Building Great Architecture Models

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Building Great Architecture Models

Last week I built a simple foam core model for a client after several years of not building any kind of model. Thankfully, I quickly learned I still have the skills of the accomplished model builder I once was. OK, I’m being dramatic, but building architecture models was something I always took alot of pride in. I have been soo busy with the Architect Registration Exam, I actually forgot how happy I can get about cutting foamcore with a very sharp knife.

In architecture school, everyone has their own strengths. Most people are good at drawing, some can render really well, recall history, and a few people were amazing at making buildings inside a computer. Building real life models was really was how I communicated best.

Typically in a design class I used models to express myself every step of the way. In the beginning of the semester, the models were frequently abstract and crude. They usually could have been mistaken as the work of a 5 year old.

As the semester progressed and I learned more about my design solution, the quality of the models started to evolve. After all design decisions were finalized the very last step of the semester always involved building a museum quality architecture model of my building.

Building great architecture models is a skill.

It just takes a lot of practice and patience. Anyone can learn it.  Here are a few things I did when building architecture models that really upped the ante.

Box knife for building architecture models

Use the right tool for the job.

Your cake is only as good as the quality of ingredients you put into it. That old utility knife with the blade that hasn’t been changed in 6 months has no place being anywhere near an architectural model. Throw it away.

These are my core basic tools I use for building models:

Olfa Knife for building architecture models        Black olfa blades for building great architecture models

9mm Olfa Knife

$8 on Amazon

….and a pile of fresh blades
This is my general all-purpose knife that pretty much gets used for everything. I really like the fact that the length of the blade is adjustable, because sometimes you need a 2” blade to cut into insulation or super thick foamcore. I love how the top blades snaps off so there’s no excuse for not having a sharp tip. In the last few years Olfa started making these black blades and they are significantly stronger and sharper then the regular blades.

x-acto for building architecture models            xacto blades for building great architecture models

X-acto Knife

$5 on Amazon

….and a pile of fresh blades
I have always been scared of the exacto knives. They are insanely sharp, very dangerous and I have hurt myself with them. Nevertheless, it is by far the best tool ever invented for cutting tiny details. The X-acto is wayyy to dangerous to be used as an all around utility knife.

x-acto precision edge for building architecture models

X-Acto Precision Edge

$10 on Amazon
This is the miniature version of a Carpenters square. This tool can quickly draw 90 degree angles and make sure everything in your model is straight and plumb. I like to put some masking tape on the backside to help it grip onto the material better. I have built so many models with this tool, I can’t even think about how to do stuff without one.

Glue syringe for building architecture models      sobo glue for building architecture models

Glue Syringe

$5 on Amazon

…filled with SOBO tacky glue
It’s not necessary to hold a year’s supply of glue in your hand every time you glue something. Glue Syringes are gold for accessing hard to reach areas of your model.

As far as all-purpose white glue, I prefer SOBO glue, but there are many other great tacky glues on the market. The Elmer’s glue you used as a kid is crap, you can also throw that away with your box opening tool. Check out my blogpost where I break down all types of glue and tape used for building architecture Models.

6" Ruler for building architecture models

6” Metal Ruler

$4 on Amazon
Small metal rulers are easier to maneuver and are frequently this size of ruler that gets used the most.

18" ruler for building architecture models

18” Metal Ruler

$5 on amazon
For those moments when the little guy doesn’t cut it.

Self healing cutting mat for building architecture models

Self Healing Cutting Matt

$12 on Amazon
The Self healing will absorb the knife tip without dulling it like if you were cutting ontop of another surface. It will also protect the surface you are working on. In the long run the cutting mat will save you tons of money in knife blades.


small Fiskars scissors for building great architecture models

Little Scissors

$7 on amazon

Little scissors are perfect for when whatever your cutting is too labor intensive to cut with a knife. There are a million types of little scissors on the market but i always preferred the fiskars products because they are very well made and will stay sharp for years.

With these basic tools.  ::ahem::  You can basically take over the world.

There are other things I used like tweezers, nail files, canned air, a million types of glue and adhesives, and I could go on forever.  But really, the items above are my essential model building tools.

During college a lot of people would argue Exacto vs Olfa knives. I actually subscribe to both schools of thought. The Olfa 9mm Knife is an amazing all around utility knife. Exacto’s strength is in the details and it’s sharp as hell. For my recent foam core model, I used the olfa for 85% of the work, but the Exacto cut all the doors and windows beautifully at ¼”.

Most importantly, no matter what kind of model you build, you always need to use a fresh sharp blade. I can’t stress this enough.

A Few Tips for Building Great Architecture Models

I love talking about architecture models soo much here are a few pointers to consider when building your next model…

1.  Wash your hands every 30 minutes.

Not everyone has to do this, but I definitely do. Oil naturally develops on my fingers and then leaves fingerprints on my model.

I like to set a timer that repeatedly goes off every 30 minutes to remind me to wash my hands.

It took me years to figure this out, but when I did the quality of my models jumped up 2 levels. This information is gold, especially if your model is white.

2.  Plan, Execute, Stop, Move on and Repeat.

Look at the model, figure out how you’re going to build only a certain part of it. Think about what’s the cleanest way to build it. DO IT. Then stop. Move on to the next section and repeat the process. Just like that old saying Measure Twice Cut Once. 

