There is Beauty in Simplicity
*Disclaimer: This post is aimed at professionals, architecture/design students, prospective students and their parents, and STEM teachers. Please note that this is a review of ARCKIT's capacity as an educational tool. As always, my thoughts are my own.
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I cannot recall a time when I have been so captivated by a single product. I may be going crazy, but I have not been able to develop a single ARCKIT-unrelated thought the entire week it has taken me to write this review. Despite all my previous efforts, and now my posting of this blog, I feel ARCKIT has not received the recognition it deserves. Therefore, I will continue to add dated edits to this review to represent ARCKIT in its most current form. I hope you enjoy reading this review as much as I enjoyed writing it and, if you are undecided about purchasing an ARCKIT, you revisit that decision.
Let me begin by saying that I have worked on this review for the past two years. Two years. Since opening my starter kit in Summer 2016, I have consistently used ARCKIT on a weekly, often daily, basis. After spending the last two months gathering my thoughts about this product, I have concluded that, besides those on the ARCKIT team, I have likely spent more time working with ARCKIT than anyone else, experiencing the joys of its creative capacities and the challenges of its inherent quirks. Over these two years, I have seen the Irish company grow while addressing crucial flaws in its first-generation design and making tough decisions that impact the product's aesthetics, ease of use, and accessibility. I have used ARCKIT so much during the past two years that I now naturally consider its platform when designing or thinking about space. It has become an integral part of me and my success. To ARCKIT, I owe my most sincere thanks. Cheers!
The first reason I am posting this review is because ARCKIT is so unbelievably worth using that if I can convince a single person to pick up a kit, to enjoy and benefit from it as much as I have, writing this review will have been one week well spent. The second reason is a bit more personal and I will admit that over the past two months I have seriously questioned my own judgment as someone who appreciates model building and devotes countless hours working and teaching with this product. I've dug and sifted through the internet for a single review that I feel acknowledges and expresses how much of an unequivocal achievement ARCKIT is but I have yet to find one. Perhaps I am crazy and ARCKIT is only just a great system, like most other great building blocks and toys. Or perhaps I am not crazy and ARCKIT is actually a masterpiece whose true value can only be discerned many years after it arrives on the scene and after its impact has had a chance to exert its ripple effect. For now, I am going to bet the house on the latter statement, proudly staking what little credibility I have on my assertion that the entire architecture modeling industry, while celebrating ARCKIT, is drastically understating how incredible and important it is, especially in the educational setting.
ARCKIT is such a rare breakthrough moment in the history of our medium and it's for this very reason that I have poured so much care and affection into this review. I want there to be at least one review out there that calls this product for what it is, a masterpiece that is an absolute must-buy for anyone who appreciates architecture, structures, sustainable design, construction, or true innovation in any of the elements I have just listed. Ladies and gentlemen, I humbly present to you my review of ARCKIT.
So what is ARCKIT and why use it?
Imagine a building system that makes designing and constructing architectural models simple, relatively cheap, and clean? What if the pieces held in one’s hand were designed to reflect modern-day building techniques, conforming not only to international building regulations but also accessibility codes? What if common architectural elements like walls, floors, roofs, trusses, columns, and windows were all single units that could snap together? What if floor plans could be constructed in minutes, easily communicating ideas to a friend, professor, supervisor, or client? What if modeling was so fast and efficient, it could be a platform for rapid prototyping, quickly and efficiently "sketching" ideas in three dimensions? Most importantly, what if one could just concentrate on the design rather than being distracted by the building process? Simply put, ARCKIT embodies all the above and more.
