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3D Models in Detail: Architectural models in public engagement

Megan Doherty
Published: 16/12/2020

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This third part of this series on the role of 3D models in public consultations considers architectural models authored by architects in dedicated architecture modelling software.  Unlike previous methods explored in part two (which focus on recreating environment models from photos), architecture models directly draw on  ‘Building Information Modelling (BIM) procedures.

Effective public consultations are increasingly important to any construction project. 3D models can help communicate a greater level of understanding of the proposed project, in terms of size, proportions, and in relation to the building context. Most architecture projects now draw digital models via BIM software, like Autodesk Revit, which overlays visual data with textual data. These models can be converted into a matter of different files (REV, IFC, obj, fbx), as so to share 3D renders with different characteristics. 

This article looks at the tools and services available for organisations who want to share a 3D architectural model in a public consultation. We need to understand the different stages of a 3D model that can be used for public engagement and then which elements of this model benefit these consultations. The article also provides comments on the advantages and disadvantages of using such services for citizen engagement in the consultative process.

Using Architectural 3D Models within Consultations

Today a design team can easily create, organise and delegate sophisticated architectural models amongst team members through BIM tools, such as AutoDesk Revit, VectorWorks, and others. Increasingly, these tools allow the project team to convert those models into other kinds of formats where they become visible, in views, or even on maps, so they can easily be shared with clients and other stakeholders for assessment and approval. 3D architecture and modelling, especially on online platforms in the future, enables anybody to influence designs in a shared and data-driven environment.

Architectural models vary and they gain in technical and visual detail over time. As part of the design process, there are three key formats for these models, which are outlined below. Each format is useful for different kinds of stakeholder engagement.  In the UK, the RIBA Plan of Work outlines the stages and the general information requirements for each stage from a digital model. This helps identify the detail needed to explain aspects of the project development to the public. The RIBA Stages can be aligned into stages of the project’s design as follows:

RIBA Stage

Concept design

Spatial coordination

Technical design


This stage sets the Architectural Concept for a project. The proposals that align with the Site Information and the Project Brief, including the Spatial Requirements, are prepared. 

This stage revolves around the testing and validation of the architectural concept.
The detailed design studies and engineering analysis are undertaken to ratify the assumptions made during the conceptual design and to layer more detail onto the design.

Stage 4 involves the preparation of all information required to manufacture and construct a building. 

3D model

Conceptual models

Working models

Presentation models

Level of detail (LoD)




Exploring the use of a 3D Model for public engagement requires identification of the audience and the purpose of the consultation. Along the design process, we have different kinds of 3D models developed to different degrees of detail, including conceptual models, working models, and presentation models. 

Conceptual Models

used in a consultation with the public at the beginning of the design. A 3D model might present the current design with blocks and use current details of the existing environment to better help the public to understand how the perspective building might work in the area better.

Working Models: 

this type would be used while aspects of the design are still being deliberated. This shares potential design decisions with the rest of the community for valuable criticism. The model might not be textured, as certain decisions are made on its external aesthetics. 

Presentation Models: 

these models are used for presentation at the end of the project's development. These will usually be created for larger buildings that function in a social setting (i.e music venue, university building.) This model would be fully rendered with the completed design having textured externals.

Advantages of a architectural models in public consultations

Unlike a photogrammetric based model [see Part 2] designing a model from the ground up means that more visual information is available then just the external aesthetic detail. An architectural model can be viewed in numerous ways, depending on the stage of the project and how advanced the project building is. 

The advantages of a 3D Model can be but restricted to:

  • Informational detail can be provided and customised
  • The model can be animated for walk arounds
  • Designs can be tested for environmental factors
  • Details on specific objects can be provided

Informational detail can be provided and customised

Unlike a photogrammetric 3D model, an architectural working model goes beyond presenting the external shell of the ongoing project development’s plan. Details regarding the internal layout isf observable by adjusting the levels on view within the model. This means the various floors, rooms, facilities are visually available to view and measure (useful for the spatial checks.) This acts as a blueprint that users can engage, observe and query.

What this presents is the geometries of the model. Unlike the photogrammetric model the project team has worked to coordinate the geometries and attributes of the future model. Specifically, BIM geometries contain the physical and logical characteristics of the built environment and so it is able to present the internal outlay of the building. 

This is not restricted to the physical levels/floors as the 3D building can be organized in a multitude of ways and might present different layers such as:

  • Overview / Building - a layer that allows you to view the 3D building as a single layer. The externals acting as a shell, with the building separating into different layers. 
  • Discipline / profession - a layer that presents the different work disciplines of a building, such as architectural, structural, mechanical, plumbing, or electrical.
  • Category / Bim Objects - individual categories of objects, such as windows or walls, organized into viewable parts of the model.
  •  Optional Filter - Filters allow you to view specific details in a building and split it into individual elements of the complex models. With the optional filter, you can choose to show only elements with specific attributes as solid or show others in wireframe mode. 

The model can be animated for walk arounds

It can be difficult for the public to understand a perspective building with the standard views. Being able to alter the camera, as so, to put the public virtually into the building, allows the public to understand how the structure will be laid out in the future.

The 3D Model’s Camera can be used in a multitude of ways. It has evolved from a birds eye / 360 degree view to one that can be placed within the model. This can allow stakeholders to walk through the model at that moment. 

As the project continues through its timeline the more intricate details will be accessible (such as furniture) but a working model will provide information regarding the area layout. 

