my finger on the pulse on how that argument plays out.

Architectural Models up high on a shelf

I never said that computer models and 3D images aren’t valuable, I’m just saying that there are some benefits to building a physical model that go beyond a printout of a rendered image. Both physical and computer generated images are tools that architects can use to communicate the design directly to a client, but from personal experience, individuals have always seemed to be much more responsive to physical models that have the ability to convey a sense of depth, dimension & texture. All you have to do is put a model in the middle of a room where there are images on all the walls and watch where the crowd spends their time.

My office is on Revit and I am better than average on SketchUp – both are electronic tools that we use extensively. But why aren’t more firms building physical models like they – like you – were trained to do when you were in school? You probably think it’s because it’s too expensive … and you might be right. Maybe only really large projects can afford to have a model built, because I haven’t built a physical model for a kitchen remodel or master bedroom addition ever in my life.

(Does anybody build those sorts of models?)

Architectural Models cutting mullions

We don’t have a rule in the office that establishes a threshold for when a model gets built and when it doesn’t, but I can look around the office and say with some degree of confidence that unless your project is over $1,000,000,  you probably aren’t going to get a model … but let’s talk about cost for a moment. Assuming that your knee-jerk reaction as to why models aren’t built is because clients refuse to pay for them. Actually, most of the models we build in our office were build as part of the design process and we didn’t ask permission as to whether or not we can build it. We normally inform our clients during the interview process that model building is sometimes a part of our decision process.

Architectural Model - North West Elevation

But let’s talk a little about the expense associated with building models. We built a scale model of the KHouse Modern project back in August of 2013. We had 3 summer interns that year, and two were dedicated full-time to building architectural models. The third intern spent her summer mostly working on graphic projects, but there was a week when we pulled her off her normal routine and had her build the KHouse Modern model. As I recall, she put this model together in less than a week, and her hourly rate was $35/hour (because if you intern in my office, you get to do real work and we charge real money for your efforts … just not a lot of real money). If she was 100% billable – which I doubt she was – her billing rate (for labor) for the week would have amounted to $1,400. Let’s throw in another generous estimate of $300 for model materials, which brings the grand out-of-pocket total of this model to $1,700. When I compare this amount to what our fee might run on any project of this size and scale, the cost of this model represents 9/10ths of 1% of the total architectural fee.

That doesn’t sound so expensive to me.

I could also talk about how effective this model was when meeting with the client. If I put a stack of 3D renderings on the table and pointed at the images while telling my story, there would have been a period of mental gymnastics that I would need our client to jump through as they orient and reorient themselves to the project as we switch through all the different images. With a physical model, the understanding is instantaneous and constant.

Building Architectural Models

Not all firms do the sort of work where physical models benefit the design process. I would imagine that the folks that roll out Jack in the Box restaurants don’t need to build a model of the restaurant when meeting with the client. Chances are, they don’t actually meet with the client, rather an efficiency and utilization expert retained to manage the construction of Jack-In-the-Boxes. Mr. In-the-Box has more important cheese related dilemmas to address.

If the model doesn’t benefit the communication process, of course I would not advocate that someone actually make a physical model.

Two of the three partners in my office are heavy sketchers and as a result, we tend to work through our design process in that manner. When I was in school, back when I was just starting my journey and my sketches were unrecognizable, physical models played a huge role in my design process. Actually, they played a huge role in everybody’s design process. So why does that process stop once we get in to the real world? I can still make a chipboard model to study massing in the blink of an eye – this isn’t just about the lack of fees in our projects. I think it has more to do with the time associated with making a model. Models take time to build and most people don’t have that sort of time built in to their schedule of deliverables.

Architectural Models one wall at a time

Since we use Revit, I can output some reasonable 3-dimensional images as a by-product of the schematic and design development process; and this is what we use when meeting on the kitchen remodel and master bedroom addition projects. For the most part they work fine .. they do their job and the client Ooo’s and Ahh’s at the images, thinking they’ve received something special. We don’t charge for these images as a specific line item, they aren’t something special that you have to pay extra for … No, these images are simply outputs from the system that just happen come along for the ride. But a physical model? That is definitely something special for the clients. Based on their reaction and the productivity of those meetings when a model is present, they know it and their ability to visualize the project is all that much better when a physical model is involved.

What I don’t understand – and I’ve thought about this a lot – is this:

Why don’t the clients want their model after their house is built?

