Does anyone remember the first paper model they did? Maybe you were asked what the paper represented after crumpling it? You were probably basked in a level of confusion…

DSGN 101 and DSGN 102 classes… Love it or hate it these classes are arguably the most important part of your design education. That’s because the little models you will make are the foundation of  the “design process”, which brings you from sketch to fruition of a building. (but that’s another post in itself…)

Most architecture and design students have been there. EVERY first-year student in design school has thought this question at some point… “Why am I making these silly little models?”

DSGN 101 Model. I can't tell you I knew what I was doing at this point.

DSGN 101 Model. I can’t tell you I knew what I was doing at this point.

 

So why are these models so important? The purpose of these models (and the topic of this post) can be summed up in one sentence:


You must understand the properties of materials before you can explore their boundaries.


 

Great architects/ designers explore the boundaries of what can be done. They push the limits. Before you can be a great architect/ designer you have to learn how to think like one, hence design school.

Some of you may be thinking, “But why is this important to architecture and design? It’s just paper?”

 

 

Before design school, all you can see is paper. After design school you will understand what paper “acts” like:

A thin, non-porous material that can be folded, be torn or cut through. It can be written on to express language or symbolism. Paper can be folded to hold weight, or hold a liquid. Paper can be burned. Paper can be glued to certain materials and not to others. Paper can be punctured to hold objects…

Understanding how materials act allows architects to design buildings in creative ways. Starting with very basic materials you are already familiar with (paper) and forcing yourself to see it in many ways (through making models with it) in essence teaches you its properties. Once you do this with all the materials you explore throughout the year, you will notice that you look at materials an entirely different way!

The magic is that when you get into your later years in architecture school, you will be quick to learn how real construction materials properties work.

How about a real example?

Let’s look at a very basic material used in construction: concrete. At a glance concrete looks very simple. Just mix cement, water and aggregate. But, there is so much more to it…

 

A slab of concrete.

 

 

Concrete has a variety of properties that must be understood to use it correctly:

  • Concrete expands and contracts with the outside temperature.
  • Concrete sweats when the temperature meets the dew point.
  • Additives can be added to concrete to change its color, strength, and even transparency.
  • Concrete has a high-compression strength meaning it can support a large amount of weight.
  • Steel rebar has to be added to concrete to enhance its tensile strength because concrete is weak in tension.
  • Concrete can be textured, rough, or smooth depending on the finish.
  • Concrete is a thermal mass able to absorb heat during the day, and release heat at night.
  • Concrete is fluid before placing it to cure; it can be shaped based on the materials you box it in with, or its “form-work”.

 

 

 

Concrete, just like every building material, can only be used based on its inherent properties.

For those of you struggling in the first few years of architecture school, don’t worry. You won’t need to understand the properties of concrete just yet. Stick with your paper and other model making materials and start there!

*The information and guidance in this article is specific to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette's School of Architecture and Design (SOAD) program. Other architecture and design schools may teach differently.