Designs can be tested for environmental factors

How a building takes in natural light and balances the external environment’s access to light is important. So important in fact that it can affect a project if there is a dispute regarding loss of sunlight and loss of privacy for others in the area. Using the 3D modeling software the architectural model can represent the light and the impact the building has on nearby establishments. 

The simulation software enables architects and designers to choose the most appropriate system design for their energy and lighting needs by "playing" with different product specification options and the structure area. 

Careful design of the access and use of daylight within a building is one of the most fundamental ways to ensure a building maximizes its environmental performance. By designing a building ‘envelope’ (data regarding aspects of the building) to allow adequate levels of daylight to the building interior, demand for artificial lighting and electricity consumption can be reduced. This can lead to better selection and orientation of products that can also reduce the need for heating, cooling, and artificial ventilation.

Specific Environmental Details

Lastly, the architectural model can present specific design elements that can be highlighted for users and stakeholders on the model. Architects can avoid their work being presented in a utilitarian style by adding more focus to the environment, colour, or function of a model.  

For example, landscaping architecture has greatly benefitted by the introduction of BIM. In 2015 the Landscape Architect Lauren Schmidt addressed its use (click here for the full article.) Landscape architecture sits between the work of an architect and a civil engineer, working with slopes and drainage plans within the building project. “That can be challenging” she notes,  “we’re trying to control ‘in-between’ spaces like thresholds, entryways, retaining walls, and sidewalks, so we want to work with the models of architects and civil engineers as early as possible.” The landscape architect is not only benefiting from accurate information from other project teams but can also implement their own design choices into the model. Installing trees allows information such as - its scientific name, root size, condition, and install height provided in the model. But, it allows other stakeholders visual information on the external presentation of the building including, green area, trees, pathways (i.e. accessibility.)


This is useful within public consultations because it can create a heuristic environment for individuals to observe. Seeing trees appear communicates their scale and size better than outlines of a map. This might draw attention to the details that conceptualise the project, and as projects bring more focus to sustainability, health and social building - this is important as it implements the details that bring these ideas together. 

Disadvantages of using a Architectural 3D Model

The 3D architectural models that are created by the architect, and/or as part of a major capital project can be impressive and highly realistic. 

Keep it simple

In the preparation of models for 3D visualisation, as in other cases, especially at an early stage, it’s key to remember that the simpler the tool the better, as this can cut down on the cost of key personnel. In an early stage, full-blown architectural tools like Revit are generally too fully featured for the kind of simple models required at the beginning of a design process (e.g. conceptual models or volumetric models). Tools like SketchUp are better suited as they have a lower learning curve and can be an aid to test options quickly. In some cases, at least in terms of engagement, simpler model making workshops can even go a long way to get people to engage in the creative generation of site options. 

Linking to BIM

Understanding the greater benefits of BIM earlier on within the project development can help a seamless transition throughout the project of work. It is quite the same for the communication strategy with external stakeholders and the public, as it presents to everyone that there was a clear understanding of the project's place within the environment as it currently stands. These detailed models can have disadvantages in terms of engagement if they appear too polished. Participants may be unsure what kinds of changes are still in scope for decisions to be made. This may lead to criticisms of the consultation being ‘only for show’.

On the plus side the advantage of this data treasure trove is that it can be used throughout the buildings life cycle, for future maintenance as every part of the construction is logged within a digital archive. 

Variety and limitations of views

There’s also a limitation in terms of presentation methods for digital models. A planner may be a reliant on architects sharing not just the model but also the platform required to view them in a meaningful manner. Revit models, exported as REV, hold textual and geometrical data. These files are not always going to be fully supported, due to the amount of information they might have. Certain viewers are accessible, and only they are able to provide certain information. Increasingly, tools such as TwinView can be used to tap into the architectural model directly to provide high quality digital renders. 


Architectural 3D Models are increasingly becoming a key in reaching clients and stakeholders, especially as the UK continues to be wary of in person demonstrations. 

Digital platforms are more widely used in exploring master plans, and as digital technologies become the norm so will integrating 3D models into digital public consultations. As this is expected to provide a rounded understanding of the building development on the part of an external stakeholder (such as the public.)

There is a significant benefit to using an architectural 3D model. It provides additional details that might have previously been overlooked in traditional consultation methods. Aspects of the model, such as the natural and artificial lighting can be demonstrated via projecting light through the model. Specialised projects which focus on specific environmental details can be emphasised to stakeholders who might usually only be given images, maps, and non interactive models. This helps those mediating the public consultation engage with the public with a level of confidence, as there are more notable visuals that provide a deeper understanding of the construction even before its physical completion.  Use of architectural 3D models provides one such method for clear communication with stakeholders. 

Nevertheless, there are still barriers in the use of these models. Architectural 3D modelling is highly coveted within the profession, as practices become more digitally agile. This means that acquiring a 3D Model, or implementing BIM may result in upfront costs to the project and additionally require time to create the databases needed for the lifecycle of the future building. However the benefits far outweigh these costs. 


Send us your thoughts or get in touch for advice on using 3D visualisations in public engagement.

About Megan

Megan Marie Doherty is completing a PhD at Northumbria University on the ‘Design and Evaluation of Building Information Modelling capabilities for public consultation in urban planning and master planning’. Megan Doherty has a background in public engagement from previous roles in media and heritage organisations.

You can follow Megan here:  @m3ganmdoherty 

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