The Physical Model’s Role in Architectural Design

Marc Sawyer
4 min readNov 3, 2021


Architecture school was full of 3d models. It seemed every project was a series of physical study models that developed into a final model of some kind. Whether it was made from balsa wood, basswood, chipboard, or concrete. Since then the digital model has begun to replace the physical model. As more professionals are moving away from traditional tools and physical methods of design, 3D physical model making has become a lost art. Should model making be brought back into the foreground of Architectural design? How might 3D physical model making be used to enhance the design process?

3D physical model making has become a design tool of the past. Although computer models have made the process more efficient and more adaptable to change, Architectural physical models are a great way to showcase your designs at any point during the planning phase in a way your client can understand and relate. There are a lot of mental hurdles a client needs to go through when looking at an image on a screen.

A well-built model is a great way to get buy-in from your client because it provides a way for them to interact with the design. Oftentimes, models are used in presentations or displayed at exhibitions where members of the public can get their hands on them. Models help them better understand what they will be like in real life and ultimately allow them to visualize the building. VR has a similar role in the design process but over the past several years I have noticed a trend. Only a select few clients are willing to mess up their hair and look like a fool in VR. Most others decline and opt for watching others on the screen experience the space.

Unlike the relatively new virtual reality models, Architects have been using 3D physical models for decades to aid in their design process. These models are used not only to help architects and engineers visualize the building before it has been built but also to provide a way for stakeholders and members of the public to understand what they will be like in real life.

There are different types of architectural physical models, including site models, plan models, sectional elevation models, and detail models. The models are created using a variety of materials including wood, foam board, plastic sheets (such as Plexiglass), and non-traditional materials like concrete and clay.

The process of creating an architectural model can be extensive and time-consuming. It could take a couple of hours just to create the base of a model. After that, detailing can take anywhere from several hours to days depending on the complexity. It takes a skilled individual who is able to create detailed models with intricate shapes and sizes to a high level of detail.

Though the process of creating an architectural physical model can be extensive and time-consuming, it does not have to be difficult or complex. There are some simple steps that you can take in order to create them.

The first step is determining what type of model you would like to make. Is it a rough study model or a more refined presentation model?

Determine the dimensions of your model. To do this you will need to know how large the building needs to be when it is built in real life. You will then need to decide on the scale you would like to use. The larger the scale the more detail is needed.

Once you have determined what type of model you would like to create and determined the scale, then it is time to choose your materials. You can find a list of different types of materials that can be used in architectural models here.

Materials: Balsa wood, chipboard, cardboard, basswood, museum board, metal, glass, plexiglass, glue, and many more…

Once you have gathered all your supplies and materials, then it is time to start building!

You don’t need to start the design with a final detailed model. Start with study models, rough versions of your concept. One of the main reasons that architects use physical models in the design process is to help them better understand what their building will look like before they invest too much time or money into it. So start rough. Get a feel for the massing, form, and overall context.

Physical models can be used to visualize the exterior and interior of a building, which allows architects to make sure that the colors, textures, lighting conditions/amounts, and other elements are what they are looking for. They can also be used to show how certain changes may affect the design.

Though these types of models don’t provide as detailed information as does a digital model made using advanced software, they are still useful when you need something quick in order to get an idea about your design across. For example, if you have several different options for materials and you want to narrow them down, you can create a physical model for each option and test which one works best in terms of overall aesthetics.

The 3D architectural models serve as a visual representation of the architecture that we produce during the design process — whether it be rough study models or final presentation models — both help us represent our work and its qualities more accurately and precisely.

I would like to know as someone that uses a lot of digital models and one that is eager to get back into physical 3d modeling, is your office using physical modeling? Do you find it to be an invaluable part of your process?

Photo above by Ron Lach from Pexels



Marc Sawyer

I’m an Architect. My favorite thing to do is create stories through architectural design. Founder of Whitewash Studio architecture firm in Atlanta, GA.