Study models are great. We build models from different materials, but I especially like simple, accurate cardboard study models. We typically use only two materials: corrugated cardboard (from packing boxes) to build the site and chipboard (of various thicknesses) to build the buildings.
Our study models are focused on just two things: space/form and light. I think of space and form as inseparable (except with the possible exception of extreme astrophysics they don’t really exist in isolation)…and lighting is huge. Secondary aspects like material, color, interior features, etc. are usually just distractions at this point. If the space/form and light are strong the project will almost certainly be strong and this is the armature the design will be built around.
I like to build models in a project’s design stage to be used as a working tool – not as visual aid to a design that is already finalized – although sometimes this is what happens. Models that begin to look a bit realistic (but don’t actually get there) have an unsatisfactory feeling about them, and the same can be said about many computer animations. Simple and abstract are my preferences.
It’s too bad so many of us are losing the skill to use a matt knife. I’ve had a number of skilled model makers in the office over the years, but the best was Walter Meyer, now an LA architect with his own office. I remember questioning the way Walter was building one of our models (it wasn’t the way I would have done it). Pulling a chunk of two floor levels out from the shell he responded “so we can remove the core to get a better look at the inner workings.” Those were the good old days and, although we don’t build as many models as we used to, I still highly value the insight study models bring to our projects.