How to build an architectural site base model?

Written by ryan crooks
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How to build an architectural site base model?
Architectural models must have a site base to show context. (Polka Dot RF/Polka Dot/Getty Images)

Models are extremely important for architects. The three-dimensionality of architecture requires models to fully flesh out a design. Before the architectural design is completed, architectural model makers construct a site model. The most material- and time-intensive element of the site model is the site base. There are multiple ways to build a site base, including using blocks of foam, plywood or plaster, but the most popular method is layering multiple sheets of chipboard to construct the topography of a site plan. This is completed by cutting chipboard sheets to match contour lines on a site plan.

Skill level:

Things you need

  • Craft knife or blade
  • Chipboard sheets
  • Glue
  • Site plan with topographical contours
  • Copier
  • Tape

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  1. 1

    Scale the site plan with contours to the desired scale of the site. Use a copier to change the scale.

    Most copiers can only increase the drawing size by 200 per cent, so you may need to copy the copies to meet the desired scale. For example, a 1 inch equals 40 foot drawing that must be expanded to create a 1 inch equals 8 foot site model will need to be blown up by 500 per cent and copied three times--with the copier sizing restrictions, 200 per cent times 200 per cent times 125 per cent equals 500 per cent. So, the first copies will be scaled by 200 per cent, the second copies will be scaled 200 per cent, and the third copies will be scaled 125 per cent, creating a site plan blown up to 1 inch equals 8 feet.

  2. 2

    Tape the scaled copies together to create a full site plan with contours.

    You should allow a small amount of overlap for the copies to accurately depict the contours and other elements of the site plan.

  3. 3

    Use the taped, scaled site plan as a template to cut the site base model.

    Use chipboard that is thick enough to accurately portray the height difference of the contour lines. If the chipboard is not thick enough, interpolate the site plan contours by adding new, intermediate contours that accurately reflect the thickness of the chipboard for a given scale. Each of these new contours must be equidistant from the other contour lines to create an accurate interpolation.

  4. 4

    Cut the chipboard along the contour lines depicted on the copied site plan. Use a knife with a sharp, new blade and replace the blades often. For accuracy, cut the copied site plan, as well as the chipboard, to index each contour without errors or omissions.

    Some architects prefer to stipple the chipboard through the site plan, tracing the contour lines with a pin or pounce wheel. The architect then cuts the chipboard along the stippled lines.

  5. 5

    Ensure the chipboard contour site plan layers are stacked correctly as they are cut. Depending on the slopes and topography of the site plan, you may have a few layers or several hundred. Be patient and change your blades often.

  6. 6

    Glue the stacked layers together, and allow the assembled layers to dry overnight.

    Use glue sparingly, and you may prefer to clamp the layers to ensure the wet chipboard does not bow or bend.

  7. 7

    Use a sharp knife to cut the footprints of your architectural design and surrounding buildings out of the dried site model base. Cutting the footprints will require several passes of the blade, so remain patient and try not to make stray cuts in the site model.

    Site vegetation can be modelled using basswood, model trees or clippings from shrubs. You may need to drill holes into the site model to place the basswood or clippings.

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