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Olga Popovic Larsen, Professor of Architecture at the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts Schools of Architecture, Design and Conservation (KADK), discusses the changing role of physical models in current design practice and explains how these roles have been affected by modern day digital tools.

ICE Publishing at the Frankfurt Book Fair
How is the role of physical models in building design and construction changing?
  • Updated: 15 Jan 2020
  • Author: Olga Popovic Larsen

The built environment is one of the most polluting sectors, globally contributing 50% of waste generation and more than 40% to CO2 emissions. Yet, construction of new structures continues in order to provide for the increasing world population, especially in urban areas.  In the building sector we have a huge responsibility to design with sustainability and efficiency in mind, and to do that we should use the most optimal tools and approaches required. Historically, an important design and construction tool has been the physical model that, on all needed levels, provided the confidence for the appropriateness of a building project. 

We live in a digital age, with digital tools providing services in all walks of life. For example, the building sector during the last 10-15 years has experienced an explosion of digital tools for design, fabrication and construction that allow for fast and precise handling of big data, integrating high levels of complexity and multi-function optimisations. The crafted hand-built architecture is being replaced by robotic arms that lay bricks in complex geometries and digitally we can print whole buildings and algorithms lead the design and implementation of complex tasks in infrastructure projects.  

Within this huge array of possibilities, one must design and build with core values to ensure design quality, building comfort, crafted and tactile material qualities, human-centred design and efficiency. It is therefore more important than ever to review, reflect and use design tools, strategies and approaches that allow us to integrate the latest technology, that is sustainable and efficient, and makes it possible for us to create architecture that is truly built for people.

My bookPhysical Modelling for Architecture and Building Design, explores the role of physical models today. Physical models have been used from ancient times to today, and in a number of different ways, but the book questions their current role within a digital society. 

The book reviews many projects, large and small, some well-known and others not so. It enables the reader to travel through time and to different geographic locations. It presents crude models exploring concept ideas and pristine designs, used to communicate a fully finished concept. It shows that models have been used to resolve technical problems; to verify, test and understand material structural behavior. They have been used to visualise, present and discuss and, not least, to guide the process of construction, describing the sequence of tasks to be addressed in order to complete a building project.

The findings in the book, show that the availability of digital tools has not diminished the role of physical models. On the contrary, computation has opened up new and unseen opportunities. It has enriched the practice of physical models, which can now be made easily accessible through a digital workflow, via 3D printing, CNC cutting or robotic fabrication. This has brought the physical model back into building design practice and made it a core and irreplaceable tool and for all building sectors.

Engineering practice uses physical models more than ever. 3D printed structural models are not only a great design visualisation, but a useful communication tool too. The precise prototypes give insight and verification of structural behaviour – and invite the rest of the design team into the highly technical zones of design. Currently building contractors use physical models, albeit digitally produced ones. They are a powerful communication tool that enable that the planning and executing of building projects is at the level of quality level required and can be delivered on time and to budget.

Architects and artists have never stopped using physical models. They are closely connected to the materiality, spatiality, context and feeling of the space for an architect. The physical model currently remains one of the core tools for exploration, design, visualisation and communication. In many different forms and qualities they continue to be used in architectural design practice.

Physical Modelling for Architecture and Building Design demonstrates that physical models remain a powerful tool and one that bridges the digital and physical environment, facilitating the design and construction of a more sustainable architecture.

Find out more about the changing role of physical models covered in the latest publication by Olga Popovic Larsen, Physical Modelling for Architecture and Building Design: A design practice tool, available in both print and digital format.