10 Versatile Architecture Model Materials (& Why So)
You have come up with an idea for a design, and now it is time to take that great idea and turn it into something tangible – how do you do it?
The immediate answer is simple: a model.
The overall solution is a bit more involved and requires foresight and a few critical questions:
What are the design’s physical qualities?
How detailed do you want this model?
Are you trying to get a point across with a conceptual model, or are you trying to convey every nuance of an architectural work-of-art?
Asking these questions is essential for the sake of finding your purpose, sure, but they also guide you to something you may have overlooked. The materials you are going to use to build your model mean a great deal.
So, what material do architects use to build models?
As cliché as it sounds, it depends – on the types of models you are making and the purpose you want them to achieve for you.
Read on to find your material match.
It is cheap, it is plentiful, and it is probably within arm’s reach if you are currently seated at a desk. It does not take any special equipment to assemble a paper model, except maybe some tape and scissors.
Furthermore, due to its unmatched accessibility, it is one of the quickest ways to convert those creative neural impulses into something you have a physical copy of before you forget.
With practice, a paper model can convey a decent deal of detail, thanks to its thin and flexible nature. In many ways, accessibility alone makes paper almost perfect for concept models.
You are not restricted to printer paper, either. Sulfite paper (commonly construction or drawing paper) and cardstock paper can offer different useful qualities for building your model.
The former offers incredible flexibility for stress-free, 3d curvature while the latter offers impeccable sturdiness compared to printer paper and sulfite paper.
Also incredibly cheap and plentiful, cardboard often comes free with your Amazon purchase, although you still may want to consider purchasing some from a craft shop.
If cardstock paper is not quite sturdy enough for your applications, cardboard should fulfill the duties wonderfully.
Although it is not quite up to par when compared to the delightful array of colors you have with cardstock, a cardboard model can look good and will serve you well for some time – so long as you are not planning on bending it and making an accurate topographical mock-up.
3. Balsa Wood
A more expensive option than plain-old paper, but a worthwhile investment if you want to amp up the detail in your model without pulling your hair out with an uncooperative material.
With Balsa wood, you have the option to sand, paint, and varnish it for added aesthetic appeal.
It takes precision and patience (splinters are no fun) to build a model, but the result can be highly complex, even including the detailed framework of a building in the form of a working model.
It is wood, after all, a common material in building actual structures.
It does not look too bad either, making it a classy choice for your design – one of the main reasons it is very popular among architecture students despite its price.
Foam is the king of flexibility, soft and malleable. This material comes in extremely useful for building large-scale models fast.
It is effortless to cut and lightweight, so you can build substantially larger models with foam than other materials without the model becoming too heavy to transport easily.
It also comes in all shapes, unlike the materials mentioned above which tend to be confined to flat, board-like shapes.
Carving large three-dimensional models with only one piece of foam (goodbye glue) is an easy possibility for quick and effective conceptual models.
However, if details are hugely important, foam’s softness may not be entirely up to your standards.
With the right equipment, plastic is easily the most versatile architectural modeling material on this list, applicable for anything between a quick concept model and a highly detailed presentation model.
The material itself is cheap and ubiquitous, a staple of modern society. You can cut it, melt it, and cast it to create a variety of shapes.
Plastic is also compatible with 3d printing, meaning you can build a model with CAD software on your computer and create a physical copy of that model without doing any hands-on work, making it a material that hearkens to the needs of the future.
Plastic checks the boxes for affordability, convenience, versatility, and detail.
If you lived in some cruel dystopia where you had to choose only one material for all of your modeling needs, plastic would be a solid choice.
6. Perspex / Acrylic Sheets
You may have heard of Perspex before (or maybe you are perplexed). Perspex is a prevalent producer of acrylic sheets and other acrylic products (a.k.a. plexiglass).
Acrylic sheets are commonly used as a substitute for fragile glass in transparent tabletops, windows, skylights, and more.
They are durable and lightweight, and are thus popularly used in furniture, boats, electronics, and even museum display cases – clearly an excellent material!
It stands to reason that Perspex / acrylic sheets are up to the job and ready to deliver when it comes to architectural models. And if durability is a keystone of your modeling project, acrylic sheets can take many beatings and retain their structural integrity.
A quick scroll through Perspex’s website (source) is enough to awe you with its beautiful applications. Just be prepared to invest as the material is not exactly the cheapest thing on this list.
7. Corrugated Board
Often confused with cardboard, corrugated board is a multi-layered paperboard material (think heavy-duty moving boxes) while cardboard is one layer (think cereal boxes).
Corrugated board comfortably fills the niche between affordability and durability.
If your model will have large panes that would become flimsy if made from cardboard, this material will be a good fit.
However, corrugated board is quite ugly compared to the other materials and hard to draw on, making it a poor performer in anything beyond a conceptual model.
If you decide to use it for your model, keep it in a dry location as moisture would love to ruin everything for you.
8. Medium-density Fiberboard
Also commonly referred to in its abbreviated form – MDF – medium-density fiberboard is an engineered wood product that is both denser and smoother than traditional wood.
It typically contains sawdust, resin, and wax.
If you like the idea of using balsa wood for your model but are troubled with the idea of splinters and surface imperfections, MDF can help fill the niche without the drawbacks.
Think of a cheaper version of plywood that is smooth and, well, fun to handle.
Also, it is sturdy and does not enlarge or shrink due to temperature, making it a solid material for use in a presentation model that travels inside and out, from class to class or client to client.
However, being that it is made by essentially pressing a bunch of tiny pieces of wood together (not the most in-depth description), it will not withstand water very well without swelling up.
This material has been around a while, a favorite of many 18th-century architects for design and model building, and for good reasons.
It is a soft yet sturdy material harvested sustainably from tree bark, making it easy to work with and capable of creating ornate presentation models. It has a low density, is light, bonds easily with glue, and looks incredible.
Cork has a rustic and stone-like quality that is both unique and appealing, especially as a staple for architects who frequently dabble in traditional European styles.
10. Earthenware / Clay
If Imhotep was the mind behind the Egyptian pyramids as historical research is beginning to suggest, he probably built an architectural model out of clay (based on a hunch).
Clay is likely the oldest material for architecture models thanks to it being easily shapable the second it is extracted from the earth.
It may not be the most relevant material for architectural modeling today thanks to technology, but clay’s historical ubiquity should say something about it.
It is incredibly easy to work with if you recall elementary school art class.
Even if you have no experience making material models, you could likely make a rudimentary house right now if a ball of clay just fell on your head.
It is soft when you work with it, but when you are done shaping it, all you need is a little heat (okay, a lot of heat).
Clay deserves respect; it has helped so many minds throughout history convey complex ideas – from Roman pottery to the remarkable Terracotta Army of the imperial Qin Dynasty.
There is no doubt that many of history’s great architects were able to put this wondrous material to profound use.