Our office has a dozen or so models in it and they look cool … but technically speaking they aren’t our models. The clients have paid for them but to the best of my knowledge, none have ever wanted to keep their model afterwards. This literally blows my mind. If I was lucky enough to hire myself to design my dream house, and, as part of that process, I built a miniature version of my dream house, I would want that model to put in the full sized version of my dream house. It doesn’t take much imagination for me to visualize me standing in my dream house, and in an acrylic framed box mounted on the wall was a miniature version of the very house I was standing in?!? Amazeballs.

That would be enough of a reason to build a model for every one of our projects. So what’s the good word – is model building worth it or not?

Happy model building,

Bob-AIA scale figure

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  • Mohammed Shibli

    i belonged to the ones who thinks that computer generations are better than physical models,but you seem to be making some valid points.Regarding the feeling of depth and all available in physical models,do you think that computer models would do the job if they were able to give a presentation rather than on a plane screen,like 3d projection or something?
    imho,i think computer presentations would be better in future the pace technology is developing these days 🙂

  • Dave

    one reason i like to do make physical models in addition to computer renders is because the creative/fun mistakes are very different and can be valuable. if you accidentally pull or warp a model in sketchup it can lead to unexpected fun ideas that are usually fairly complex. if you accidentally build part of a model backwards or cut an opening on the wrong side of the chipboard, you get a different set of mistakes (i find they’re more practical, for lack of a better term) that lead to different fun ideas.

  • Brendan “Joe” Mclaughlin

    Revit certainly is a time saver, yet the appeal of physical models is rather high, and as a design tool, it is quite effective at exploring the spatial relationships and textural and physical properties of the buildings we’re designing. However, perhaps an upside to our increased reliance on computer modeling is perhaps the ability to laser cut or 3D print physical models and having a large economy of savings in time while using such systems. After all, you can draft and occasionally glance at the model you’re printing while you’re drafting, and heck with some of the better printers, you can just let it run over night and remove it in the morning. (if you do, don’t forget an unprintable power supply.)
    Though that may be somewhat excessive.

  • Young Architect

    From my personal perspective: When I left university It was a relief that I would never need to build a model again.

    I started university with an art background, so I did know how to draw well from the get go, but one thing that I absolute despised on university was building models. I stopped making models because I was no longer forced to do it when I finished my degree! Thanks God!

    3D is a whole world better than physical models. If you are proficient, the 3d model process is faster, more precise, more forgiving- you can correct errors on the spot. And also not just allows for the conception of the project but also, at the same time, for a presentation, that can be simple renders or sophisticated walk thoughts. You can get the 3d models on Ipads and such and let the client turntable and open the models with their fingers. You can do all sorts of very sophisticated presentations, that will of course depend on the client and size of the project if it is worth doing. You can do simple renders to sell a house or you can do sophisticated renders to competitions. It all depends on the tools you have on your belt, and the more you have the better.

    I will admit I’m a bit bias, I’m definitely a technology enthusiast.

  • Jared

    Oh how i miss model making.

  • Anna Ahern

    I am a Masters Student in a program where most of us have been practicing professionally on average 6 years. I make models but I am a bit of an oddball, outsider. My first job was hand drafting in 2007 for a sole practitioner, and I made models. Some were chip and paper. We wrote on them, cut pieces off, glued them and marked them up. Some were white artist board and we obsessed over fingerprints and right angle cuts.

    I learned from him that thinking spatially for me starts in my hands. All that thinking deadens when I start with a mouse. Yes it’s faster, but that is only if the goal is to march through the project and leave the spatial thinking on the sidelines. But I wonder if we are letting a tool that is specific to our craft go the way of the dodo without really considering the repercussions? My classmates are just not skilled at model making and avoid working with material at all cost this includes trace, pencils, chip, glue etc. They sit and work on a screen exclusively.

    To me it seems like the argument is always digital vs. paper. I don’t think this is one camp versus the other. I see it this way. What if everyone rejected the pencil when it was first introduced? Digital is simply the new technology that we should embrace as part of our design toolkit. We are imaginers, creators and craftsmen. Thinking in all media; finding our lyric within all that we have at hand should really be an exciting frontier.

  • Jonnel

    I think this comes back to the question of “… where and when you need it”. Is it part of the agreed upon deliverables between you and the client? Is it a critical part of the design process or communication? Or is it just fun?

    I think every project should be approached with fresh eyes and perspective, and varying tools depending on the situation. I’m part of the “digital age” of fresh arch-grads and we see the benefit (and need) of producing 3D visuals that communicates our design in a rapid manner. Especially with the construction boom we have now in the country (I’m from NZ). Not to say that I don’t do physical models, but they are merely process models that I use to figure out things in the design. If they come into presentation, they would be more polished and not all taped up (I’m referring to university here).

