Architecture’s Test Kitchen

Behind the scenes in the model shop, where designers shape ideas in 3D

A hands-on guy: Roman Udakov, manager of the model shop at SOM’s Chicago office. Photo © Lucas Blair | SOM

Architectural design has long been digitized: drafting tables have given way to digital workstations, and drawings are more often created with a computer than a pencil. But in SOM’s Chicago office, at least one domain is resolutely tactile: the model shop. Here, sawdust flies, 3D printers hum, and architectural designs take shape for the first time in three dimensions. Model shop manager Roman Udakov spoke with Alex Miller of SOM’s digital publishing team about why making physical models is still important today, how 3D printing changes things, and why many heads are better than one. Put on your safety goggles…

Photo © Lucas Blair | SOM

Alex Miller: How is model making important to the design process?

Roman Udakov: Model making is a process of design ideation. When we’re working on a competition, for instance, or when we start on a project — creativity isn’t just a switch you can turn on, and it starts flowing. The model shop is just one of the methods of exploration that our designers and engineers use to work through ideas. Each person brings different things to the table, and we try out different possibilities. When something catches their eye, they say “Okay, let’s refine this idea,” or “let’s combine this idea with that one.”

Alex: What do you think it is about a physical model that enables this, in a way that’s different from a rendering or a drawing?

Roman: When you have a 3D object in front of you, you can really understand it. It speaks differently — ​it’s so much more. Model making is a powerful means of communication.

“We’re fortunate to have this — ​the ability to build something right here. And we’re reminded of that all the time.”

Alex: You work with a lot of different teams at SOM.

Roman: I pretty much work with everybody. From interior designers, to engineers, to architects, to people who strictly work on hospitals — every studio in this office has built something in here, or is in the process of building something. Now that we’re using 3D printing, more studios are reaching out. We’ve trained a go-to person in almost every studio to help out — someone who knows how to use our tools.

Alex: Has that made it easier to work in any way?

Roman: Well, the 3D printer is a useful tool because we have an industry standard to work with: everybody does 3D modeling in Rhino. This allows me to import their file, work with it, and then print it. Everybody can be a part of the design process. It wasn’t like that before. Everything was much more primitive. Still, 3D printing has its own issues — you can only print things of a certain size, and it takes time. So you have to improvise. A tower configured as one piece may take 20 hours. But if you break it up and print it flat, then assemble it later, it could take four.

Rhino files used to produce a 3D-printed model. Images © SOM

Alex: How do you view 3D printing, more broadly?

Roman: It’s a very useful tool. You can have too few tools, but you can never have too many tools in a toolbox. Although we have limited space, we’re investing in it. We found out that by bringing in a few 3D models, it resolves a lot more issues than bringing in drawings or making a presentation. It’s simple, it’s rough, but it helps a person to visualize what works, and what doesn’t.

Alex: What did this process look like before the 3D printer?

Roman: As recently as the 1980s, clay was still being used. Then, hand-cut museum board — using X-Acto blades — became more common. You can still see some of the pencil marks on a few of the older hand-cut models. Then you started to see laser cutting in the late ’80s and early ’90s, with materials like plex and Bondo.

I remember when there was no computer. My first one was an IBM PS/1, which first came out in 1990. The youngest generation can’t even imagine what a world would look like without computers. Look at the cell phones now — they’re so much more advanced than any PC at the time. When I first started here, we used two small laser cutters and two table saws.

Roman shows examples of a 3D-printed model and a hand-built clay model. Photos © Lucas Blair | SOM

Alex: When was that?

Roman: The end of 2006. Before that, I was doing some contract work for Peugeot up in Detroit, after moving from San Francisco. The auto industry was undergoing a lot of change, and there wasn’t much certainty in the market. So I moved down to Chicago, started some freelance work, and sent around my resume. SOM contacted me, and I didn’t know anything about architecture at the time. But I thought, “Might as well go in for an interview.” I did some pre-interview research, and I was really impressed with the body of work here. When I came in, I was blown away. People were working on the Burj Khalifa, Pearl River Tower, all of these big projects. The office was a creative whirlwind — so much was going on. And I thought, “Wow, this is architecture?” It changed how I thought of the industry. So I came on, and I’m still here.

Alex: How did you see your role fitting in with the process at the time?

3D-printed and hand-sculpted model of proposed 540-meter-tall tower. Photo © SOM

Roman: You think of SOM as a huge design firm, but back then, the model shop felt kind of like a mom and pop shop — just getting by with two laser cutters, a couple of sanders, and a table saw — and yet, producing amazing concepts, and amazing work.

Alex: And now you’re bringing in people from each studio.

Roman: Exactly. When they first start, a lot of people aren’t sure how to make a model, and might feel a little uneasy about it. But after a couple of times, people really look forward to coming down. It’s a different work environment, too. When you come to the model shop, you can listen to music, relax, and build something with your own hands.

I try to keep a relaxed atmosphere here — if you don’t know something, ask me. Nobody knows everything. There’s a lot of things that you can do better than I can, but there’s some things that I can do better than you. And we can feed off each other, and help each other out. Everybody works together.

It’s a rewarding job. You deal with a lot of creative, interesting people from all different disciplines. Everybody always has something that they can bring to the table. Many heads are better than one — that’s the way that I look at it. The big thing about the model shop is that people come here and help out — whether it’s interns, or people from the studios. It’s truly a collaborative thing.

Interns from IIT assemble a laser-cut model of CITIC Financial Center. Photo © Lucas Blair | SOM

Alex: So what’s usually on the playlist in here?

Roman: It varies. Yesterday, we were rocking the oldies. A lot of Elvis. Sometimes it’s classic rock or electronic music — depends on the mood and the people in here. Usually, I’ll ask people what they want to hear. After hours, we might put on stand-up comedy. I’m a product of the ’80s, so I do a lot of mashup mixes and stuff like that.

Alex: Is there anything about your job that would surprise people?

Roman: A lot of people are surprised that a company like SOM would have a model shop. Today, many architectural firms don’t have one. They don’t do rapid prototyping or model making. All that stuff is usually outsourced. If they need to do a presentation model, they contact a rapid prototyping firm to make a model for them. The industry has changed, but we’re fortunate to have this — ​the ability to build something right here. And we’re reminded of that all the time.

The shelves of the model shop are filled with products of the modelmaking process. Photos © Lucas Blair | SOM

Alex: What do you think is that next step in the work you’re doing? Is it evolutionary, or is it completely different?

Roman: It’s more about the fact that there’s a new generation of people, with new ideas. Technology is rapidly evolving, and people’s skill sets are evolving. There are going to be completely new ways of looking at things, and new design strategies. We’re always adapting to change and looking ahead. The model shop, and the collaboration that happens here, will always be an important part of the way we work. There’s always going to be value in making a physical model — ​something you can touch, and understand intuitively.

Visitors arriving at SOM’s Chicago office encounter a gallery of presentation models. Photo © Evan Thomas

See the models that Roman and his team created for an exhibition on SOM’s history of innovation in structural engineering: