Architectural Models

September 12, 2013 — 41 Comments

One of the biggest changes I have seen since moving over to my new office is that the number of scale models has gone up considerably. There are currently 7 fairly large models stashed all over the office and despite the fact that the staff is almost sitting on top of one another, we are okay taking up precious real estate because we think these models send the right sort of message and help set the tone for the type of design culture we want to maintain in the office.

The college fall semester is now underway and we lost 3 of our heavy model hitters – aka, the “Summer Interns”. For the last few months, we have had three talented and extremely capable young architects in training – Ellie Hopen [Carnegie Mellon], John Charbonneau [Texas Tech], and Travis Schneider [UT Austin] all working full-time to build models and prepare the graphics for our recent Architectural Project Book. One thing we really work on is trying to get our interns working on something that has value, things that contribute to the office in a positive manner, and something that has value to them when they return to school. We’re lucky in the we get to cherry pick some of the best college interns looking for summer work and when they leave, we typically want them to return. That means their time here needs to be well spent and having work for them to do that creates ownership is important.

Two of our interns – John and Travis – spent a bulk of their time this summer working on a single model – the “Voltron” of models.

models in the model shop with Travis Schneider

I took all the pictures in this post except for the last 4 (which should be exceedingly apparent to you) at the very end of the model building process. Unfortunately, interns Ellie and John had already left for college and don’t show up in these photos. The model that I thought I would show today is for a residential project we currently have in development. The picture above just starts to hint at its size – the scale for this model is 1″ = 1′-0″ which is without any questions the largest scale model we have ever built.

models in the model shop with Travis Schneider

I should also point out that this model is actually 12 individual models that can be taken apart for closer inspection. Did I mention that this is only a portion of the house? This is the front 1/3 of the house – the portion that faces the front yard and main street. We did not include the basement or the two wings that make up the other 2/3’s of the entire project – which is probably a good thing because I don’t know where they would have gone. This model took up the better part of this part of the studio and I can speak from personal experience that it was slightly nerve-wracking to have to shimmy in the 15″ between the model and the wall in order to get into the back part of the studio. One too many burritos and you could imagine falling (in slow motion of course) on top of the model. If the model didn’t disable you during the fall, I’m quite sure the interns would finish the job.

Architect Michael Malone and photographer Jonas Ramos and Melody Hamilton in the photography studio

Once the model was completed, (i.e. summer ended and the interns went back to school) we thought it would be a good idea to document the finished product. Most models in our office could be shot in-house with the tiniest amount of effort. Since this model in its fully assembled state measured 12″-6″ by 6′-0″, we needed some help. We have a lot of photographers that are friends of the firm and we found one who was willing and able to accommodate the size of our model. Jonas Ramos with Paul Morgan Photography was happy to spend the afternoon helping us move models around and build a platform large enough to accommodate this model.

Peter Joe as scale model holding one of the models

This is one of our associates – Peter Joe – carrying in one of the individual model pieces … it helps to set the scale of the overall total model.

Travis Schneider putting the roof on the model

Since Travis was still around, he was responsible for assembling the model components together and adjusting the spacing between the individual models.

Travis Schneider taking pictures of the models with his iPhone

Peter Joe and Travis Schneider aligning the individual models

taking photos of the finished model

The final model in position ready to start taking pictures. I really tried hard to convince Michael Malone to lay down in front of the model – it’s 12′-6″ long and he’s 6′-8″ tall … but he isn’t the sort of guy that goes along with “funny bits” regardless of how often I tell him “C‘mon! People will loooove it!”

iPhone panorama photo of the architectural model

This distorted picture was taken with my iPhone camera with the “panorama” setting … there was a lot of sitting around waiting on “stuff” to happen so I entertained myself with my phone.

computer software "Capture One Pro" for modifying photos

A screen shot of the software photographer Jonas Ramos was using  to check light levels. It’s called Capture One Pro 7 and is incredibly slick. This seems to be the software of choice for most of the architectural photographers I know – if I took more pictures I could probably be convinced that I needed to buy my own copy.

[The next four pictures can all be selected and they will open up in a new window at twice the scale if you want a really good look.]

final front elevation photo of architectural model

final section view of architectural model

side view of finished architectural model

plan view of exploded model

One of the questions that I would have expected to receive (but not anymore because I am answering it now) was:

“Why did the model have to be so large?

That is a perfectly reasonable question because I thought the model was a tad on the large size myself (It was under construction when I moved over to my new office). I asked Michael Malone and his response was pretty simple:

“The house is pretty large and this model was an ongoing study model to review the interior spaces and material unit sizes as the project is being developed.” 

In other words, we wanted to stick our heads in it to get a better sense of the scale. It’s not that often that you design a Living Room that’s approximately 2,400 square feet all by itself.

