Buildings designed by the award-winning Morphosis architectural firm are known for their dramatic statements. From the Cooper Union building in New York City to the Federal Building in San Francisco and the CalTrans building in Los Angeles, the distinctive designs of Morphosis architects stand out as impressive projects often with unusual uses of glass and steel and concrete. But what a lot of people don’t know is there is a small shop craft aspect to this work, because before the big buildings can be built, they first must start as miniature models. And the newest tool in the Morphosis model shop would be familiar to most of today’s woodworkers: a CNC router.

Alex Deutschman and Jeremy Magner co-manage the model shop for Morphosis in Culver City, Calif. Both Georgia Tech graduates, they oversee production of about 200 models a year, says Deutschman. Many of those are to work out individual design issues but others are elaborate scale presentation models that play a crucial role in the competitive process of winning a major architectural design project.

A different road to CNC 

While most woodworking shops start out with conventional equipment and then move to CNC, the Morphosis model shop is a little different. Yes, there was a time when all the architectural models were painstakingly crafted by hand, and there are some impressive examples of that model-making art in the Morphosis office. There are also some conventional woodworking machines such as a Felder combination machine still in regular use in the shop. But today’s model-making is high-tech from the get go.

All of the designing is computer driven from both the architects and in the model shop. Much of the work goes straight from computer to a Z Corp. 3D printer, a device that puts out layers of powder and binder using ink jet technology to create a three-dimensional structure. “We do a lot of 3D sketching,” says Magner, explaining how drawings on the computer quickly become three-dimensional objects for review.

But not everything can be produced by 3D printing, and the process can be slow for large and complex projects. In addition to conventional woodworking machines, the shop also uses a Universal Laser Systems laser cutting machine to make parts. Still, the shop was looking for a better solution for larger prototypes and some full-scale mock-ups of architectural features, says Deutschman. Enter the CNC router.

Quick startup 

Deutschman and Magner worked with Laguna Tools to bring CNC routing to the Morphosis model shop. They chose a SmartShop ATC model, which gives them full 4x8 sheet capacity plus a tool changer. Deutschman says it took only three weeks to a month to get the new machine up to speed, partly because the shop was already so well versed in the computer side of the equation. “There really was not much of a learning curve going from 3D modeling to CNC,” says Deutschman.
Laguna provided technical support, which was important because of the extra versatility required for model making. While most woodworking shops use a CNC router for standard sheet goods such as MDF, Morphosis also cuts fiberboard, high-density foam, and acrylics in addition to hardwoods and plywood, says Deutschman.
“CNC allows us to jump up in scale,” says Deutschman.

Another difference in the way Morphosis uses the CNC router involves fixturing and holding down workpieces. While most woodworking shops rely on vacuum to hold workpieces to the router table, Magner says that they use vacuum, too, but find a variety of conventional clamps are often more convenient for the wide variety and often thin materials they use. Deutschman showed a freeform test piece in high-density foam that was cut on the router to test the machine’s capabilities. “We are figuring out how to work with different material characteristics,” he says.

Full-time model shop
While many architectural firms outsource their models, Morphosis is committed to in-house model production, says Deutschman. The shop functions with two in the office and six in the shop. Most of the shop workers are paid interns who are typically architecture students, says Deutschman.
Both he and Magner studied architecture at Georgia Tech and gravitated to model making because of the rewarding hands-on nature of the work, they say. They know their models are not only the first physical realization of the architect’s vision, but the models also might mean the difference between success and failure when it comes to actually winning a contract to design an important project.

On a recent visit to the shop, on-going work ranged from the painstaking hand process of gluing miniature trees to a model to working out computer designs for 3D printing and cutting acrylic parts on the CNC router. Both Magner and Deutschman say they intend to stay with model making because they especially love the challenges it presents in a wide variety of media and tools.

“We are always learning the limitations of our equipment to achieve to the closest degree what the architects design,” says Deutschman.

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