June 4, 2006
Modelers having own building boom — in miniature
Special to The Seattle Times
TOM REESE / THE SEATTLE TIMES
You won't find their feat in the record books, but Seattle brothers Sig and Gunars Rauda have "scaled" Mount Everest.
They've also scaled Mount Rainier, Swedish Medical Center and the West Seattle Bridge all under the bright lights of their Lake City architectural model-building shop.
Armed with beefy band saws and precise laser-cutters, these two run Rauda Scale Models. Their team of specialized craftspeople read design plans from paper, then turn wood, plastics and foam into multidimensional small-scale replicas of anything from high-rise towers to national parks.
As design and construction business continues full-steam ahead in the Puget Sound area, model makers are in high demand by developers and marketing experts who need a realistic, hands-on example of what a finished project will look like.
"There's no substitute for a physical model," says Callison architect Jon Taylor, whose Seattle-based architectural firm is behind projects ranging from the city's Pacific Science Center around the globe to the Grand Gateway in Shanghai, China.
"There's something about bringing in a physical model to a client or to a meeting, and almost immediately everybody can understand the conditions of the project."
Model makers, says Port of Seattle consultant Kathy Cox-Czosnyka, have a "phenomenal" talent for reading design plans and visualizing the finished project.
"Most people I work with see lines on paper, and that's all they see, lines on paper," says Cox-Czosnyka, who is working with Callison on a consolidated rental-car facility targeted to open by 2011 near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
"What a model does for my clients is to give them a real sense of what it's going to mean for them to operate inside the facility. They don't get it any other way."
This is part of the reason Callison has its own model builder, Ron Muir, on its 575-person staff. In nearly any given year, Muir cuts, glues and paints 20 to 25 models.
"A lot of the models we do are for real-estate development, and they're built to show the prospective buyers what it will look like," says Muir. "It really helps sell the projects and the properties."
When compared with the number of architects and builders, however, the number of model builders is a speck — on nearly the same small scale as their models are to the actual buildings.
Nonetheless, "there's a lot of work in the Puget Sound area right now," says Gunars Rauda, who has seen staffing levels fluctuate at his family business since it was started by his dad, Vigo, in 1960. During a layoff from Boeing, Vigo Rauda built a "secret machine" that revolutionized the way model makers created small-scale versions of designs.
At one point in the 1980s, Rauda employed 25 people. Rauda — now the largest model-building team of its kind north of San Francisco — currently has a staff of 12. Two are recent hires.
Elsewhere in this region, a handful of other model makers are independent, working from shops often at their homes — but they're under the same deadline pressures as larger shops.
"We're looking to hire more right now," says Rauda. "Right now there's more work than we can handle."
At Rauda, model builders work at least 40 hours a week. Their specialty is 3-D tactile relief maps like those found at national-park visitors' centers and museums. Nine-hour days and Saturday shifts are required when an assignment requires "about 1,000 hours in six weeks," says Rauda.
While the Rauda team can be found creating 3-D tactile national-parks models so small they can sit atop side-by-side pingpong tables, Muir is kicking up his own sawdust in a 24th-story one-man shop in the Fifth Avenue office tower that's home to Callison's offices.
"People are always amazed that we have a woodworking shop in a high-rise building downtown," says Muir. "When I'm busy, the saws are buzzing and the dust vacuums are humming."
It also surprises a lot of people to learn that professional model makers make nearly all the precise features themselves.
"They have the impression that some of these things are from kits off the shelf, but there are very few pieces in my work that are ready-made," says Muir. "I even custom make specific trees — from tall, skinny spruce to flowering cherry trees."
Muir holds an architectural degree, though it's not a requirement for the job. More importantly, he believes, a model builder "needs a keen eye for details so they'll pop out at almost any scale."
Calling it a profession in which "no one gets rich," Rauda says the best hiring candidates are those "with a willingness and eagerness to build models. They have to be jazzed by it all."
In fact, only three of Rauda's hires in the last 10 years had any previous professional experience. Most shared a common passion for model building as a hobby — either working with train sets, building models from kits or developing them from scratch in their spare time.
A lead model maker, however, "is as well-versed in a table saw as a computer — and everything in between," says Rauda.
"An entry-level person may not know the computer side of it or even how to work power tools — let alone, say, a table saw. But that can be taught. The bottom line is that they want to work in this field. It's something that's in their blood."
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