One of the things that wouldn’t be readily apparent is that we were developing this model concurrently as we were developing the design on the house. To say the finished model doesn’t reflect the current stage of design isn’t necessarily fair, but it isn’t incorrect either. A vast majority of the models we make are not made to serve as a testament to the final design – these are working models and as such, rarely reflect the final design. These models, besides playing a role in setting the tone for the culture of the office, help us work through the form, space and scale of the projects.

The fact that they look cool is simply an awesome by-product.


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  • Ben Darling

    Hi Bob,

    I’m writing a LinkedIn publish which partly addresses 3D Printing in Architecture. The point that I am making is that 3D Printing will not address all of the requirements of a model making workshop. I would like to request permission to use a few images in the above article to include in my publish. I of course will give your website credit for the pictures within my publish.

    Kind regards,
    Ben Darling

    • Hi Ben,

      Thank you for asking – you may use any of the photos above; and I do appreciate you including attribution of those images.


  • Pingback: A Case for Building Architectural Models | Life of an Architect()

  • kofi

    hi Mark…id like to know what materials were used for the model

  • liridon

    Hello Sir, I am Liridon 25 year ,and I’m from Kosovo, a tiny country and the new.
    At the end of the Architecture
    I love love love love love the profession of architectural models, cultural models, miniatures, etc. etc..
    And I work with great dedication, but the vices of this work, is that the state provides no opportunity ion as an artist of true, and simply pull the kets are a profession in Kosovo,
    I sent some pictures of a cultural model (P- 1:20) , it is probably only 60% of the work, and do more. Thank for your understanding.
    I expect a response from you, if critical, suggestions or praise.

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  • Kellie Zhao

    That model is so amazing! I want to go to architecture school but I don’t really enjoy making models–the process is quite frustrating for me…. should all aspiring architects be passionate about model making?

    • no. The idea of me making one now sounds terrible, not sure I would have the skill set I once had to make something like this work. We had college architectural interns make this model – they are in their model-making prime!

      • Kellie Zhao

        Oh phew, that’s good to know! Can’t wait to go to architecture school. Thanks for your reply! =)

  • cjysocean

    Great to see archtiects working as architects. In my previous experiences with 5 firms- only virtual models were made. People can be so distant from reality.

  • Drew Hasson

    Once again, this design is a genius combination of Julia Morgan and Le Corbusier. The massing reminds me of City Beautiful architecture in the 1920’s. I know this is a residential design, however, can it be adapted for libraries, railroad terminals and Post Offices?

    • Thanks Drew! Based on the scale alone, it quite possibly could be adapted as a different building type

  • Wow, lots of eye candy on this one. I always hated making physical models in studio. Something about having to score the chipboard 50 times to cut it and then holding it for 20 minutes while the Elmer’s dried.

    • Thanks Enoch.

      One Elmers glue tip I give people – and it is a master builder’s tip – use about 1/10th as much as you think. When you just the tiniest amount, it dries in just a few moments. Only when it’s too thick does it take a long time to dry.

      You probably don’t need this tip anymore but it was too good not to share

    • marcus

      Hi Enoch
      It would appear you were going about it in the wrong way.

  • nbc

    I was lucky enough to know one of the gentlemen who worked as a model builder in Norman Foster’s office in London. He took me to see his shop a couple of times. Amazing. Every tool and material you can imagine at his disposal. Every scale represented in works-in-progress. Full scale detail mock-up for a detail in a high-rise in Hong Kong? Yup. 1:1000 model for urban design competition in Spain? Yup. 8 sizes of little Boeing 767s for airport models? Yup.

    What you have there is a hotel ballroom. Or maybe a church nave. I’ve seen rooms in residences like that, they get used (fundraising events) a couple times a year. Otherwise very uncomfortable with less than 20 people. Throw some furniture in that model, at least in the “living room”, just as you would a drawing. Show the client, and suggest they make a place outdoors where the caterer can put a tent for big events, before it’s too late . . . .

    Sometimes a generous budget can be an architect’s worst enemy.

  • Meenakshi K

    Its a treat to see the model at this scale…Detailing is wonderful! Would love to see how it translates over time into the real picture…used to enjoy the model making sessions during college and early practice. Currently, the number of study models has reduced sadly. And this is a really great blog..:)

  • lardavis1951

    Just wanted to comment about the scale “issue”. I started my “career” with American Bricks, then Lincoln Logs (the real wood ones), and sketching plans of our rental houses in 1/32″ scale (to fit on standard paper), and when I made it into studio I think it was frugality and lack of space that had me building at smaller scale. 1/4″ scale was the largest – some at 1/16″ (a theater complex with all 2500 seats and snap-together mezzanines out of Strathmore). I think our most ambitious graduate studio model was 8′ square of an entire Midwestern town square and historic courthouse; came apart in quadrants so we could haul it to the distant town for meetings with the Chamber of Commerce clients, and we had four or more interchangeable streetscapes that plugged into it.
    One of our studio tools was a periscope camera attachment that would allow us to see/walk thru our models. Difficult to work the lighting, and to get a decent shot, but a great concept in the analog age.
    My office’s models tend to be study-work-in-progress, since I’m faster with an Xacto than perspective – and I detest how so many of my boss’s sketches faked the scale, and other sketches left a wall out and misled the observer/client. We have done a high-relief sizeable model of our Romanesque/neo-classical city hall to illustrate lighting proposal (using a single 100 watt a-lamp below the base and holes cut for uplighting to bring out the stone ornamentation.
    Sorry, I do run on – I love that you all use physical models; bless the low-paid suffering interns! May their need for bandages be minimal, and that their callused fingers recover after all that cutting and gluing.

