March 13, 2014

Building a Tectonic Model

Written by Marisol Foreman, 2015 M. Arch Candidate

As architecture students, we spend an incredible amount of time on our craft, especially at our school. We do this willingly knowing that we will need to work just as hard in the real world, and (for a long while) on someone else’s designs. We all know, and can relate to the stress and hard work of our kind, but our family and friends don’t ever fully understand what we do that keeps us up late into the night. I’m sure everyone has a family member whose response to a final render is “Wow, I like the colors!” Or the friends who walk up to the model that kept you up for a week straight and say, “Awww, look at all the tiny people!” For their sake, I hope you’d have slept at this point or they will surely get a frustrated earful explaining how its so much more. So much.

Knowing that the tectonic model for Jim Nicholls’ Design Development course (ARCH 570) was going to show a level of detail and require a level of craft, not usually reached (or aspired to) in a normal studio model, I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to document my process and show my family what we do. This model challenged us to deal with not only the obvious forces (gravity, rain, wind, etc), but also asks us to turn these considerations into design opportunities. For instance, if a rain gutter is considered beforehand, it can become a design element and be hidden or expressed, instead of the common resulting gutter tacked onto the side of a building as an after­thought. I have worked to puzzle through these considerations and make them a part of my overall design, and while some have been dealt with, others persist to puzzle.

Everyone will have a different approach and technique for model building. The following pictures document my process from the digital to the physical.



Step 1: The design process (which began in January). Thus far it is a collection of drawings, a digital model, and a figment in my imagination. This is then very carefully exploded into countless two-dimensional elements and a series of lines, legible only to the laser cutter and myself.


Step 2: Part of the planning process is deciding which model materials best represent a real-life material, or a quality the material should convey (transparency, color, heavy, or light). The same element is then cut out with several different materials. (Here, a truss is cut using acrylic, and later with illustration board)


Step 3: Once a material is selected for one component, a small mock-up is constructed to test the strength and feasibility of the design and the best method for assembly. This was a small truss designed to hold the exterior expanded metal screen that covers the front façade of the building.


Step 4: Once a material is selected and the design is modified accordingly, the pieces can be cut and assembly can begin. Each student’s desk begins to look like a kit-of-parts at this point. Everything is in pieces, but no physical building… yet.


Step 5: The decision was made that all structural elements would be white in the model. After the basic assembly of individual components, they were brought to the spray booth for a finishing coat of white spray paint to hide any burn marks from the laser or glue drips during assembly.


Step 6: The structural frame is erected and the floor plates set into place. A sigh of relief can be heard throughout the studio when each student realizes it might actually stand up to the frustrating reality of gravity.


Step 7: Spirits are high when the kit-of-parts starts coming together as imagined. The object starts to resemble the digital model when the structure is up and the walls are in. Concentration is at an all time high to ensure that every piece is glued in the exact location necessary. One false step could mean hours of correcting and waiting for time on the laser cutter.


Step 8: This rear wall assembly is being peeled back to show the lateral support within the walls and the “Works Anywhere Wall” assembly layers (structure, sheathing, air and vapor membranes, insulation, air gap, external cladding). The wall is also constructed with built in downspouts from the gutters on the saw-tooth clerestory roof.


Step 9: The same reveal is shown in the floor and roof assembly.


Step 10: The small interior details are glued into place: entourage, benches, handrails, reception desk, stairs, doors, and a transparent material to indicate enclosure.


Step 11: The screen structure is erected and the screen cut and glued into place. While the small mock-up was easy to glue and construct, gluing the screen vertically on several trusses proved to be a challenge. The model is almost complete and let to sit overnight with clamps, tape, and a prayer that it will all hold together when the temporary support is removed.


The clamps worked, and the screen held. An hour of last minute polishing, sanding, dusting, and general fussing over the model, and it is ready for display!





I hope you had a chance to view the tectonic models while they were on display in the Glasket last week. They were truly wonderful!