U.S. Capitol Dome replica latest feat for Midwest Model Makers

December 15, 2008
Indianapolis-based Midwest Model Makers has found big success by making very small objects — specifically, detailed architectural models of everything from buildings to golf courses to weapons systems.

Its marquee achievement was unveiled this month at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center in Washington, D.C. On display since Dec. 2 is a 14-foot-tall, impeccably accurate re-creation of the U.S. Capitol Dome.

"I like to call that a legacy project," said Ed Watson, 45, the company's founder and president. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. An amazing experience, and humbling, too."

Not to mention maddeningly complex. Tiny pieces of the project — in the form of leftover bits of the building — are still scattered around the company's offices, inside the refurbished pump house at the old Fort Benjamin Harrison.

Though the task was arguably simpler than building the real, 100-foot-diameter structure, which was completed in 1863, it was still a major effort. Making sure all those parts looked exactly like the real thing became an exercise in forensic architecture.

Normally, when the company creates one of its models, the client provides hyper-detailed, easy-to-use electronic architectural documents upon which to base the work. Not so with the U.S. Capitol. The building's cornerstone was laid in 1793 by George Washington himself, and the dome was added during the Civil War. When Watson's company began its three-year construction campaign, all it had to go on were old photographs and moldy sketches.

"We had the original Capitol drawings," said Chris Fahrmeier, director of the company's visual studio, which produces its sophisticated computer models and renderings. "We had updates that were done in the early or late '90s, but none of these were very detailed. So we had to take the original, water-colored drawings, trace those onto the computer, build the CAD drawings, and then create a 3D image."

Those images were turned into detailed design prototypes, which were used to create the molds from which were cast the hundreds of pieces needed to assemble the dome. It was like putting together the world's most complex, temperamental, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The exacting project required more than 5,000 hours to complete.

The company's use of tough plastic resin helped win the international competition to build the miniature dome — a job with a price tag that Watson says was "well into the six figures."

"They liked our technical approach and the durability that we designed into it," he said. "After we designed it, we then tried to break things ourselves. We'd take our car keys and dig into it and try to snap pieces off. And we weren't very successful at that."

The result is a 98-percent-accurate model that's sturdy enough for visitors to touch. Touch-ability was quite a departure for Midwest, which, like most model-building firms (there are perhaps 50 domestically, of varying sizes and capabilities), typically doesn't want anyone to lay a finger on its fragile-looking creations. But the unorthodox emphasis on the tactile makes the finished product infinitely more user-friendly.

"Our lead contact in charge of the project sent me an e-mail stating that one of the staffers had a blind friend who came to the exhibit," Watson said. "It was the first time he was able to visualize what the U.S. Capitol looked like, because he could feel the model on the outside."

It took two decades for Watson, who holds a degree in architectural engineering, and his company (established in 1988) to reach this stage. He got into such a specialized niche because, by his own admission, he lacked the patience for the glacial pace of full-size architecture.

He liked tricky design work, but he didn't like the long, long lead time necessary to see a full-scale project through. After five years of overseeing model work at two Indianapolis architecture firms, he decided to strike out on his own.

"Doing an architectural project, you do a couple a year or maybe a couple every few years, and they may or may not get built," he said. "But I can do 15 or 20 models a year and get instant gratification. It works out very well for my personality."

Trouble is, Midwest's clients crave instant gratification, too. Most want their models done yesterday, if not sooner. Which means the workload for the company's 17-strong staff can be pretty heavy. Santa's workshop on Dec. 23 heavy.

"It's like having a toy," Watson said. "[Clients] want them as quick as they can get them. Because they're marketing pieces. The quicker they have them, the quicker they can start selling."

It takes a wide range of skill sets to do such projects. They can require anywhere from 200 to 400 hours for something fairly routine, to more than 1,000 for extremely sophisticated pieces such as a model of Lucas Oil Stadium (complete with interior lighting and a remote-controlled retractable roof).

The company's eclectic roster of clients includes Boeing, Simon Property Group Inc., the U.S. Navy, Weyerhaeuser, NASA, Dow Elanco and the Discovery Channel.

Midwest's employees include a staffer with a master's degree in architecture, a classically trained artist, and a cadre of artisans who actually hold degrees in the esoteric craft of model making (mostly procured from Bemidji State University in northern Minnesota).

Patience and attention to detail is a job requirement, because pretty much everything about the models — from the tiniest seat in a stadium to the massive case in which the entire piece is enclosed — is custom-made on-site.

But what's the point, in this age of computer simulations, of creating a physical representation of a building? According to George Elvin, associate professor at Ball State University's School of Architecture, in some cases a model is worth a thousand blueprints.

