What is an architectural model?
The architectural model is a tool often used to express a building design or masterplan. The model represents architectural ideas, and can be used at all stages of design. An architectural model shows the scale and physical presence of a proposed design.
The model is a 3 dimensional replica or expression of the design, usually at a scale much smaller than full size. Traditionally, architectural models were made exclusively by hand using materials such as foam board, balsa wood and card, but more recent developments in technologies have seen the use of digital methods such as laser cutting and 3D printing.
The architectural model can be seen in many forms, created out of a multitude of materials and traditional or modern techniques. These modern techniques now allow for faster and more detailed model production, with fast model making becoming a strong requirement.
Despite the development of 3D modelling and photo-realistic rendering, there is a still a firm place for the architectural model in the design process.
As a student, it is likely you will be asked to build a model at least once, and it is a great skill to develop and embrace during your studies. Not only will architectural model making serve to improve your design critique, but give you new skills in critical thinking and spacial awareness.
What is an architectural model used for?
The architectural model serves many functions, which can be broken down into three categories.
The first type of model is the conceptual model. This is used at the initial stage of design to look at forms and shape.
The second is the use of the architectural model to inform and develop a design, the working model. This type of model is not seen by a client or the public but used to develop ideas and work on solutions.
The third type of model is the presentation model, that is used to present the architects design ideas to the client or public.
We will look at all of these types of model in more detail.
The conceptual model allows the designer to develop initial concepts and ideas using basic models and shapes to develop a form. It is an early approach to the design, describing an idea in simple terms. Although sketching is often used as a starting point for development, the physical model allows us to explore our ideas in 3d form. The materials used for this type of model tend to be more basic, and a looser approach is taken to the construction process. They are usually made quickly, and easy to adjust and tweak as the design is progressed.
Working models go a step further in developing design ideas and solutions. The working model will have higher quality materials that reflect specification in design They help us understand and communicate scale, form and materials. The physical model has a presence, and texture that is difficult to represent in drawings or digital work, and allows for exploration of its materiality and form. At this stage it is possible that the client will be able to see these early models and they will be used as a communication device for the early design.
The presentation model are far more detailed than the previous models, and reflect the proposed materials of the scheme. The context of the site and surroundings are often included in presentation models to demonstrate how the design fits with the context of the surrounding architecture and landscape. In some cases the presentation model is illuminated, which creates an impressive effect and are often used to highlight particular areas of a scheme. The illuminated model is particularly popular for demonstrating schemes that will be predominantly used at night time (restaurants, theatres, bars etc). The presentation model has numerous functions.
It can be used to help clients or investors envisage the design, it is used as a communication method between the architect and the client.
Sales and Marketing
Architectural models can be used as a method of marketing developments. It is quite common to see a scale model of a new housing development, or mixed used development in the sales and marketing area while the project is under construction. This allows potential purchasers to imagine the project as a completed development.
Sometimes architectural models are used to provide information to the public. These could be a 3d map that allows visitors to navigate more easily, perhaps a site map with buildings that displays historical information. It could also be providing the public with a visual sense of an urban planning development that is under progress.
For larger developments architectural models are sometimes used to demonstrate the scheme in order to win planning approval, or win the confidence of the public. It allows people to understand the project better than looking at 2d drawings, particularly when under public consultation, as often people find it far more difficult to read plans and elevations than they do a physical model.
Sign up to my newsletter
Make sure you don’t miss out on anything that is going on at First In Architecture – sign up to the newsletter now. No spam, no funny business, just useful stuff!
Materials for architectural models
Material selection for your architectural model will depend on a few factors. Are you making a conceptual model, or final presentation? Will you want to represent the materials of the design? Do you want to produce a more neutral model that represents the buildings form? Is budget important? Is time a determining factor? Materials used for presentation models will need to be relatively durable, stable and not fade when exposed to sunlight. Materials used for an early concept model do not need to be quite so robust.
Neutral materials are often used to represent a building design. Some of the materials are listed below:
Card and cardboard
Cardboard and card is available in many different weights, colours and finishes. It is a relatively cheap option for model making and a versatile choice for making both conceptual models along with working models too.
Cardboard is often used to show roads, paths and terrain by building up layer upon layer of card. Give the strength of cardboard it is also able to support itself well.
Foamboard is a piece of foam that is sandwiched between two thin pieces of card. It is usually white (although can be found in different colours) and comes in a variety of weights and thicknesses. It is a very useful materials for creating a clean white context model. It is easy to cut and the nature of the build up allows for very neat junctions and corners. It is also a pretty sturdy material and can support itself well. It is very lightweight, which is great when modelling anything large as it is easy to transport.
Foam and polystyrene
Foam and polystyrene are often used to create massing models or topography. They are lightweight and easy to cut and shape. The foam can be quite fragile and easy to damage so generally is not used for presentation models.
There are a few wood options used in model making.
Basswood has a good workability and finishes well.
Balsawood is probably the most popular wood product for model making. It has a good finish and is available in varying weights, it is easy to cut and creates a very accurate model.
Cork is sometimes used to give surface finishes, it is easy to cut and work with but can stain and is susceptible to damage.
Metal can be used to demonstrate building finishes using a sheet form. Sheets can be obtained in aluminium, copper, brass, or steel.
