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Physical Modeling in a Digital World

Greg Lewis

Technology’s rapid advancement over the past several decades has dramatically changed how work gets done in nearly every industry, including, of course, architecture. This is perhaps best captured by the fact that an icon of our industry—physical scale models—has all but been replaced by digital versions. As is the standard practice today, at SHP we mostly model our projects digitally from the get-go.

But this is not to suggest that there aren’t good reasons for clients to invest in physical models to supplement the digital ones.

Whether digital or physical, modeling in architecture is essential, of course. It’s how we architects and designers translate our concepts into something that can be evaluated, critiqued and refined. In other words, models help create consensus among a project’s stakeholders.

While it takes a trained eye to interpret and make sense of a two-dimensional architectural blueprint, a digital or physical model is something everyone can grasp. It’s much easier for both the architect and the end users to envision themselves in a space with the help of a model.

What can physical models offer that digital ones can’t?

Just as a digital model makes a design concept more accessible to more people when compared to a blueprint, a physical model can make a design idea more accessible to more people than a digital one. By virtue of their three-dimensional existence, physical models feel more real and tangible. As such, they will sometimes stimulate further ideation in ways that digital models sometimes don’t.

With a physical model, people can interact with the design, move things around or even physically remove items and features. We’ve seen how this sort of interaction can help elevate design and lead to improved solutions.

Physical models also create a breeding ground for open discussion. Because a digital model is created to scale, it can be easy for designers to view the model as a finished product. A physical model, on the other hand, allows designers to completely manipulate the design in just a matter of minutes using only their hands and the materials in front of them. When everyone in the room has a (literal) hand in the design process, discussion is more readily had… which leads to a higher quality product.

This is not to say that digital models should never be used or that physical models are vastly superior. But physical models can certainly complement a predominantly digital industry.

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