Launched in 2014, ARCKIT, an award-winning precision architectural model-making system, enables users to physically design, build, and modify scaled structures. With its series of interconnecting modular parts, ARCKIT’s clean and simple workflow allows for continuous modifications that can keep up with the fastest of imaginations. Designed with real construction techniques in mind to bring versatile construction, physical and digital platforms, an applied texture library, and an ever-expanding component list, ARCKIT’s possibilities are endless. To draw a diagram or visualize a computer-generated model is one thing, but to actually hold it in your hands and touch it is an un-paralleled experience. Physical modeling in architecture is an art whose importance I cannot stress enough. ARCKIT modeling makes iterative development and refinement so simple, easy and straight forward; it makes the common and lazy excuses irrelevant. Too many times have I seen students not reach their fullest design potential because of the common barriers of traditional modeling. While ARCKIT may not provide the detail of a professionally-crafted, laser-cut model, it does not need to, it is not intended to, and I wouldn't want it to. That said, it is without a doubt way more accessible, intuitive, and cheaper than other options. There is really nothing at this level of modeling in terms of cost and detail – perhaps except for LEGO, but we will get to that in a bit.
ARCKIT is more than it surprises, a lot more. ARCKIT is one of the most technically, thematically, and visually congruent system ever delivered by a reusable modeling product. Understanding the greatness of ARCKIT is as much about understanding the achievement of its individual elements as it is about appreciating the "greater than the sum of its parts" magic that they achieve in combination. The premise of ARCKIT is simple: there is a kit of parts which can be combined to achieve a product. I phrase it like this because there is not a right or wrong way to use ARCKIT. Ignoring its architectural applications, one can create just about anything. In fact, my business card holder, cellphone stand, and several other "odds and ends" are made of ARCKIT pieces. That said, ARCKIT is undoubtedly marketed towards architecture and that is where it excels. Here is why.
The ARCKIT system, while simplified, is developed around modern-day construction techniques, making it a strong educational tool for teaching realistic building design. ARCKIT helps explore and teach the technicalities of building structure, materials choice, and project feasibility. The number on the box, if there is one, does not refer to the piece count, rather it denotes the number of square meters one can build to scale. All pieces in each kit are constructed to a 1:48 scale, just under the popular 1:50 or "O" Scale used in professional practice. The difference between the two is unnoticeable. In fact, the 1:48 scale was chosen to allow for much easier conversion numbers between Metric and US Standard measurements while still allowing for use of common 1:50 accessories. For example, the basic 1x1 ARCKIT Unit at a 1:48 scale is 4ft x 4ft or 1.2m x 1.2m. This makes scaled modeling clear and straightforward for classes and users at all levels. Because ARCKIT uses an internationally relevant scale, it can therefore be used as a base or a shell, easily combinable with traditional modeling materials or even 3D-printed add-ons. It’s a foundation that is beautifully simple on its own and surprisingly impressive when mixed.
So, with building sets in general, one naturally thinks of LEGO, an iconic and popular building tool of the several past generations. While I can see similarities between ARCKIT and LEGO, the two are quite different and cannot really be compared beyond the fact that both are building tools. I have worked with LEGO from a very young age and both then and now, there has always been a pervasive and rational intelligence to it that you can't find in other experiences. It just works. I bring it up here because ARCKIT is imbued with the same emotional and intellectual gravitas that makes LEGO so wonderful, but it is specifically geared for architecture. Imagine that! While one might construct a LEGO model to display permanently on a shelf, ARCKIT models beg to be taken apart to try new ideas and possibilities. Its larger scale and bigger pieces make it a constantly engaging design tool rather than a one-off model showcase piece. There is nothing wrong with creating showcase models, but this activity does not jive with its use as a quick and simple educational tool for iterative architectural design. In an educational context, being able to modify and adapt consistently is key.