Perspex and acrylic are used to create transparent materials, to good effect. It is possible to get coloured and semi opaque acrylics which can also be quite effective.
Landscaping and context
Adding landscaping elements to the model can be the finishing touch that elevates the model to presentation standard. It allows the proposed scheme to look more natural in its surrounding context. It is possible to get bags of course turf, which is like a green sand to give the effect of grass and general ground cover. You can also get trees, bushes and shrubs. Flocking is another option for grass effect.
Other landscaping elements can include people, cars, street furniture, lighting – as much as your imagination will allow! Introducing elements such as these allow the viewer a concept of scale which otherwise might be lost.
Deciding on your model style and scale
One of the key factors to ensuring a successful architectural model, is the preparation. Some of the following questions will lead to some important decisions about your model.
- What is the model for?
- What am I trying to communicate?
- What is the budget for the model?
- What is the time scale?
- Do I want to show proposed materials?
- Is the context and surrounding site important?
- Do I want to show the whole model, or a section?
If you are building a neutral style model, consider whether to differentiate the proposed scheme with the surrounding context by using two different materials.
The scale of your model will depend on what you are representing. If you are looking to demonstrate the interior of one room, then the scale would need to be something like 1:10 in order to allow the viewer to see the detail of the room. However, if you are demonstrating an urban plan, then the scale would need to be quite different, at about 1:1000 or up to 1:2500 depending on the scope of the project. In some cases models will be produced at scales of 1:2 or 1:5, which usually look at very detailed components or material details.
The following table gives a good indication of recommended scales for architectural models.
Model Making Tools
Knife / cutting tool
There are a few different cutting tools available and people tend to have their favourites. The key here is that the blade is sharp and precise. It you are new to using sharp blades and cutting tools, take some careful practice getting used to working with the cutting tool. It is important you replace the blades often to ensure easy cutting, accidents often happen with blunt blades because unnecessary pressure is put on the blade and it makes it easier to slip.
This was my blade of choice when working on models. It is super sharp and accurate allowing for really intricate and detailed cutting. Be careful with this!
Another popular choice for precision cutting, sharp like scalpel and easy to get extra blades.
For a more all round utility knife use the Olfa knife. Not quite so dangerous as the other two, and the blades can be snapped off when blunt to reveal a nice sharp new one.
Glue and adhesives
There are different adhesives available for the different materials you may be using. Selecting the incorrect glue for a materials could result in the material not sticking properly or worse, the glue can even dissolve some materials. Some glues dry clear, while others have a white semi opaque finish.
Acrylic resin glue – sometimes known as superglue
This is a very fast acting glue, very strong bonding, and not the kind of stuff you want on your hands. Care needs to be taken when using this glue, which isn’t suitable for paper or card.
There are various types of wood glue available which works well for the woods mentioned above, with some wood glues being suitable for card, foam and paper. Wood glue tends not to be suitable for metal or plastic.
PVA is an all purpose glue, not as strong as wood glue but works well with card, paper, and foam board.
Glue guns allow for quick drying, not suited to metals. Not my favourite, tend to be a bit stringy and messy unless you have a real skill for using them.
Clear synthetic resin – like UHU
This glue dries clear and suitable for paper, card and foam.
Used for card or paper, this is a sprayable glue that makes for easy fixing of card onto card. It is possible to peel off and reposition with care. This can get everywhere so be careful where it is used, ideally in a workspace or outside.
Sometimes your glue may come in a large bottle, which doesn’t lend itself to precision gluing! The syringe allows you to have just a smaller amount as you work and make it easier to work on more intricate areas of the model.
Double sided tape can also be useful for bonding pieces together while the glue dries. Careful when using with card or paper as it will tear away if you try to remove it.
If you have the facility, it is worth giving laser cutting a try. The laser cutter can cut wood, cardboard, paper, foam, polystyrene, acrylics and many more materials. It allows for very accurate cutting very quickly, meaning you can focus on the assembly of the model. There is some preparation required as you develop your cad drawing for the laser cutting machine. You can use a 2d cad drawing to essentially lay out the pieces of the puzzle that will need to be cut out.
General tips for architectural model making
Make a base
Don’t forget to use a solid base for your model, one that is clean and has neat edges. Also make sure it is a good size relevant to your model, it could be difficult to trim or extend it once you have a half completed model stuck to it!
Make sure you plan plan plan! Especially if you are new to model making, it is well worth taking some time to plan out each section of the model, how you are going to assemble it and what is the quickest and cleanest way to do so.
Keep it clean and bright
Firstly, keep your hands clean as much as possible! Gluey hands make for messy models. Make sure your workspace has good lighting so you aren’t straining to see the details of the model.
Take shortcuts where possible with templates
Creating templates and guides is a great way to avoid measuring the same thing again and again. Anything repetitive in your model can be templated in some way. For example, you could create a template for sill heights, or for doors, for regular spacing perhaps. You could create a template for cutting out curves, or specific details that will need to be cut out numerous times. It is a big time saver to do this, and also makes your model more precise.
You can print materials to scale and stick to your foam board or card to give a representation of material without spending too much.
Architectural model making resources
From Eric at 30x40 Design Workshop, this video is a really great walkthrough of architectural model making – I would highly recommend a watch, plus subscribe to Erics YouTube channel as his videos are excellent.
If you found this article helpful, I would love to hear from you! Comment below!