Mentally thinking through each step of a model before you actually cut any material is worth its weight in gold. If you can make this a habit, you will surprise yourself with how fast you can build models and more effectively.

3.  Get some light on that Architecture Model

Model building strains the eyes by looking at such small detailed pieces. You need to get some good lights, otherwise your eyes will get tired quickly and you will need to rest them long before you’re done building your model.

This was a little controversial when I was in college, especially with my family members. But when I am building models, I like to turn on all the lights that are available to be turned on.

I make the room super bright and also the pathway between the model, the bathroom, and the kitchen.  This helps stay awake and focused on the task at hand. I know it’s not very sustainable to use every light in the house to build a little model, but luckily it’s only for a few hours a semester and will actually makes a huge difference in your energy level.

4.  Make templates for everything

Templates will save you more time and energy model building than you can ever imagine.

If you have any repetitive element in your model, you must make a template for it. This could look like:

Creating templates to easily locate, sill, and head heights on windows.

Using scrap material to help achieve consistent spacing.

Creating guides to accurately allow cutting many pieces at the same length without measuring each one out.

Make a template for drawing or cutting curves.

The possibility of building models with templates is endless, the more you use them the faster, more consistent and precise your model will be.

5.  Get educated about glue and tape.

Never stop experimenting with glue and tape. There are a million different types of tape and glue, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses.  Knowing the capabilities of how each performs with certain materials can make or break the believe-ability of your design or model.

Make sure you check out The Architect’s Guide to Glue and Tape to learn all about glue, tape and adhesives.

Thats all

That’s basically about it. In summary, my formula for making great architectural models is as follows.

  1. Wash your dirty hands.
  2. Create a plan before you start working.
  3. Turn on all the lights.
  4. Use templates as much as possible.
  5. Learn about glue and tape.
  6. Most importantly, always use good tools and sharp knives.

If you could make it a habit to do these things and your models will be built faster and be museum quality and your model building skills will ultimately make you a better Architect!

The Architect’s Academy

Want to learn more about architecture model building?   My friend Doug Patt has created a course called Architecture: Make A Model where he takes you through the thought process and step by step logic of building a simple model of a simple house structures. The course is model building 101, and as an experienced model builder I found Doug’s insight on model building extremely interesting. I also highly recommend the other Architect’s Academy courses as a starting point if your considering pursuing architecture or just generally more interested in learning about architecture and how Architect’s think.

Click here to check out the Architect’s Academy

What about you?

If you’ve got some great advice about things you’ve learned building architectural models, please leave a comment below.

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About the author

Michael Riscica

Michael Riscica is a Licensed Architect who lives in beautiful Portland, Oregon, with his Labrador Retriever. He is passionate about helping Young Architects change the world. In his free time, Michael likes to take very long bicycle rides across America. Learn more about him here and connect with him on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Linked In.

    Michael Riscica - April 7, 2014

    Your like one of the best model builders I know. Your absolutely right. Building real models allows the Architect to suddently become the Builder in a little 1/4″ or 1/8″ world.

Mark Hesselgrave - July 6, 2014

Nice post, Mike. I too love model building, and still make design decisions using information gained from the model.

I depend mainly on the #11 x-acto blade for my models. Thus, I would add the following to your suggestions:

Change the blade often. A dull blade is more dangerous than a sharp one.

Make firm cuts, but don’t try to cut all the way through. Take multiple passes when needed.

Now I want to go build something!

    Michael Riscica - July 6, 2014

    Yes! Great advice!
    Cutting foam core with a sharp knife is one of my favorite things in the world.
    Thanks for the comment!

Armani Alejandre - February 19, 2015

This article was very helpful. I’m an architecture student at U of I, Champaign-Urbana and our program definitely has us constantly making anything from final models to conceptual models. A lot of this stuff may seem like common sense, but is often overlooked. Thanks, man!

rafael palacios - August 6, 2015

Helpful information! never considered washing my hands every 30 minutes or considered the oils that develop on our fingers… Going to use this tip on my next model!. thanks

Melanie - February 26, 2016

I know this is an old post but what the heck….I’m new to this and making models with .04 chipboard and having a hard time finding the right tool for cutting it. What do you (or anyone here) recommend?

Chuck Arxig - April 28, 2016

Thanks for the opportunity to ask this. I am older but ready to start a new and really dream career. All I want or ever wanted was to make models. How do I start? I am 56 and have many years design of dies for cutting boxes ect. No fear of cad design. For as long as I can recall I wanted to make the models. Thanks for any info.

Kyle O'Ren - May 25, 2016

Your #2 tip is exactly what I need to do when I’m creating renderings or models. I often rush to get the whole thing started and it comes out looking awkward and disjointed. Taking it slow and piece by piece will be hard to get used to but I’m sure the results will be fantastic. Thanks for the advice!

Judy Wilson - June 3, 2016

It’s interesting to know what it takes to build great architecture models. Making templates for everything seems like a great way to create a good design for a model. I think you’re right about how the possibility for building models with templates is endless, so doing this seems like a process that can make creating an architectural design more consistent and precise.

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