Home -> Reference -> Architectural Model Making

Architectural Model Making

Kevin Godfrey trained in Fine Art and Ceramics at the Colchester School of Art and is a self-taught professional model maker with 16 years experience in commercial model making. He is the managing director of <a href="http://www.godfreydesigngroup.co.uk">Godfrey Design Ltd</a> with a staff of up to 32 model makers. In this article kevin gives us an insight into the world of architectural model making.

Architectural Model Making

Types of Model

True architectural models, where the model is being constructed to assist in the planning and sale of real buildings, can be divided into 3 types:

  1. Planning Models come in several forms. The initial model can be made in block forms with very little detail and are usually constructed in either a foam tooling board, in card box forms, or with styrene as a substitute for card.

  2. Architectural Model MakingTest & Development Models are more detailed models, showing windows elevation details and sometime the interior spaces depending on the type and scale of development. The construction of these models can also show the landscape of the site with roads, walls and general site details. The construction can be of many materials but tends to be a combination of wooden board, low density tooling board, and a variety of textured materials such as sand paper, flock sprayed paper, laser cut surface detail patterning and texture in styrene or acrylic sheet. These models can also be used in a slightly simplified form for wind tunnel testing. Wind tunnel models are modified to accept a series of sensors in order to observe wind flow over them and the forces that will be exerted on the finished building.

  3. Sales & Exhibition Models are fully finished models showing colours, building details, landscaping, window finishes, parking spaces, underground car parks, street lights, and all the street furniture we come to expect in our busy environments. The main structure of these models is similar to test and development models with wooden bases contoured with low density tooling boards and styrene buildings. The detail is embellished with a variety of different materials such as photo-etched brass.


Many hours are spent canvassing for the work that potential clients may be able to put your way. Sometimes when you start, there are weeks of phoning with little response. You also need to create marketing materials to show to prospective clients.

Having gained their interest, you must negotiate the specification, the time scale, and the cost. The difference between what the client is would like and their available budget can be the gulf that kills the job. This is also the area that can cause the biggest problems when it's time for the client to pay... as I have found to my cost on more than one occasion. I find the best way to minimise the problems in this area is to show examples of work to a specification that you think the client requires, thereby giving them a chance to say if they not happy with your proposed quality or spec levels. It is important to list the detail spec accurately when quotations are given, allowing the client to upgrade spec or agree with your proposed detailing.

Architectural Model Making

Clearly it is also important to accurately estimate how long the work will take. Time is money when wages have to be paid so while over estimating increases the cost and could lose you the job, underestimating could result in you having to burn the midnight oil at a loss in order to fulfil the contract.

Accuracy & Detail

This is an area that needs discussing in depth with the client and confirming in writing. The clients budget, as opposed to what is physically possible, is usually the limiting factor so it's a case of asking yourself (and checking with the client while writing up the spec) what can I leave out without the client feeling he is missing something?

Architectural Model MakingPerhaps the best way to explain is with a few examples. Slates and roof tiles for example are often shown a series of strips, rather than individual slates, as this would add hours and hours to the job, increasing the cost disproportionately. Accuracy of window position is generally important with sales models as many houses and flats are sold off plans and the model that the developers clients see. However if there is a misplaced bush or two in the garden that shouldn'€™t cause a problem.

Scale is another thing that affects the level of detail. If for instance you were to make a model of a large estate at 1:200 scale you may not detail the drain pipes, but if you were to model something at 1:50 scale the model would look as if something was missing.

Another example that relates to scale is that if a 10 acre site slopes 1 metre from side to side we can probably model it on a level base board as the slope would be hardly noticeable. If however there was a 5 metre difference then it probably would be noticeable and we'd need to model it with a contoured baseboard. Failing to do so could result in the client having problems with the Advertising Authority regarding misrepresentation of their product!

