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Building the future

Inside the workshop of Vancouver’s busiest model maker

Sharon Xie has a crystal ball, and it’s showing her the future of development in Vancouver: “If you want to know what’s happening in the next 10 years, you come here.” Xie, manager of AB Scale Model Ltd., is taking us on a tour of the east Vancouver workshop that, seven days a week, pumps out the pint-sized residential towers, restaurants, shops and theatres that adorn condo sales centres and architects’ offices across North America.

Xie guides us through a hive of activity: workers are printing architectural plans, cutting components on a laser machine and assembling pieces like a puzzle, painting on details with pinpoint paintbrushes and trimming the leaves of miniature trees that dot the landscapes. The company has been in business for 23 years and now has 32 full-time employees, with clients from Victoria to Toronto to Southern California.

While there are a few model shops in Vancouver, Xie contends that “they cannot deliver this kind of quality, especially on a very tight deadline.” The firm delivers each model personally, since courier companies won’t insure the precious cargo. It develops models for many areas that have been or are being transformed: Metrotown, the Cambie corridor, Kingsway and Richmond. The River Green project is here, and you can see the vision for the now-industrial stretch of waterfront that will be Richmond’s answer to Coal Harbour: tiny upscale residences line the edges of the Fraser River with parkland, waterfront restaurants and shops along the seawall.

The workshop is also a window into the past, with the evolution of architectural design seen through the stacked models in the window. In a glance you can trace the design movement, from the old concrete towers, to glass and concrete, to the more contemporary glass and steel with mosaic patterns. Models for some of the more recent big developments are here, too: the Shangri-La, Fairmont Pacific Rim and the Woodwards project, as well as a newly complete wood model of Bing Thom’s Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts, which will encompass an entire city block in Calgary.

Xie stops to chat with employees along the way, checking progress and making suggestions. “It’s a fun job; everyone is involved in what they do,” she says. “It’s never boring.” Each employee takes on two or more projects at a time, which eliminates monotony and maintains tight deadlines. The workers, she says, “must have an artist’s sense, too, because of colour and small details for the landscaping.”

She pauses to help put the finishing touches on a nearly completed handmade model. “Everyone says Vancouver is slow, that the market will see a soft landing. But we don’t feel that here,” Xie says. AB Scale Model has lots on the go, from Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton and even the U.S. Far from slowing down, things are taking off: “We have a job from San Diego we got last week,” Xie says. “We’ve got so many projects now.” ■