    To date, I have not needed to make a physical model for a client as part of my deliverables for the current place I work in. It just didn’t presented itself as a necessary thing. Nor sketches for that matter.

    Again it depends on the project.

  • tcb901

    Wondering if anyone has tried a 3d printer for an architectural model. I’ve received a postcard ad from a company offering them.

    • Kerry Hogue

      our office has several small 3D printers. They are a great tool to provide a very detailed, small model. Small because our printers are small. They take a lot of time. not quick.

  • David Conley

    I’ve learned more from building the actual model than I do with 3D models via SketchUp or Revit. Some things just don’t work in real life as they do once you build it.

  • Julie Howard

    Also – One of our biggest clients require “Maquette d’etude” (study models) rather than professional models for competition entries – so that the jury will understand the project as designed by the architect!!

  • Julie Howard

    Loved reading this one Bob! Thanks! Our office became so filled with models that we had to buy space across the street to store them! They are too important in “feeling” the context, space, scale early on. Call me old school, – 3D modelisations are important for working out the building details… but physical models are mega important!! Our clients (especially private ones) have a hard time understanding the project with 2D elements – whether they be plans/axonos/perspectives… PS I dont really have a budget limit for doing a model… It is too important for me to be sure about the orientation of the project… It is not a cost thing… more of a “do I have the time” thing. That said – I find that building a physical model SAVES me time! You think through the project more while you are “building it”!

  • Steve

    Do you have a piece on the cost of Architects? I’ve heard so many opinions on this, and clients vary on their reaction to what an Architect is worth. Based on your “9/10th’s of a 1%” (so 1% in my book) comment, that house must have been very expensive or you’re making good money! I’d like to know your thoughts on the value your clients see/expect when hiring you, and what Architects should charge (in your opinion) for this value. Keep up the great posts!

    • Kerry Hogue

      We are as architects need to get out of the price as a commodity mentality. Our approach needs to be that of providing value and charge accordingly. Our value is also our intellectual capital. You get what you pay for. Competence and experience should be paid for.

    • I would tend to agree with my friend Kerry Hogue’s comment – regardless of what we charge for it, the real question is “was it worth what we charged for it”.
      The former question is a binary one – it cost “x” to build. This is a number that would vary wildly firm to firm, and even within my own firm. We charge hourly so what happens if I used a more skilled model builder, Less skilled? Someone with a higher or lower billing rate?

      The later question – the one I think should be the focus here – was whether or not the model had value for the price it cost to build? I can speak to this personally and say without a doubt it had value that far exceeded its cost. To that end, it is easy for me to say that building models is a practice worth continuing.

      Since I like to try and answer questions, we bill hourly in my office and we don’t make any more money designing a $5 million house than I do helping someone pick a new front door. It just so happens that this house had a respectable price tag on it and allowed us to build this model simply because it represented such a small percentage of the whole.

  • bricolexi

    Enjoyed this post. Loved building models by hand. Revit models make more sense from time perspective but prints aren’t so great. Do you show clients model and move around it on the screen? Change a color here and there on the fly? Also, do you use Bluebeam to send interactive model in pdf to clients?
    Saw an exhibit of FLW unbuilt work in Montreal years ago. All built of wood. Major art!

  • Amir

    In school, I loved making models.
    I still have the final models for some of my favorite projects.

    At 2 different offices I interned in, I made models for both the lead designer and the clients to use and discuss the process.
    In one of the firms, the Client wanted to see the model change with each visit, which we did.
    In the other firm, the lead designer wanted to keep the model as a piece of art to display later on, on a long shelf filled with models.

    As a client, I’d want the model…
    But as a designer, I would also love to keep some of the favorite models, from projects that become labors of love, not just work.

    As far as materials… I quickly mastered Elmer’s with both chipboard and/or foamboard. But I also appreciate a well made blue-foam model.
    For finished models, I love working with museum board.

    Wood models are great, but take more time and especially care to build… most self-inflicted injuries I’ve seen in model-making happened with wood as the main model material…

    • All of that makes sense to me.
      I think my study model material of choice is chipboard and plain corrugate. The “fancy” models we make here are generally composed of white museum board and basswood. Foamcore and Blue styrofoam are my two least favorite model making materials – no matter what you do, the end product looks like to slapped it together in 30 seconds.

