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Let’s Get Physical

Life of an Architect Podcast

Let’s Get Physical

By Bob Borson, FAIA | September 30, 2019

Architectural models are clearly within the architect’s domain, but are you within the “physical models are better” or “digital models are better” camp? That’s the subject matter today as we discuss architectural models and their role in the creative process in a modern architectural office.

We also have a guest on today’s podcast: Partner, Principal, and Owner at BOKA Powell (and technically speaking my new boss) Andrew Bennett. Andrew and I both went to The University of Texas in Austin for architecture school and our paths have crossed many times over the last 30 years.

Please make a mental note as you start thinking about how physical models are a throwback to the good old days and that technology has evolved to a point where we can do so much more during the design process with just the click of a button, that I don’t care for that argument. It’s like trying to debate whether pizza or cheeseburgers are better. They are both terrific and both have a role to play; I receive enough emails relating to hand sketching (old architects) versus computer drawing (young architects) that I think I have my finger on the pulse on how that argument plays out.

l-r: Andrew Hawkins, Andrew Bennett, and Bob Borson


The Role of a Physical Model [1:45 mark]
Every architectural student learns in their visual communication classes that study models can be used to physically communicate design. A model is something that you can pick up and spin around, something that you can’t do effectively with plans or elevated 2-dimensional drawings. I have very strong feelings about the value that a physical model plays in the creative process – the benefit they play to the designer. There is a sense of scale that comes along with a physical model that I don’t think a digital model can compete against.

Andrew Hawkins makes a good point that when the scale is a major consideration, digital models are not very effective – certainly not as effective as physical models. However, the exact opposite is true when the interior of the spaces is a major consideration. New technologies, especially the use of virtual reality, can transport the viewer inside the space and provide an amazing experience in evaluating scale.

The research paper we discussed that directly compared how 3rd-parties comprehend a 3-dimensional physical model versus a digital model of the same area was titled, "Differences in spatial understanding between physical and virtual models" (paper can be found here).



This is a graphic that depicts the setup that was used when evaluating how people perceive space when looking at a physical depiction of space versus a digital representation of the same space. Since I don’t think most people want to read the white paper that is linked above, I’ll summarize the results … People more easily ascertained the physical parameters of space when looking at the physical representation than they did the digital representation.

Are you surprised?



If the model doesn’t benefit the communication process, of course, I would not advocate that someone actually make a physical model. In my last office, we made tons of models, and I would guess that among those there is a small portion of them that were never shown to the client. So why build them? In my mind, even though we designed these using a combination of hand sketches, Revit, Sketchup, AND physical models, each had a role to play and a contribution to make.



I will concede that I love using SketchUp and in my last office, where everybody else was fluent in Revit, they almost viewed my process using SketchUp as the old man pulling out his crayons …. and I think they’re crazy and are ultimately missing the point. The SketchUp image above is an elevation view of the same perspective view of the physical model above, and I designed the SketchUp model about 18 months before this physical model was built. We ended up using this model to  inform the more technical aspects of the Revit model that was created months further down the road.

I had a conversation with one of my BOKA Powell Pod buddies—Jason Hanson—about modeling in both SketchUp AND Revit. Jason had an interesting take on it that I think has value to this conversation because he is highly skilled at both pieces of software. When I shared with him today’s topic, I told him that I expected to hear from people about the redundancy of working in SketchUp only to have to export it to another drafting platform (in this case it would be Revit) later, so why not just model the project from the beginning in Revit?  To summarize, Jason said that designing in Revit basically requires you to know where you are going before you get there, whereas SketchUp allows for very quick design exercises to take place, which ultimately lends itself to providing more value to the creative process since time is always money and speed is important – either in allowing the designer to explore more options, or to move further along the creative path in a shorter time frame.

Digital Models and their value and role [12:18 mark]
Over that last two years, I have really begun to push for more digital technology to be incorporated into my last office, and to their credit, I think we were at least as far along as most 8-person firms if not a bit further out in front. The use of virtual reality headgear and rendering software was starting to creep into our design process despite the fact that we had a very traditional workflow for an office of our size. In my new office, software and digital technology is simply a fact of life.



The image above was an in-house rendering done for a development project located in Downtown Dallas. The underlying model was created using Sketchup and then brought in to 3D Studio Max as part of a presentation made to the developer. Prior to joining my current office, if you had shown me that image above and asked:

“Guess how long would it take to design, model, and render this project?”

I would have guessed 80 to 120 hours … When I asked Andrew Bennet how long it took, he told me 26 hours for EVERYTHING!!! Design, digital modeling, and creating the rendering and Andrew Bennett attributes this sort of speed to the use of SketchUp (he left off the fact that his skills as designer contributed to the quick turnaround as well) … amazing.

Software [27:29 mark]
We spend some time talking about the various digital software that is used – but I would guess all the usual suspects are present and accounted for. I would be curious if people are using something different that I’ve never heard of (2 years ago I probably wouldn’t have known just about any of the platforms I know use weekly).

Hypothetical  [45:00 mark]
As we do more and more of these hypotheticals a pattern is emerging where I am a “hypothetical response” bully …

You’re halfway through walking down a long alleyway when a angry full-grown chimpanzee steps around the corner at the end and you can tell he is about to charge you. To your right you see a box of fruit, a shovel, and a small hatchet. As the chimpanzee begins his charge, you only have time to grab one of these items … what’s your next move?

Someone dies terribly in this hypothetical based on their answer and receives a failing grade but I’ll let you decide who that might be. There’s partial credit to be had in all of these answers but as far as making it out of this alley with all your limbs still attached is a different matter.

Is there a winner in today’s conversation other than the listener? If I attempt to put an ending on this conversation, I will say that both have an important role to play in today’s modern architectural office. Physical models have a bigger impact on the space when people come to them and interact with them but digital models is a more powerful tool for the act of creating architecture. I love physical models—A LOT—and I will always advocate for their use in the creative process. A consideration that is fairly new to me is the scale of the projects that I work might have contributed to my way of thinking. The size of the projects I am now working on are so much larger that digital models present much more design freedom given the limited constraints of time and fee. As architects, we all want the end product to reflect our best efforts rather than the limitations associated with the realities of time.



Thanks again to Petersen Aluminum Corporation for sponsoring today’s episode. To learn more about their products and services, please visit https://www.pac-clad.com.

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