Foliage is one of the few areas where the model maker has a little room for artistic licence. Flower border and tree types you can have a little fun with, although some clients have a specific planting in mind and require that this be done as accurately as possible.


Architectural Model MakingClearly the big difference between hobby model making and professional architectural model making is that with the latter you are producing a model to somebody else's specification so at some point in the procedure the client will provide a full set of plans, surface finishes, colours and many other little bits of information. Invariably there are little discrepancies and questions about things that the client has omitted or that you can't quite see from the plans.

In some cases we have almost redesigned parts of a building for a client, because we have a drawing that looked good on paper, but converting it into 3D forms showed that, for example, the roof doesn'€™t fit properly! On large estates planning approval can go ahead in phases, outline permission may be granted, but detailed planning is obtained as the project progresses. Our model has to be finished to be displayed before the site is started, so a little bit of guess work is often required. We are also, on occasions, required to make alterations to the project as the building work moves forward.


Having agreed the drawings we convert the full sized dimensions (remember that the plans are drawn for the builders to work from), to scaled cutter or laser paths for the materials to be cut and surface detailed. This process can take up to 5 days depending the type of drawings sent through however before it can be started, members of the team building the model will have to decide the best way to construct it. Ideally the units are assembled in such a way as to allow the various spray operations to be completed with as little need for masking as possible. Masking operations can be time consuming, and therefore expensive, so we plan our assembly sequence to reduce the need for them as much as possible.

Architectural Model Making

After cutting, each house or block of flats is normally assembled by one person to allow continuity in the job's various units.

The Baseboard

At the same time that the buildings are being constructed the base board is also being put together, allowing for any wiring and access holes to be designed into the model if it is to be illuminated. The base is normally constructed in MDF board to reduce the chance of warping during its life time; typically 12-24 months.

If the base of the model is of a site with a significant slope then this has to be modelled in before the buildings and site finishes can be applied. The slopes can be formed in many different ways. For example, sections of MDF can be roughly built up, and the curves can be finished in polyester body filler.

Another way of forming these slopes is with the use of styrene sheets that are draped over contoured MDF boards that stand vertically across the base. The styrene can be heated with a hot air paint stripper and modelled over the MDF. Then, as it cools in the shape of the contours, it is screwed down. Minor form changes can be filled and remodelled to achieve a good finish.

Architectural Model MakingThe base is now ready to accept surface finishes and then to be sprayed in the various colours required. This is normally a series of different mask and spray operations and can take a considerable time, on a large model it may take as much as 2 weeks.

Final Assembly

Final assembly of the buildings onto the base generally requires small adjustments so the components fit. Often this merely involves scraping small sections of the painted surfaces back to the plastic. Paint, as it is layered on to the model, can add additional thickness thus making it hard to fit pieces with a fine tolerance fit.

Foliage, street furniture, model cars and any other items the client wants to show are now added, along with signs, labelling and company information.

All of these last items are normally done in keeping with the type of vehicles and street furniture that will be found on the completed site once the general public have moved in.

The base will now have a Perspex case fitted along with its legs, or cabinet to go underneath. Final checks are then done before we contact the client to arrange delivery.

Delivery & Payment

Often with the larger models delivery is not a simple job. In some cases it can take a team of 6-8 people to get the model onto a van. At the delivery end it may need taking up an awkward set of stairs or through thin access doors. In some of the worst instance we have been given a size of doorway incorrectly, which has lead to us having to disassemble the model to get it into the building, then reassemble it once inside. Just what you need at the end of a job!

After the delivery is completed and the client has checked the model, we then need to be paid. If there are any small mistakes they have to be put right, at our expense in most cases. Finally, when the client is happy we ask for payment. Sometimes it can take 3 months to get the money but as luck will have it most pay in time for us to pay the wages!

We've created a gallery album of models constructed by Godfrey Design Ltd which gives further details of the models show in this article. Further information can be found at the Godfrey Design website.

[Page Top] [Site Home]