Insights: Why do architects build models?


Preface by Matt Fajkus:

"We believe it’s important for an architect’s process to be inclusive in many ways. This includes using different tools in the design and presentation process, including both digital models as well as physical scale models. In this piece, Jeremy speaks about the role of physical scale models in the design sequence."




As technology rapidly progresses and transforms the design process of the architect, one must pose the question: why do architects build physical models?  As a design technique that has been used since the Roman Empire, the importance of physical models has served as a constant in the ever-fluctuating field of architecture.

Sense of Mass and Scale

Models, in the most basic way, allow a visual cue of mass and scale.  Detailing any model with miniature figurines such as trees, cars, and most importantly, people, gives the viewer the ability to immediately place themselves in the corresponding space.  Furthermore, because of the tangibility of the model, the viewer can gain a general idea of mass and depth from the building’s surrounding context.  These observations can answer general questions like: How large is the building?  How big is this room?  From where can I see the building?



Tangibility and Intimacy

The use of 3D modelling software lacks something very important to design that physical models promote strongly: tangibility and intimacy.  Grabbing a model and carefully positioning one eye, the other being closed for accuracy, to get that perfect view of the model gives a deeper understanding and increases spatial awareness.  Furthermore, its tangibility can be useful in the design process, by ripping off walls/enclosures and placing new iterations to experiment and push the design forward.



Immaterial Emphasis

As an immediate observation, most people can’t visualize material qualities through scale models.  This immateriality brings both positive and negative attributes.  General design focuses like form and sequence can now be emphasized without the distraction of material.  Models can transcend their simple representation, and can turn into a responsive diagram that promotes the architect’s ideas. Making models more informative than the building itself in communicating the central architectural ideas.



Light and Shadow

Once near completion, architects tend to study the model under different natural lighting conditions, photographing and documenting each moment extensively.  The model itself is used as a study tool to identify and confirm different apertures and openings.  In reference to the model’s immateriality, one can focus purely on light and shadow.  Architects tend to place models in their accurate orientation, and respond to solar positioning by experimenting with different shading techniques.  Doing this sort of study can answer questions such as: How dark is this space in the morning/evening?  What sort of lighting pattern is cast on this wall?



Construction Process

Lastly, and arguably most importantly, is the actual process of building the model.  Architects can easily overlook connection details and overall sequence of how something is put together.  There is a lot to be learned from assembling a model, what piece is built first, finding out if the object is over/under structured, connections between floors and walls, etc.  If the model can’t physically come together, structurally or formally, the building won’t either! 

Written by Jeremy Jackson