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The art of architectural model making

The art of architectural model making

September 2016

Architectural model-makers, like Dani Bterrani, have carved a niche in the profession by bringing projects to life through intricately detailed miniature 3D models.






Most architects will tell you that building a great architecture model takes more than just skill. For Dubai-based model-maker, Dani Bterrani, it’s an innate quality.

As the son of an architect, Bterrani had an affinity for creating structures from a young age. As a child he was adept at creating models out of tissue boxes – a quality which developed and stayed with him well into his adult years.

And it paid off. Today, he is the CEO of 3dr Models, one of the leading model-makers in the world.  His firm creates everything from residential buildings to malls, luxury resorts and airports, bringing starchitects’ projects to life through intricately detailed miniature 3D models.

In the 90s, Bterrani carved a space in the profession when he started his business in Dubai and quickly garnered the trust of architects and developers. Over the years, he’s created models for the likes of the late Zaha Hadid, Sir Norman Foster and Frank Gehry – transforming drawings and renders into tangible, real-world settings.

As a result of his craft, he’s earned the moniker ‘psychic of Dubai,’ because he “knows how the skyline of the city will change before anyone else does.”


A few decades ago models were used to illustrate how a development could look like, it was a mere rough design. However, model-makers have transformed the industry and have injected a certain vigour and life-like quality to the models they create today.

“When I started out, there wasn’t anyone I was aware of that was doing something like this,” says Bterrani. “Since then the demand for these types of 3D models has grown immensely as architects and developers see the potential of these models. Nothing portrays a project like a 3D model,” he says.

“When investors and buyers at realty shows see these models they have an exact idea of the development and what it will look like and this shapes their buying decisions,” he adds.

In 2005, 3dr Models took a successful step when it merged with Hong Kong-based model making firm RJ Models, which resulted in them becoming the largest model making company in the world.

Today, the company produces 2-3 models per day, and depending on the intricacy, detail and scale of the model it can cost anywhere between USD 100,000 to over USD 1 million.

Some of the company’s models include Zaha Hadid’s Tokyo National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics; Frank Gehry’s Opus Hong Kong which is the city’s most expensive residential building, KPF’s New Bondway development in London, and SOM’s World Trade Centre Tower One in New York City.

In addition to a portfolio of high-profiled projects from around the world, he has also worked on a model for Bulgari Resort and Residences in Dubai, Burj Al Arab, and Mall of the World to name a few.

He is currently working on a 140 metre model depicting Dubai’s new miniature city, much like the one in Qatar, that will be built over the next few years.


One thing is clear, each of these models isn’t just a simple brick and mortar design, attention to detail is paramount for Bterrani.

Realistic trees, landscaped gardens, Porches in garages, crystal clear water in pools and oceans and sandy beaches come alive in the models, illustrating that the overall environment setting matters just as much as the actual development.

But, “it’s all about the lighting. This is a crucial part of any model and something I stress to all the clients. We light up each floor of any building we work on because that depicts a reality setting,” says Bterrani. Intricate wiring allows tiny streetlights to turn on as well as soft LED lighting, interwoven on each floor, to illuminate the rooms inside multi-storey buildings.

Some models come with a touch-screen iPad to allow architects and developers to turn on lights in each room and lift the roof to allow customers a look inside. A peek inside an illuminated room in a 50-storey building reveals tiny furniture and fully decorated rooms with bowls of fruit, wine bottles with actual labels and even books, that have hand-painted spines. It’s this type of detail that sets Bterrani apart from most in the industry.

“We try and make it as realistic as possible and we work with the motto that less is more,” he says.

About 90% of Bterrani’s models are made with plexiglass – also known as acrylic glass due to its flexibility – which can be bent and shaped into a variety of forms and used on the windows and the floors.

Once completed, it’s the installation process, which Bterrani says; “at any given point in time we have about 20 men installing models anywhere in the world.”


It’s difficult not to be amazed by Bterrani’s dedication and passion to his work, when it comes to even the smallest of details. A look around his studio in Dubai reveals some of his grand models and schematic designs that decorate the Al Quoz office like badges of honour.

Although, bringing to life the designs of the world’s foremost architects comes with its fair share of pressure. “Yes, there is a certain amount of pressure,” he admits, “but we’re good at what we do,” adding that they’re on call every day to ship models anywhere in the world.

“One of the most stressful times though,” says Bterrani, “is when we have a presentation or exhibition and if the model isn’t here it’s quite stressful because it doesn’t matter how big the stand is, it’s all about the model for the client.”

Managing expectations is something Bterrani has to do as well. Trying to please both architect and developer and coming up with a model that suits both their preferences is something that he has to contend with in most projects.

While architects often go for clean, fresh designs, developers opt for models that are flashier, and it is up to Bterrani and his team to find a middle ground.

Bterrani says the demand from both developers and architects for a pristine model is indicative of a sector that still relies heavily on physical models to illustrate their vision. Over the years, new technology has improved the craft of model making significantly and models that can be touched and seen up close will always be in demand in this region, he thinks.

As with any business tied to the real estate industry, there are challenges when it comes to the unpredictable nature of the sector. Bterrani who understands that more than anyone, can often predict how the market is going to turn out based on his project-pipeline. During the recession that impacted the real estate sector in Dubai a few years ago, the company hardly had any projects from the UAE, but Bterrani recognises that with anything intimately connected with the real estate industry there will be highs and lows.

One thing is clear, to emerge successful in this industry it takes a certain amount of patience, attention to detail, being something of a perfectionist and having the ability to work under pressure – skills which Bterrani has honed over the last two decades of working in the industry.

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