I ran into ARCKIT immediately after being completely unsatisfied working with LEGO Studio, a set made specifically for architecture, and for me the difference is striking. My intent here is not to belittle LEGO, but I must confess that the architectural focus of ARCKIT contextualizes the shortcomings of LEGO Studio to deliver on its core promise as an educational tool for architects. Its small relative scale and time consuming breakdowns make it difficult in a classroom/design setting for being able to display and iterate. One thing that completely baffles me is that LEGO Studio sets do not include even a single "brick-separator" tool to allow for easy removal of pieces. These days, when LEGO includes a brick-separator in most medium-sized and even smaller sets, to not include one in such a large set that specifically targets students and professionals is a bewildering oversight. In fact, though LEGO Studio is now discontinued, it’s was not really the actual LEGO pieces that made the LEGO Studio appealing, it was the incredible and beautifully written book bundled with it. If ARCKIT would make a similar caliber book full of inspiration and ideas to boost your creativity, I cannot imagine why anyone would chose LEGO for Architectural Education beyond just its namesake.
ARCKIT for architecture and design is quite simply easier and more effective. Everything is to scale and building code-compliant. If you want a wall or a window or a roof, you just snap it in. You don't need to build it brick by brick, which is not only time-consuming but takes away from the actual educational experience. ARCKIT is so much more powerful in the educational setting because of how it works. Time in education is limited and ARCKIT assures that time is well-spent.
Origin Story - Then and Now
This modular system was conceived by architect, Damien Murtagh, the Founder and CEO of ARCKIT. Murtagh's vision for ARCKIT began as a plan to develop a reusable building tool that Architects and Designers could use, removing the difficulties and barriers of traditional methods of modeling. With ARCKIT, scaled structures could be quickly assembled, endlessly modified and finished/combined with other materials to perfection.
Murtagh understood the value of a physical model and its ability to explore ideas and act as a tangible presentation tool for clients. The problem was that traditional hand modeling and creation has slowly become a lost art due to the time constraints, expenses and impracticality of ‘cut and glue’ models. A moment of insight came while he was developing a real modular building concept. He needed a modern system that was fast, reusable and cost-effective. To his amazement, nothing like this existed – so he decided to invent one from scratch!
“Architects have always used physical working models. However, cutting and gluing materials together is no longer feasible due to time and cost constraints. I still believe this process is essential for collaboration between architects and clients, so I wanted to create a new system that would rekindle model making. By removing technical barriers, ARCKIT has opened up architectural design and precision scaled model making to everyone for the first time ever. Since we launched, ARCKIT has become increasingly popular as a practical, fun and highly educational design tool. We really value ideas from the ARCKIT community and we are continually striving to evolve and enhance the system. I hope that your new kit brings you many hours of happiness and creativity.” - Murtagh
What originally began as a professional tool for designers quickly caught on with people of all ages around the globe. Today, four years later, the ARCKIT team is comprised of a bright team of architects, toy specialists, designers, model enthusiasts and all-round creative people. With their main offices in Dublin and London they are working day and night to create a global community of architects, engineers, designers, homebuilders, educators, students and model hobbyists. The mission is to open up the world of architecture to everyone interested in developing fundamental design skills or to experience the feeling of spontaneous creativity through hands-on model building. Like any great company, the dream is big. I have no doubt that someday, ARCKIT’s will be available to everyone around the world, in particular for the underprivileged and under-served in society and will inspire and educate the next generation of creators and help to make the world a better place.
2014/2015 - Original Series:
AGO, A60, A120, A240
2016 - Generation 2:
AGO+, AGO+ Colors, Mini Angle, Mini Curve, Mini Dormer, Mini Modern, A90, A180, A360
2017 - ARCKIT Play Series:
TinyTown, CityScape and Masterplan
2018 - ARCKIT 2.0
AGO+ 2.0. AGO+ 2.0 Colors, Mini Dormer 2.0, Mini Dormer 2.0 Colors, Mini Modern 2.0 Colors, Little Architect, Cityscape+
The Unboxing Experience
In progress and coming soon…
The Kit of Parts
The ARCKIT system is comprised of a "Kit of Parts" that allows the creator to build with common architectural elements. These elements are broken up into several categories of components that fit together and connect with a hole and peg system.