  • architectrunnerguy

    Still build the occasional model. I can turn them out pretty quick as they’re built with white water color paper with the openings drawn in. My experience has been just the opposite as yours Bob as most clients keep the models but they aren’t as big as yours. Most are 1/8″ scale.
    Mrs. Architectrunnerguy gave me a cool Christmas present a while back and I got to build a model of Gaudi’s cathedral….Enjoyed THAT!! I have a fun time with it for when a client shows up expecting to see a model of their house I haul it out….”Ok folks , I made a few minor changes to the concept we talked about!”.
    All seriousness aside, you ought to include paper models in your annual “Gifts for Architects” write up.

    • that is some model!

      It’s a really quick process to apply the rendered elevation drawings on to a massing model to help people understand what they are looking at – certainly eliminates the charge that building models is too expensive. Of course, this is fairly specific to a residential focused practice.

      How long will you hold on and store Sagrada Familia?

      • architectrunnerguy

        Probably ’till we move and who knows when that’ll be!

  • Patrick Anderson

    I haven’t worked at an office that builds models since the late 80’s. It was way back then that I started doing 3d in acad which was exceptionally crude at the time but had the wow factor as it wasn’t the norm.

    I’ve looked at 3d printed models and I’m not a big fan. I’m surprised that more arch firms don’t consider getting a laser cutter. The prices have come down to the point of being affordable and you can cut your pieces from your cad files and then assemble it. To me it seems the best of both worlds.

    • I would imagine that there could be some positive overlaps. I just google searched laser cutters and found a particularly nice one (24″x36″ capacity) that cost $9k. That is something that I would covet having in the office!

  • Brian D. Meeks

    I would love to have a model of a house/castle/evil lair that you have designed for me. In fact, when that day comes, I’ll include “build model” as part of the contract and gladly pay for the added expense.

    I do have a question, though. We live in an age where in 2015 a human Kidney was 3D printed. Actual houses are printed, metal parts, almost everything imaginable can be printed. Why not combine the 3D renderings on your computers with a 3D Printer and print the model?

    I imagine that one could not only get a greater level of detail (texture of the shingles, incredibly accurate details of the stone walls around the garden, even a coy pond, that the resulting model would be…to use what I believe is a technical term…amazaballs! (See John’s post to verify the technical term)

    • 3D printing is still pretty expensive from a material standpoint. I also haven’t seen (because I haven’t been looking) a 3D printer that can use different materials. Our models are also of a size that makes a 3D printer not very practical. If we wanted to look at small massing models, or do some rapid prototyping it would make more sense – but putting it on a table for a client to reference, little plastic models aren’t all that effective at eliciting the sort of response we are looking to achieve.

      • Brian D. Meeks

        That makes sense. I’m sure the technology may make it possible in the future as prices drop and size and capacity increase.

        Still, no matter how the models are made, I think they’re cool.

        • cwho

          Brian, have a look at my post below about 3d printing. We have been doing it since 2000. The new small plastic printers that have become popular in the last 3 years are not ideal for architecture. They are a great way to become familiar with the technology though. Also some of the amazing commercial machines are quite expensive but as Bob points out the high cost per cubic inch and plastic look is less than ideal.

  • Michele Grace Hottel

    I like models, but the last one that I can remember helping to build was my daughter’s castle project for her 8th grade history class and I would not even be able to say that had it not been for my architect husband getting involved in it. Needless to say, that was still in the classroom when my boys were there 4 and 6 years later.

    • I would be hard pressed to make a model myself these days – the truth of the matter is that I am too expensive to put on such a task. I would have to do it simply because I enjoy doing it, but then it’s more of a hobby (and I already have a hobby that tales up too much of my time)

      • Michele Grace Hottel

        I think in general, the field of architecture needs an “Apple upgrade”.

  • Brendan Geyer

    $1400 a week?! Wow, please can I work for you? Haha I will do anything. That is a heck of a lot of money just to build models. Here in South Africa that amounts to R89 000 a month!

    • That’s not salary, that’s this employee’s billing rate which covers more than just her individual paycheck.

  • Many firms are trending towards 3D printing as a replacement to hand-crafted models.. but I’m not convinced this is better than a bundle of renderings.

    I’m with you Bob, bass wood/ museum board models are Amazeballs.

    • I’m also not convinced that the 3D printing achieves the same goal. The cost is still incredibly high per cubic inch and as a result, most of the 3D models I’ve seen are either really tiny (to the point of being worthless) or literally look like they were printed using plastic chord.

      Nobody get’s excited about plastic chord models.

      Hope you are well – see you soon.

      • cwho

        Bob,

        Thanks for your great support of physical models. I have been making models for over 20 years. We do a tremendous number of residential models but also some commercial. I have to agree with you that ~$1M is a threshold where the client seems to buy into more design development costs. I also agree with your cost estimates of having an intern build the model. We have traditionally seen that as “our competition”!

