5 Types of Models Architects Make (w/ Scales & Benefits)

The art of model-making is deeply rooted in the practice of architecture.

Despite the widespread use of computers, architects – students and practitioners alike – will continue to make architecture models due to a host of benefits that model-making provides.

The scale models that architects make vary – each for a specific purpose, built at an optimal scale, utilizes different model-making materials, and provides benefits that the other types can’t.

The types of models in architecture, in order of descending scales, are:

types of architecture models

1. Topographical / Contour / Landscape Model

Architecture students make topographical models as a first step towards studying the feasibility of a project.

They typically make this type of model in the 1st year of their architectural studies as part of learning and understanding physical site conditions upon which the building eventually sits.

As a type of architectural model used in the preliminary stage of a project, it is an expansive, low-lying model made up of layers upon layers of cut-outs from thin materials to mimic the land’s contouring.

At this stage, no building scale models go onto the topographical model. What you will make, at most, are small squarish blocks to represent buildings that could occupy the site.

Common Scales Used

The scale that architects adopt in making topographical models depends on the size of land in development.

It is not uncommon to use scales as large as 1:500 down to 1:10,000 for huge sites – typically representing an entire town or region where a series of buildings reside.

The entire model-making process typically occurs in one location as topographical models potentially occupy large areas and are difficult to move around.

If a presentation is necessary elsewhere, you can have the model built in gridded sections so you can dismantle them for transport.

Benefits of a Topographical Model

  • Allow architects to study site conditions and design the buildings and structures to suit.
  • Enable understanding of the changes in elevation, steepness of slopes, and potential problems the building or structure could encounter.
  • The information gained allows architects to maximize the advantages the site presents while minimizing its drawbacks.

2. Site Model

While there are similarities between the site and topographical models, there are also differences that set them apart, and each serves a different purpose.

A site model is the natural next step that architects take in crystalizing the building’s design concept.

It helps architects visualize the context within which the buildings will operate, the pros and cons of the design concepts, and how each design or contextual element relates to the other.

Common Scales Used

The primary factor in selecting the optimal scale for a site model is the land size in development – similar to a topographical model.

How large it goes also depends on the number of contextual elements that the architect wants to study and demonstrate to its audience.

1:500 is a commonly used scale; 1:200 works better for a single-building site; and 1:1,000 for sites that contain a series of buildings to show.

There is no hard-and-fast rule in selecting the right scale. Architecture students would have other fellow students as a reference point as they work on projects with similar site requirements.

Benefits of a Site Model

  • Together with the building scale model, they form the most fundamental tool for architects to understand and communicate the design concept.
  • It helps to understand the relationship (and impact) between the building and the site – open spaces, trees, pavements, roads, boulevards, and other new or existing buildings and structures.
  • Studying one allows the architect to make informed design decisions – to develop, re-develop, modify, or discard elements of the design.

3. Building Model

Building scale models are pretty much the bread and butter of architecture.

Architects often use a combination of 2d drawings, scale models, 3D graphics, and computer animation in communicating the ideas that drive their design.

There are merits in the use of 3D drawings in replacing the role of architecture models.

But what these drawings cannot replicate are the feel and inspirations that architects get when they experiment with their hands and through their thought process in three-dimensional forms.

Common Scales Used

A bigger scale is suitable for small houses the same way a smaller scale would be more appropriate for a 100-story tower design. Scales adopted can vary greatly.

So, what are the standard architectural model scales?

Building models are typically built in 1:50, 1:100, and 1:200 scales, while the odd 1:500 is adopted for large complexes and tall buildings. That said, 1:100 is the ‘gold standard’ that architects use to make models of houses or similarly-sized structures.

Benefits of a Building Model

  • Allows the study of the concept in three-dimensional form.
  • It helps to understand how the height, size, and proportions of structures relate to the occupants.
  • It is a cost-effective method to study and reveal potential design issues before they reach the construction phase.
  • Effective in marketing the idea to its audience and the general public.
  • Marketing teams use them to impress and educate prospective buyers.

4. Cross-Sectional Model

Next up is the cross-sectional model. It is the logical next step in the architect’s study of the design.

While architects usually only make one whole-building scale model (discounting the many other preliminary ones), there could be a few sectional models necessary to articulate the design concept fully.

The model maker typically takes the most optimal cross-section line through parts of the building that would reveal the most elements in the design and illustrate the relationship between the various spaces within it.

Common Scales Used

A sectional model reveals details that a building model could not. Therefore, the standard scale adopted is usually one step larger than that for a building model.

For example, you’d build the building model at the 1:100 scale, and the sectional model at 1:50.

When you need to show more details, you will make the next type of architectural model on this list.

Benefits of a Cross-Sectional Model

  • Reveal the internal spaces of a building and how they interact with one another.
  • To uncover and study potential problems that are otherwise impossible with a building model.
  • To study height and headroom issues and the relationship between one space to the next.
  • The other benefits of model-making are hard to qualify until a model is made – that is the benefit of it!

5. Architectural Detail Model

As the name suggests – architectural detail models are the most detailed.

However, the need to have one depends on its use case, which varies from project to project.

It may not be necessary, but architects pick and choose which area of the building design or architectural detail to make a scale model.

Common Scales Used

Similar to the scales often used for detailed architectural drawings, the 1:20, 1:10, and 1:5 are the standard scales adopted.

Some minute details may even necessitate the model to be built at the 1:2 scale to understand the way various materials come together.

Benefits of an Architectural Detail Model

  • To illustrate specific points in the building design to stakeholders in the project.
  • To display architectural joints and demonstrate buildability.