  • Kathleen @ CastleView 3D

    This model is the scale of a typical dollhouse — you could finish it out and sell it to a dollhouse collector or museum! As someone who makes a living creating CAD architectural models but who enjoys 1:12 scale dollhouse building as a hobby, it seems like fun to be able to combine the two in one project!

    • from what I’ve heard, the dollhouse business is quite lucrative as well ….

      Something to think about

  • Ryan Hansanuwat

    Who fronts the bill for these huge models? Does your firm pay for it, or is there something written in the contract with the client?

    • The clients pay for them but we are judicious with the time we spend on them. It’s also part of the reason interns reason interns work on building them – their skills are more current and they bill at a substantially lower rate than someone like myself.

  • Sara

    Building models was absolutely my favorite part of the design process and architecture school as a whole. I just graduated with my M.Arch and am looking for firms that continue to build models…happen to be hiring at all?

    • Sadly no. We are maxed out on human bodies at the moment and unless things get crazy stupid busy, we have a suck-it-up period for the next few months. Maybe in the Spring we’ll be looking to possibly add to our staffing levels

  • Courtney Price

    So where will this model live now? Lucky interns to get such a cool project. I hope you will show finished pictures of the living room (and the rest of the house).

    • The model is so big we put 11 of the 12 pieces in our air conditioned off-site storage room. I know the intent is to find a place to showcase the model when we move into our new offices next year (sometime after March ’14)

      This client might not let us take photos for public consumption so we’ll have to see what develops over time – that’s a long way off!

      • cjysocean

        How about travel through local public libraries as educational outreach? Kids LOVE to see that. Also great PR.

  • lancotf

    Holy awesomeness (inventing words because there are no words to properly describe)! That is fantastic!….and I’m not just saying that because there are timbers in it, but because I love models and the depth of detail they show. Nice work!

    • Yes – heavy timbers play a very large role in this design – the span of the Great room is 60 feet! I can’t imagine designing this house without using a scale model to help visualize the spaces. The scale is so large that is would be difficult to get the proportioning right – we want it to come off as residential, not commercial (like the lobby of a hotel). It’s been a fun project so far, I’m looking forward to continuing the process.

      • lancotf

        Great design. I understand what you mean about keeping it residential and not lobby-like. 60′ is definitely doable with timbers and will give a bit of option to the design.
        It looks like a blast! I shared it with the hubby, as he is going into Studio 4 this year where models will become a large part of his life.

  • Fantastic model – beautiful finish, especially the timber elements. It is refreshing to see such pride taken in physical models in this day and age, particularly at such a grand scale! Kudos to all involved, keep up the good work Bob.

    • Thanks – real credit goes to the client for being interested in the process and the interns who spent their entire summer building this model. When we were taking the final photos, the intern Travis was directing us like a mother hen he was so protective of it.

  • wavewriter

    It was a complement.

    • I didn’t take it as a criticism, but I can see how it came off that way. Sorry

  • wavewriter

    Only in Texas…

  • Mark Wilson

    Bob – Great model. As a student at the University of Georgia, I had the privilege of working for a professor on a large residential project for which I built a 1/8″ = 1′ scale site model for a site that was about 5 acres (scale model cars for the drive purchased from a model train store were HO scale, abut 3/8″ or 1/2″ long). How do I remember the scale since that was over 20 years ago? Well, I built the entire base and painted it when my professor pointed out that the scale was wrong. I had bought 1/4″ foam core for the base, and not 1/8″. Built it all over, a second time. Painful, but I learned so much that it was invaluable.

    That said, I am obviously “old school”. The new professionals coming out of schools all use software to accomplish what your firm (interns) did. Would love to see a follow up to the above comparing pros and cons of software versus scale models, from both architect and client perspective.

    PS – Great model! Have had the opportunity to work on two similar scale residential projects. Great fun and learning.

    • Thanks Mark – that is a good idea for a post!

      I’ve built a lot of models in my limited career (I graduated 21 years ago) and I wonder if my attraction to them is associated with my nostalgia for the architectural studio of my college years? If architects in training are graduating without building these sorts of models, maybe the entire notion of hand-building models will gone.

      It’s a good question, thanks for the comment.