        I think your article and comments miss a lot of technology that can be leveraged toward traditional model making though. Our firm started with laser cutting and hand built models, mostly out of styrene and plexi. Laser cutters are basically digital exacto knives and can add a lot even to a small studio. You can also outsource this. Most shops can cut from a dxf. It takes a lot of the finger bending time out of the process.

        We still use our laser and actually just bought a new one, however most of our work, particularly residential is done with 3d printing. We run 6 large commercial printers, not the plastic extruders. The machines print in a relatively low cost plaster composite and have a build size of 10″ x 15″ x 8″. That means most residential projects can be made in a single print at 1″ = 16′. This is a scale down from the traditional 1″ = 8′ but the detail we are able to achieve from using your Revit or Sketchup is tremendous.

        We also CNC machine the terrain and can do up to 4′ x 8′ monolithic so that means if you need a big landform around the house we don’t have to 3d print it all.

        Have another look at 3d printing!

        Again, many thanks for writing the blog.

        Charles

  • Gene

    Another nice blog. I think models are invaluable to client understanding, and I think they are more important to the architect (designer) in understanding their design. Most people do not understand 2D drawings, but will often not admit to not understanding, especially clients. Show someone a plan and section of a coffee cup and ask them what it is or looks like in form and size vs showing them a real coffee cup.
    In the design process “feel” is important in how the real building/space will feel.
    Draw a line on yellow trace with a Pentel “Sign”, a Sharpie fine or Sharpie Ultra Fine. Somehow there is an inmate feed back from the feel of each type line to the brain. The same feedback happens when building a model. It is not hard to make a model of three intersecting materials and planes with Sketchup and rotate and flip it around, but you will have no understanding of what you are actually proposing and how “hard” it might be to construct until you model it.
    Hand to brain experience, drawing and model making and other last for a long time. I remember long ago in order to make a nice low, long table a friend and I liberated a lightweight Tectum plank from Midnight Lumber about a half mile from our apartment. I now have imbedded into my mind what 10#/SF actually means.
    Gehry doesn’t make his complex forms in 2D and 3D then make a model. Because he has the equipment he does a model and laser scans it to make the drawings.
    To build or not to build. I’d go with build.

  • Paul Scharnett

    Bob,

    I think the model-building process is exactly in-step with the cost/design problem. People who want fast and cost-effective buildings often reduce the design aspects to the point where the building is a box. At that point, a model represents nothing special. For certain clients that need very particular visual representation and excellent design (i.e., people who struggle to visualize spaces from 2D prints–most everyone who is not an architect or contractor), models are nothing short of miraculous. But when considering the lax design parameters of the late 20th and 21st Century, I just think the value is lost.

    Paul

  • Lora

    Maybe the difference is the client. They want your deliverable, they don’t necessarily want or need the model after it has provided its value. They aren’t an architect and won’t spend evenings sipping bourbon looking at your balsa wood window mullion details.

    The good word is: build models. And make sure interns are using scaled materials. I see models built with foamcore that are supposed to be only the gyp layer of a wall assembly or some other finitely narrow material IRL. *face palm* You can teach building assembly through models MUCH cheaper than them messing it up on a real drawing (that you would presumably catch down the line). And the inherent massing and line delineations that become obvious in the built form can prevent issues a 3d view on the computer skews.

    • I think the reason we still have these models is related to their size. Most people might not want a model that takes up 4 square feet in their kitchen.

      I also didn’t talk about the fact that I think building models is fun – if I didn’t take the time to write this blog, I might spend some of that time building models of the playhouses I’ve designed. They seem perfectly suited for model building.

      • Lora

        DO IT.

  • Kerry Hogue

    when I was in school we built lots of models, as you did. my material of choice, read economic necessity, was chip board. It cost 25 cents a sheet at the Co-Op. a tube of Duco cement was 49 cents. Can’t really say how I remember that from 40+ years ago. I bought a lot of it I guess is why.
    here where I work we build a lot of models of varying materials. One of the most used for quick study models is blue foam insulation boards cut with a hot wire. down and dirty fast. Using a hot wire is a skill set in itself, one I never quit acquired.

    • I have never built a blue foam model in my life – although some people did when I was in school. I fall more in to the same camp as you – chipboard and, in my case, Elmer’s white glue. I became a glue master during the peak of my model making days. I always feel the need to tell people, use 1/10th the amount of Elmer’s you think you should use, and you’ll be fine and it will dry in less than a minute.

      That was one thing from studio that I never grew tired of – building study models.