Floor Plates - Flat plates of various dimensions. These plates can be laid out together and connected with links or stacked to create topography or similar effects. When put into position, these components contain holes and square indents that line up, allowing other components to directly pin and snap to the created grid. Though a simple system, there are a lot of intricacies that can take place especially when working off the created grid.
Walls - The interaction and arrangement of these components with the above floor plates is where the magic happens. These pieces each contain pins which allow them to fit into the floor plates. The "wall" category also contains elements such as doors and windows which match the standard wall template. These pieces can be placed side by side to create wider walls or placed perpendicularly on grid to create a corner.
Roofs - Standard gabled roof trusses and shingles that can be pinned to walls or floor plates to create a simple truss design. Set parameters are needed and should be planned ahead of time for these components to work. Note that gable extenders are only available in larger kits. Also note that roof shingle components are the only ARCKIT pieces that must be placed in the correct orientation by following the clearly labeled "This Way Up" on its underside. Floor plates can be used as a replacement to the gable to build flat roofs.
Others - Miscellaneous components that work to add depth and variations to models. These pieces include stairs, columns and tiling features. Use these parts to create new pathways, add structure and polish off your finished models.
Archi"textures" - An array of images, representing common building materials and landscape, printed on sticker paper that can be cut and peeled off to add detail to finished models. These applied textures are a great way to add a realistic touch to builds. I do not use these applied textures often since I break down my models immediately after I finish construction/documentation to get ready for the next build.
Component Tray - Depending on the kit purchase, larger kits come with a component tray to help divide out and organize pieces. Smaller kits provide a Ziploc plastic bag to store the pieces. If buying a kit without a component tra y, I recommend in getting some sort of storage solution to divide up the pieces for easy access and allow for future additions.
Instruction Manual - Included in each kit is an instruction manual or fold-out pamphlet that includes background information about ARCKIT and brief steps to build the model on the cover box. Larger kits feature a mini booklet with a bit more added detail.
Archi”digital” - Online access to ARCKIT components in digital format is available for free within SketchUp Make 3D Warehouse and REVIT allowing for models to be created in both the digital and physical format. With this, its possible to design a build and then order the specific amount of components for completion.
ARCKIT sets offer a few key components which are reused and revisited in different ways. Its a realistic design decision that mimics modern, modular construction remarkably well. In the real world, its more economical and sustainable to have a catalog of building parts that can be easily and efficiently mass produced, with material and quality control. There is literally only one type of wall template that is used over and over again to achieve different results. ARCKIT takes this concept to heart and while some may call this laziness or limiting, I call it genius. Not only did I developed a level of familiarity with each of the components, I knew that everything I constructed could be a prototype of a possible reality. That is what makes ARCKIT so special, its a critical design experience that encourages our next generation of designers to think realistically with parts grounded in actuality. With such an ever growing, fast paced and connected world, ARCKIT fits right into the modern educational agenda. While using my kits to develop ideas for modular, affordable housing, I came to know each piece intimately, reminded of countless incredible moments I've had in using each. I will always fondly remember the basic “2X4 Brick” from LEGO because it felt like home. It was always the foundation piece where everything would begin. With ARCKIT, almost every component in the kit of parts becomes its own “2X4 Brick”, brimming with familiar memories. ARCKIT creates a visual signature that one can't but appreciate.
Component Material and Build Quality
The majority of ARCKIT sets come standard with white components where only some pieces (walls/half-walls/railings/floor-plates) are offered in clear variants. The pieces are stark white with a careful balance of some in a light gloss and others in flat matte finish. ARCKIT quality control is quite high as edges and angles are perfectly cut and I've never had any consistency issues or anomolies with any of my components.
There are a select number of colored kits (Before 2017), which contain bright and bold primary colored pieces. The newer ARCKIT Play Series Kits (After 2017) offer beautiful soft pastel colors closely representing common architectural markers and notation colors. When introducing color into models, color pallet is crucial and ARCKIT nails it.
