Populous, a sports architecture firm with offices on five continents and headquarters in Kansas City, has also re-created 55 of those projects as full presentation models.
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nestled under a protective Plexiglas cover in a Kansas City, Mo., River Market office building is a uniquely quirky tribute of sorts to the late, uniquely quirky George Steinbrenner. It’s a replica, dollhouse-size, of the late New York Yankees owner’s luxury suite at Yankee Stadium, down to the most intricate details, like black veins feathering through the white “marble” flooring.
An area rug is emblazoned with the team’s iconic “NY” logo. Black “leather” sofas no bigger than a pack of gum are positioned in front of one of the two wall-mounted flat-panel TVs that dominate the two side walls. A clump of four round tables the size of Peppermint Patties anchors the conference/dining area in front of the other giant (in real life) TV. Along the front “glass” wall facing the field are three sets of six stadium seats.
At the back of the suite, next to the sweeping curve of the “granite” bar, a large oval table is laden with platters of food fit for a king of New York: slices of cold cuts and cheese, a loaf of French bread, oysters on the half shell, a lobster.
Framed artworks on the walls are no larger than postage stamps, but they are clear reproductions of vintage team photos and New York street scenes.
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The piece de resistance is so tiny you might never notice it if someone didn’t point it out. Sitting on a credenza is a fingernail-size photo of George Costanza, Steinbrenner’s fictional long-suffering employee on “Seinfeld.”
The replica was created in the model shop at Populous, a sports architecture firm with offices on five continents and headquarters in Kansas City. The company has built more than 1,000 sports stadiums and arenas around the world, including new structures or remodels for 16 NFL teams, 20 MLB teams and 14 NBA and NHL teams.
It has also re-created 55 of those projects as full presentation models, each a marvel of meticulous craftsmanship. Often, the full presentation models are commissioned by clients who want to use them to woo potential customers to buy season tickets, VIP suites or skyboxes. Other times, the firm builds detailed models to keep in-house to demonstrate its model-making capabilities.
Partial, less detailed models frequently are built to aid architects during the design process. For example, several versions of a single facade design might be mocked-up to simulate how it would look in different building materials. Or cross-sections of the seating bowl might be built so designers can peer into them and examine sight lines.
Populous’ model shop is the largest in-house architectural model shop in the country. It has four full-time employees, an automotive-quality paint shop, a wood shop and more than $1.5 million of high-tech precision milling and laser-cutting equipment. Populous, which was called HOK when the model shop was created 13 years ago, is often the first in the country to receive new machines from manufacturers who want to test them in real-world conditions.
Each year, the shop goes through a semitrailer full of material: wood, resin, acrylic, Plexiglas, rigid foam, urethane, acid-etched brass, steel mesh, paper, wire, hardware, paint and masking tape.
Some of the most elaborate, fully detailed models have left the building. A complete model of the renovated Kauffman Stadium, weighing 150 pounds, is now on display in the stadium’s Hall of Fame. It includes fountains spraying “water,” tiny statues of George Brett and Frank White, and an elaborate facsimile of the crown scoreboard.
Just last month, the shop completed work on a full model of the Florida Marlins new baseball stadium, which is under construction, and delivered it to Miami. The Marlins commissioned the model to use as a sales tool in their marketing office across the street from the stadium.
Complete presentation models like the one for the Marlins cost $100,000 to $300,000, depending on size and complexity.
The very day the Marlins model was going out the door, a rigid foam topography base arrived at the model shop for use in another marquee project that already was well under way: a presentation model of the new Kansas City Wizards stadium in Kansas City, Kan., set to open in June.
Weeks earlier, as the stadium had begun to rise across the street from the T-Bones’ Community America Park, where the Wizards are playing temporarily, Populous began work on the 1:25-scale (1 inch equals 25 feet) model. Deadline pressure and constant design changes would seem like a formula for extreme stress for most people.
On the other hand, like the athletes their firm builds facilities for, model builders earn a living doing something most people regard as play. And in fact, the model shop crew at Populous seems remarkably laid back. They keep regular hours, dress casually and seem to genuinely enjoy each other’s company.
What personality type and skill set is well-suited for a career in model building?
Danny Lawrence thinks an extreme eye for detail and patience are the two most important requirements. Joe Blincoe, whose dad was a woodworker, says a love of problem-solving is also important. No two models are alike and none comes with instructions. The model builders are on their own to figure out how to build it. So it’s not a good job for people who enjoy clearly delineated tasks or predictability.
Stephanie Scott has been at the model shop the longest — 11 years. She moved away from interior architecture and into model building as a result of her passion for working with her hands, a characteristic her co-workers all share.
Blincoe and Scott studied furniture and lighting design and interior architecture in college, respectively, while Nathan Allen and Lawrence, the two most recent hires, graduated from Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota in ’07 and ’08, respectively.
Although all the “drawing” of plans takes place on computers, the majority of work in the model shop is hands on: from mixing dozens of paint colors to represent paving stones, bricks and other surfaces to cutting out tiny acid-etched metal parts and placing them with tweezers.
In the case of the Wizards model, one of the most daunting challenges was modeling the hundreds of vertical metal “fins” that will clad the outside of the stadium. Almost no two have exactly the same shape, and they are set into the exterior at different angles.
The roof on the finished model tested the model builders because the huge trusses — up to 135 feet long in real life — are exposed, so there was no covering up mistakes.
There are fewer trusses on the model than there will be on the stadium. One of the challenges of model-building is that you can’t just scale everything down by the same mathematical formula.
For example, you can’t scale bricks all the way down or you wouldn’t be able to tell they were brick, so they have to be a little larger. The same with the perforations in the fins — even at just a few hundredths of an inch diameter in the finished model, they are larger than 1:25 in scale because otherwise they would be invisible.
Sometimes, the model builders have to cheat the scale when using pre-made accessories such as people, cars and trees. In the Wizards model, for example, the human figures are slightly off scale because no one manufactures people in 1:25.
Spear and Knight say they were in constant contact with the model shop during the construction of the Wizards model, and they marveled at the result.
“They are really, really talented,” Knight said. “We all built models out of chipboard in college, but this is like making a Swiss watch.”
The Wizards are happy with the finished model as well.
“We talk about creating an intimate, state-of-the-art stadium, and it’s hard for people to imagine what that means,” said David Ficklin, vice president of development. “But everyone loves a model. It allows people to instantly understand the details.”