Architectural Model Making – The Guide
What is an architectural model?
Architectural model making is a tool often used to express a building design or masterplan. An architectural model represents architectural ideas and can be used at all stages of design. The model shows the scale and physical presence of a proposed design.
The architectural model is a 3-dimensional replica or expression of the design, usually at a scale much smaller than full size. Being able to physically construct and interact with models not only helps architects get a better understanding of their designs and test ideas, but it also helps them make informed decisions before moving on to the time-consuming construction phase.
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 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 still a firm place for the physical architectural model in the design process.
As an architecture 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 spatial awareness.
In this post we will be exploring the uses and different types of architectural models, along with how they can be used to enhance your design process. You will also learn about the essential materials and tools needed for model making, as well as how to select the appropriate scale and plan your model effectively. So, read on till the end!
Don’t forget you can download this post as a handy pdf, just scroll to the end to get the guide!!
What are the different types of architectural models?
Architectural models can come in various shapes, forms, and scales.
Here are some common types of architectural models:
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 progresses.
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 models 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 is often used to highlight particular areas of a scheme. The illuminated model is particularly popular for demonstrating schemes that will be predominantly used at nighttime (restaurants, theatres, bars etc). The presentation model has numerous functions.
Some other types of architectural models include:
Massing Models (can come under conceptual)
Massing models give a general idea of the shape and volume of the building devoid of any details. They are great for testing and experimentation as multiple iterations can be produced in short amounts of time.
Site or Context Model
These models depict the wider context a building will be situated in. They are great to test different concept models and help to see how the different iterations interact with the surrounding buildings, vegetation etc.
Topographic models show the terrain and contours of a site. These are typically used when designing on sites that are on a slope or gradient or are perhaps situated on some uneven land. They can come in handy when planning how to access these tricky sites.
These models focus on the site’s vegetation and green spaces. They are often used to study how landscape features interact with architecture and how the spaces can be enhanced to have harmony with nature.
Case Study Model
Case study models are typically replica models of already existing or famous architectural buildings. They are used by students and architects to analyse the specific details, features, and components of a particular building. These could include building materials, structural systems, internal layouts and more.
These help give an understanding of the internal workings of the building. They typically focus on a part of the building that has some special intrigue, for instance a large atrium space. They can also be used to show the interior space set up, building structure and materials.
Detail Models provide a close-up representation of a select part of a building that may require further resolution and refining. They are often used by architects and students to understand how building materials come together and to explore the building’s structural systems.
All the types of architectural models mentioned above have unique applications and can be used to produce different outcomes. You also have the opportunity to create variations by combining two or more types of architectural models.
Ultimately your project requirements will determine the best choice of architectural model or models for you to create.
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’s style.
- 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?
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.
Sometimes your project brief will dictate a scale, but if not, have a good think about it. Also remember you don’t always have to produce the entire building and context, sometimes a section through the building can work really well.
We recommend making use of your entourage elements like scale people and trees to really emphasise the scale and show the relationship between your design and its context.
The following table gives a good indication of recommended scales for architectural models.
Model Making Tools and Methods
Some commonly used model making tools and methods include:
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. If 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 is our blade of choice when working on models. It is super sharp and accurate allowing for really intricate and detailed cutting. Be careful with this!
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.
Another popular choice for precision cutting, sharp like scalpel and easy to get extra blades.
A cutting mat is essential for protecting your desk or table from scratches and cuts, but also prevents the blade from becoming blunt quickly.
A metal ruler is useful for cutting straight lines. A cutting ruler usually has grooves that help protect your fingers. Worth investing in one particularly if you are accident prone.
Hot wire cutter
This is best used to make clean and precise cuts on foam and polystyrene. If you wish to go for a more jagged and carved out look, you should stick to a blunt knife.
You can use this to efficiently cut stacks of paper or card.
A wire cutter helps you precisely snip wires.
Sandpaper comes in handy when your model has rough edges that you would like to smooth down. You can also intentionally sand parts of your model down to highlight certain surfaces of your design.
These can be used to shape metal, wood and even plastic.
Pliers are useful when you wish to bend, twist, and cut wires or pliable metals with ease.
These come in kits that have a variety of shapes and sizes. They can be used to carve, smooth, etch into materials like clay, wax, or stone. They are great for adding intricate details and textures to your model.
Glue and adhesives
There are different adhesives available for the different materials you may be using. Selecting the incorrect glue for a material 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.
Solvent based glue
This is best for materials like clear acrylic, where you would want the glue to dry clear and leave no residue for that clean and professional finish.
Clear synthetic resin – like UHU
This glue dries clear and is 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.
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.
Perfect for conceptual or sketch models. It can also be used to hold the model in place when the applied glue is drying.
Double sided tape
This can also be useful for bonding pieces together while the glue dries. Be careful when using it with card or paper as it will tear away if you try to remove it.
With the advancement of technology, you can take your virtual 3D models and convert them into physical ones. This is especially beneficial for architects and students as they allow for faster prototyping, design exploration and communication.
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.
For more information on laser cutting we found a useful tutorial walking you through the process of preparing your design for laser cutting from the Instructables website:
3D printing is an exciting new world for architectural models. The technology has already been adopted by professional model makers to provide clients with fast, accurate, cost effective models. The output is clean and contemporary, extracted from CAD.
This video demonstrates some of the types of 3D printing and finishes that can be obtained.
You can also incorporate these methods into your physical model making workflow to make a hybrid workflow that will help you speed up the production of your model.
Architectural model making resources
From Eric at 30×40 Design Workshop, this video is a really great walkthrough of architectural model making – I would highly recommend a watch, plus subscribe to Eric’s YouTube channel as his videos are excellent.
Architectural Model Making – Nick Dunn
This book is great for giving you ideas on styles and materials that you can use for your model making. It is a good introduction and starting point. I would suggest having this book to hand when you start to consider the 3D representation of your design studio models.
Folding Techniques for Designers
Although this isn’t really a model making book, it is an interesting look at shape and form, and structures created through folding. It can encourage us to think outside the model making box….
Model-making: Materials and Methods
Model Making (The Architecture Brief Series)
Architectural Model Building: Tools, Techniques & Materials
Modelmaking – A Basic Guide (Norton Professional Books for Architects & Designers)
Advanced Architectural Modelmaking
A History of Architectural Modelmaking in Britain: The Unseen Masters of Scale and Vision
Modelling Grassland, and Landscape Detailing: Featuring Weeds, Wildflowers, Hedges, Roads & Pavements, Mud, Puddles and Rivers
For a little inspiration take a look at some of these professional model maker websites. They show you a good variety and hopefully will give you some ideas on how to approach your own model making.
Architectural Models Blog
We also have a board on Pinterest dedicated to architectural models so feel free to check it out if you are looking for some inspiration:
You might also be interested in:
We also have lots of other architecture content. Be sure to check it out:
Download the Guide!
Download this helpful article as a pdf to keep for reference later.
In conclusion, architectural model making plays a very crucial role in the communication of architectural designs and ideas. With the interactive experience these models provide they make it possible for clients and the general public to connect with and understand our concepts. They are also great tools that promote design discussions among fellow architects and architecture students for the development of ideas. All in all they are incredible tools that help us translate our creative ideas into reality.
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