All of the pieces, no matter what set, are made of the same high quality injection molded plastic. A mold is created with two metal plates which are compressed together. Plastic is extruded between the plates and cooled till it hardens. The resulting product is cleanly finished, as opposed to 3D Printing, and has excellent durability. They are remarkably strong and definitely made to last. With colored pieces, the coloring is mixed into the plastic itself and is not applied on after the fact which often leads to paint cracking. As a result, with my colored components, I have not seen coloring wear off. Kudos to ARCKIT for choosing this route. While a small detail, its definitely much appreciated.
While the plastic density in some of the newer pieces have decreased, I've noticed no significant change in strength and have appreciated the added flexibility. Over the course of two years I've only had five small connector pieces break, nothing else. Out of those five, three were due to my own wrong doing in experimenting with connections that I now see obviously do not work!
If you are in design or design education, physical modeling is integral in the learning process but, traditional modeling materials are expensive and quite often, without careful planning, about half of what is bought ends up as waste. To put it bluntly ARCKIT is not cheap but, that doesn't mean its not priced fairly. I think there is a bit of a misunderstanding with how expensive Architectural modeling supplies are in general, especially when some sets are packaged as children's toys. While my studio peers have spent hundreds to thousands of dollars on materials over the years, I have been able to build literally several orders of magnitude more models in significantly less time.
I remember an assignment where my fellow classmates and I had to all separately design forms to represent positive and negative spaces. I was able to jump straight into modeling, skipping the hand drawing and computer visualization stages. At the end of three hours, I had thoroughly tested 30+ prototypes, being the only student to take any of their models outside. During the presentation, I delivered 10 finished/cohesive models whereas others struggled to complete 1-2. For me time is a premium. Considering that ARCKIT is reusable, one can save quite a fortune both in time and money by investing in ARCKIT components. Price distributions are as follows...
Small Kits - $25- $50 USD
Medium Kits - $50 - $150 USD
Large Kits - $150 - $300 USD
For the amount of detail and the simplicity of its forms, there's really nothing in this level of modeling in terms of cost. There are sales almost every month, especially around major holidays and if you take a look at some of the offered bundles featured on the ARCKIT website there are some great deals. Keep an eye out for ARCKIT hosted competitions, they are a great way to add to potential portfolios while having the chance of winning some amazing ARCKIT prizes. In the end, its important to understand that ARCKIT is a business that designs, manufactures and distributes from Ireland and should be compensated for their hard work.
User Experience, Recent Areas of Improvement and My Wishes for the Future of ARCKIT
ARCKIT is not just a sit-down-a-couple-of-times product and your good to go. It takes a while to really get to know each piece but, given patience, ARCKIT is a beast. Only the components will remain constant as everything else begins to change. The first few builds are a prologue of what is to come, where subsequent sessions will deliver subtle nuances that you could have never imagined. I do not want to share to many details, one should discover the magic on their own but, suffice it to say, this is not a several build experience. It is a gradual effort filled journey and ARCKIT uses every single hour of that to deliver an ever evolving, deepening and gripping embrace from start to finish. If after a few builds one thinks they have experienced ARCKIT, no they have not, not even close.
Compared to traditional modeling, any modular building product will have its fair share of problems, inconsistencies and limitations; ARCKIT is no exception. I have been always hesitant in drafting up this section of the review because I’ve had a whole list and could rant all day. I’m sure glad I didn’t because over the past year, ARCKIT has listened to all our feedback and taken steps to amend pretty much every core issue I would have written down. The newest iteration of ARCKIT has increased the system’s usability drastically and is now insanely easier to use. Not only is the build process now faster and simpler, so is clean up. Well done! All the previous issues with pinning and ease of use that so many complained about are now gone with ARCKIT’s most recent update. While I did not personally think a change was needed, I believe this is the correct direction to move forward with. For right now, I can’t wait for all of my pieces to be gradually updated to match the new baseline.
