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Peek Inside the Tiny World of a Top 3D Model Maker

For architects and developers in the Valley and beyond, John Penn is the go-to for small-scale 3D prototypes.

By John Roark | Photography by Steve Craft

Visiting model builder John Penn’s Phoenix studio is like stepping into an alternate universe where normal human proportions are gargantuan and cumbersome. Exquisitely detailed scaled-down representations cover virtually every horizontal and vertical surface—from palm-size custom homes to fiber optic-illuminated skyscrapers to entire residential communities with diminutive working streetlights. Surrounded by such minutiae, it’s impossible not to marvel at how such Lilliputian creations came to be.

“No, I was never really into model trains when I was a kid,” says Penn, answering the question he is most frequently asked. “I always wanted to be an architect. I wanted to build.” Reluctant to leave Southern California where he grew up, he attended San Diego State University and eventually made his way to Arizona State University to complete his degree. He settled in Phoenix and worked in a number of the Valley’s top firms.

After collaborating on a wide swath of projects with such Arizona-based heavyweights as Peter Lendrum, Shelby Wilson and Allen R. Phillips, Penn found himself unemployed when the 1980 recession took hold. “I was looking everywhere for a job and someone asked if I could build cardboard models,” he recalls. “There was a new development in north Scottsdale called Desert Mountain, and they needed a mock-up for design review. They paid me $1,500, which in those days was really good money.” One job led to another and word spread that when it came to creating the small, Penn had big talent.

He picked up work wherever he could find it and supplemented his income building models. Working out of his garage from hand-drawn blueprints, Penn’s armamentarium consisted of chipboard, an Xacto knife and glue. “I did everything by hand—measuring, scoring, cutting and painting. Initially most of what I did was residential, then I moved onto larger commercial projects. I got so busy, I realized I could make a business out of it.”

As demand accelerated, Penn saw he could make more money if he could produce more quickly. The development of CAD technology helped, enabling him to scan and trace plans digitally. In 1996 he took what he calls “a huge leap of faith” and bought a laser cutter, which eliminated much of his handwork. Adding a 3D printer to his studio in 1998 further streamlined his processes. At what he calls the peak of his business in the early 2000s, he had a team of eight people working for him and produced as many as four spec home prototypes per month in addition to larger-scale topographical prototypes of residential communities, shopping malls, golf courses and resorts all over the world. It amounted to nearly 900 projects over the course of 30 years. “I’ve done mountains, oceans, cities, deserts and just about any kind of structure you can think of from Phoenix to the Bahamas to Saudi Arabia,” he says.

Many of the Valley’s top architects consider Penn the best in the game, both for buildings and landscape architecture.

1. For Castle Hot Springs Resort’s proposed spa building, Penn crafted all of the desert flora by hand. 2. In recent years as demand for residential models has decreased, Penn has kept busy with golf communities. This topographically correct model represents hole 12 at the Punta Brava Tiger Woods-designed golf course in Baja, Calif. 3. Penn, pictured with what he calls his greatest creation. The Phoenix Tower was designed by architect Eddie Jones for a competition. Although the structure was never built, the fiber optic-illuminated model now resides in the lobby of Jones’ Tempe studio. 4. Arizona State University’s student housing center, Manzanita Hall, underwent a major overhaul in 2013. This 3D-printed model was used as a design tool for Studio Ma, which oversaw preserving the building’s structure while renovating its interiors.

“Prior to computers and programs such as SketchUp, physical models were the only things we had,” says Phoenix Home & Garden Masters of the Southwest award-winning landscape architect Russell Greey, whose collaborations with Penn include golf clubs in Superstition Springs and Palm Desert, Calif. “A digital representation can be impressive, but a physical model somehow makes it real for review boards who may be investing millions of dollars in a project. I liken it to looking at photos of the Grand Canyon as opposed to seeing it in person. John takes it from being a concept to something that’s real.”

Architect Erik Peterson, also a Master of the Southwest who has collaborated with Penn since the early days of his career, agrees. “John always figured out a way to do whatever we threw at him,” he recalls. “It was always like Christmas morning when he would bring in a project. Everyone in the firm would gather around to see the finished piece.”

1. A representation such as Toll Bros. Prasada Golf Club house and amenities in Surprise, Ariz., would require approximately 300 hours to complete. 2. Penn created this prototype of a Valley Metro Rail station. Each city made adaptations to the core design such as concrete color, public art and landscaping.

“We have tried other guys but always come back to John,” Peterson continues. “He’s such an unsung hero. He has a way of capturing the essence of a property, which is rare. He’s always embracing new technologies to streamline what he does, but he still immerses himself in every detail of every commission. You can sense that he’s very proud of his work.”

As digital models have become less expensive, quicker to produce and easily done in-house, the question arises, is Penn a master of a dying art? While some developments, such as Scottsdale’s Silverleaf, still require physical representations for design approval, the lion’s share of Penn’s business has shifted to golf resorts and large master plan communities. “The demand isn’t what it once was,” he says. “But no matter how advanced computer graphics get, I believe there will always be a need for what I do. Not everyone can understand a digital representation or visualize what they are buying. There’s something about walking all around a physical model that helps people understand.”

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