"The better the model looks, the better people are going to feel about the project," Elvin said. "When you're trying to communicate to everyday people about what a building is going to look like and what its impact will be, then a model is very important."

William Browne Jr., president of Ratio Architects in Indianapolis, concurs. His company has used Midwest's services for two decades to create models of high-profile projects such as the Indiana State Museum and Conseco Fieldhouse. Because those buildings attracted a lot of media interest, their lifelike, subscale replicas showed up repeatedly in television news stories about the structures. They became, in effect, de facto media representatives.

"It's certainly a way to communicate very quickly with an audience," Browne said. "When you're looking at architectural drawings and even a computer rendering, you still have to explain what you're seeing. A model is almost instantaneous. It doesn't require a lot of explanation."

A good model, that is. And those don't come cheap. If you want Midwest to make, say, a miniature church (the company does lots of those), it's going to set you back maybe $18,000 to $30,000. Some clients spend only $7,000 to $12,000, but they cut corners at their own risk. The purpose of such pieces is to get people excited about the project — excited enough to open their wallets and contribute to the building fund. A less-than-inspiring model might not get the job done.

"They're typically there for fund raising, to show people what the building will be like," Watson said. "You don't want to under-capitalize a model because it makes you look under-capitalized. That's the worst thing you can do in a marketing situation."

Shifting strategy

Speaking of under-capitalized, these days the recession has put the squeeze on a market segment that used to be Midwest's bread and butter — models for real estate developers. Watson and his team sensed the approaching downturn about a year and a half ago and started expanding into other niches to survive.

"If I hadn't diversified, we would have had a very hard time getting past the first quarter of '08," he said. "In March of this year, we saw residential [work] flat line. For this year, 15 percent of our work was residential. But museum work was over 53 percent."

Besides getting into museum exhibits, the company also offers its services to everyone from aerospace firms to the military. Some of their efforts can be quite hush-hush.

"We had two projects that were so secret, we had to keep one of our studios separate from the other, just so they couldn't see what the other was working on," Watson said.

The stuff that isn't top secret is still pretty mind-boggling. One of Fahrmeier's projects is updating the detailed schematics for a model of NASA's massive (and yet-to-be-built) Ares V moon rocket. Once he finishes tweaking the plans, he'll push the "print" button on his computer. The data will shoot to a rapid prototyping machine in the back room, which will slowly produce flawless, three-dimensional copies of the rocket's various components.

"Then we'll take the pieces, cast them in plastic resin, put them together, paint them up, and ship them out," Watson said. "Some of these models will be sitting on senators' desks."

Transformed by technology

The use of rapid prototyping — and Fahrmeier's very presence — highlights how technology has reshaped model making.

A decade ago, when high-technology computer-generated effects appeared, Watson wondered if perhaps they might take a bite out of his business. And they did. However, he's since learned that many people still want models because they can study them at their own pace, instead of being herded along by a prepackaged video. But just to cover all the bases, Midwest now offers a complete range of computer-based products (overseen by Fahrmeier) to complement its physical models.

Another concern has less to do with new technology than the threat of cheap labor — specifically, competition from China and India. On the surface, model-making seems like just the sort of exacting, labor-intensive work that low-priced Asian manufacturers could easily usurp.

Watson, however, thinks several factors have conspired so far in the company's favor. For one, fragile models are pretty much the last thing you'd want to pack into a shipping container and load onto a ship. Also, clients who want this sort of work usually demand exacting standards and may make lots of changes during the design process — something that's tough to do when the factory is half a world away and the people building the piece speak only Mandarin. Finally, if an overseas builder makes a mistake, there's no way to quickly fix it.

"China has taken a small bite out of what we do," Watson said. "And we're a niche business so everything counts. But it's not at a critical level. I think our communication with our clients, the quality we provide, is far higher than what we're seeing out of China."

Most of the company's subcontractors (Watson prefers to call them partners) also are close to home. They include Metro Plastics, Gammons Metals, Meyer Plastics and Matrix Imaging, all of which are based in or near Indianapolis.

"We push them into areas that they never thought of or that they never get an opportunity to do," Watson said. "Gammons Metals is a good example of that. They helped us out with a bridge for the Australian military. It was all done out of stainless steel, like a big Erector set. Extremely cool. And they helped us with the metal vestibule of the U.S. Capitol, which was very difficult, very tedious work."

These days, Watson puts in about 50 to 60 hours a week. And though the job can be exacting — as can any task that involves the regular use of tweezers and magnifying glasses — he wouldn't change his career path.

"I love it," Watson said. "There's not a day that goes by that I don't appreciate what we have here. These guys work extremely hard. And they have fun. It's easier to put in those kinds of hours when you enjoy what you do."
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