So after this major update, here are just a few, very feasible ideas I would like to see added, changed and improved on to make ARCKIT the dominant modeling system
Walls - There simply needs to be more wall height variations. Adding in quarter and eighth height walls and doing the same for columns would open up so many more possibilities while keeping the same overall aesthetic.
Instruction Manuals - While the kits are really designed to be fueled by your own imagination, the included instructions are super hard to interpret and understand. There is just too much information and also somehow lack thereof in the included manual. As one of the first things you rely on when using a new product, the manual or pamphlet itself can be frustrating. I’ve seen it sadly act as a deterrent, putting the user in a negative mindset in front of a great product. For reference, the older A240 manual, while not perfect, was on the right track. This original manual had a section of tips and tricks which have disappeared and moved online. Something similar to the LEGO Studio book would be great, including tips, techniques, features and intuitive hands-on exercises.
Kit Component Distribution - The types and amounts of pieces included in each kit need to be re-worked. Not sure how to explain this since I work with multiple kits but, something needs to be done with the experience of working with the single kit. At the end up a build, when pushing the kit to its limited, there is often an abundance of extra pieces that cannot be used or would be redundant. This has been a problem i’ve tried solving for a while but, I still have not devised a distribution that would be better or make sense.
ARCKIT Master/Education/Professional Series - These would be larger education focused kits with just a clean and simple box, simple branding, basic how to instructions, ample compartments and marketed for professional and student driven audiences. In classrooms this would be essential and extremely ideal. I would even love to help out with the design of this new series and develop the book that tags along with it.
Market/Audience Focus - Over the past two years, ARCKIT has been deeply focused with catering to and designing for a younger audience. While understanding that this is where the current market is, there hasn’t been much attention given to an older or more professional audience. This year, with the release of the new ARCKIT 2.0 pieces, which add significant quality of life improvements, I was surprised that none of the bigger and more advanced kits were updated. (EDIT 2/4/19 - All kits have been updated with the new components)
Increased Sustainable Practices - As someone who is dedicated to sustainability within Architecture, I want ARCKIT to adopt more sustainable approaches to how they address material packaging and disposable content. There is simply way to much plastic in the packaging. On top of that, in the future, I would like to see ARCKIT possibly going 100% Biodegradable or Recyclable in their components.
As I ponder and reflect back on the remarkable journey I've had with ARCKIT, I am reminded of the feelings that it evoked in me; a genuine connection to the pieces, an eagerness to find what's coming next each year, a willing suspension of disbelief and a constant thought process of working with the pieces to figure out what they are possible of in the context of the broader story. Setting the standard for any great building system, ARCKIT knows how to engage the emotional and logical parts of the brain in equal measure. You don't need to be an architect or designer to appreciate ARCKIT, it stands on its own two feet the way that any great product does. Just sit down, design, and enjoy the adventure. Every user will have their own unique and engaging time with ARCKIT.
While the company needs to make some key changes in making their system widely accessible and easier to use and more adaptable, from a modern building design and educational perspective, ARCKIT is without a doubt the best modular building system on the market today.
There is beauty in ARCKIT's simplicity, and that is something that I do not want to see changing as the company matures. ARCKIT has simply been a joy to work with; something really special that consistently keeps me coming back for more. Whether you are a student studying design, a professional in a practice or an educator looking for that kinetic and tangible learning experience, ARCKIT is the way to go. Whether just using the pieces provided or combining the kit with other materials, ARCKIT is an expandable platform that creates the perfect foundation for bringing your ideas to life. In the beginning, be patient and work on figuring out the capabilities of each component. Don’t rush, enjoy the process because once the understanding of the intricacies are in place, the possibilities are truly endless with ARCKIT. Thank you…
Rick Fairhurst (RikySongSu) is a designer and cinematographer interested in developing and documenting low-impact architecture in developing countries, and addressing their needs for water, electricity and health to promote engaging and productive lifestyles.
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