Dani Bterrani is known to architects and developers far and wide. But the CEO of the world's largest model maker remains in love with the art of the miniature
You wouldn’t be able to tell while standing outside, but inside an unassuming office on a busy street in Al Quoz industrial area in Dubai, Dani Bterrani is, somewhat literally, helping shape the world.
Founded 22 years ago, his company 3dr Models builds scale models for architects and developers, structures that serve as early representations of some of Dubai’s most iconic projects including the Dubai Waterfront, the Bvlgari Hotels and Resorts, and many others.
However, projects out of Dubai, where the company houses its sales and marketing division, comprise just five percent of production sales at 3dr Models.
In fact, from the London Eye to Tokyo’s National Stadium for the 2020 Olympics, and all geographies in between, Bterrani’s company works with the world’s biggest architects and developers to shape the built environment of the world as we see it.
What is most telling, however, is that his company being the largest model maker in the world, accounting for a fifth of all architectural models made annually, is a fact that came as a surprise to Bterrani.
“I didn’t even know it to be honest,” the soft-spoken businessman tells CEO Middle East, still a tad surprised, and yet proud, at his company achieving the feat. “It was the BBC that told me a few years ago when asked for an interview.”
Across 22,000 sq ft of office space, nearly 600 staff work between Hong Kong and Dubai, churning out up to three models per day that are then pieced together in modular fashion according to an architect or developer’s specifications.
The scaled models are what we see unveiled to much fanfare at the launch of every big project that captures the imagination of the public eye, as well as eventual investors in the world’s biggest developments.
Bterrani’s career began, practically speaking, when he was just 12 years old. “My father was an architect, and naturally I wanted to be one too. One day I took a tissue box and built a sort of a model out of one his drawings.”
That chance construction caught the eye of his father’s client at the time, who later asked if he could create something similar for his own blueprints. “That’s when my father pointed to me,” he says. “That’s how it all began.”
Owing to difficulties in his native Lebanon, Bterrani wasn’t able to pursue in his father’s footsteps by training to be an architect. However, his passion for detail led him to continue making scaled models of buildings.
“It was the best way I found for me to remain as close to the architects,” he says.
A little over three decades later, Bterrani is at the pinnacle of achievement in his field.
He’s worked with architectural powerhouses such as Foster and Partners and SOM, can discuss at length the sensibilities of Pritzker prize winners such as Renzo Piano, and even has anecdotes to share about those who have ascended into Valhalla, such as Zaha Hadid.
“She was something else,” he reveals. “Extremely difficult, meticulous in detail, and a genius. We fought all the time, and she always won,” he says.
Traces of Bterrani’s personality abound all around his office. He has a particular fondness for cats and they stroll around the studio space while his employees render blueprints on high-end Macbooks.
“They’re rescue cats. We found them abandoned in a bag a few metres away from the building. This is their home now.”
All around the studio are structures in every stage of progress, enough to make a Hollywood set designer envious.
Modernist lines intertwine with deconstructivist façades in a draftsman’s dream as Bterrani inspects the tiles of a building floor scaled to within a fraction its original size.
“New clients sometimes ask ‘Dani why do you charge 30-40 percent more than the others,’” he says while still hunched over a model, forehead furled in concentration before he looks up.
“I tell them ‘Give me just one sample and see for yourself.’”
The tiles he’s inspecting, for instance, have been engraved by hand, when usually any other model maker would simply paint them on. Bterrani also insists on details in his displays that you wouldn’t normally put as much thought into.
“A certain shade of green at eye level will not look the same 200 metres away when dust and other particles obscure your vision. So when you scale a building down, you also need to scale the colour,” he explains.
And then there are other complications to pay attention to. “Commercial lighting is in strips because offices rent out whole floors. This is distinct from residential lighting which is warmer and staggered because not all residents might be indoors at any given time,” he says. “And then there is the landscaping, the fixtures, the TV screens embedded into the models, all done by hand “and which we can’t put a financial quote to,” he adds.
Model making, he explains, is a very human craft. “You have to know your craft, as well as the customer. When a client wants to see the furniture inside a house, the developer wants to see every detail and colour, but the architect wants to leave space for the imagination that will eventually result.”
Bterrani possesses the utmost confidence in his craft, honed and tuned after 33 years of attention to detail, and what he calls “a lifetime of peering outside window airplanes to get a bird’s eye view of what buildings look like.”
And this inspiration has served him well over the years, with the success of his firm.“I don’t care about the money anymore,” he says.
“Now I’m at the point that I can pick and choose. And I choose to pick the jobs I enjoy doing.”
What drives you when coming to work in the morning?
My father told me this when I was young, that God distributes his blessings early in the morning. And if you get up late, you miss out. So I’m always the first one at work. Also, I have to make sure we make enough to pay $1m in fixed salaries each month. The great architectural designs can wait, but there’s nothing more important in the morning than that obligation.
What is your most important trait that you think helps drive your success?
I always think I’m number two.
Do you have any fears about your business?
Besides God, time. Time is my enemy. Everything is replaceable but you couldn’t give back anyone even a fraction of a second of their time.
What do you value most in an employee?
Someone who doesn’t work for me oor the money. It’s very rare to find, and the backbone of my company is built on at least 15 them. They are my family, they are like my sons.
What is a mistake you have made?
I probably should have started embracing technology earlier. As someone who thinks they are smart, I should have adapted earlier.
What do you think of new technology, such as 3D printing?
I am not a fan. And for the longest time I resisted it. But I’ve realised that you can’t stop the future. And unfortunately, 3D printers are the future which is why I recently bought a few.
Why is that unfortunate?
Maybe it’s just me, but I just don’t feel very comfortable with how technology is taking over our lives. The smartphone to me is the worst thing that ever happened. People have stopped talking to each other. I still miss the days when we used to draft by hand and architects created ideas and had a vision of where design needed to go instead of just making buildings.
What is a visionary idea you are working toward?
I am about to present an idea about a citywide master plan model of a city to the leadership here. It’s the best way to monitor a city’s development, and to promote new developments We did it for a builder in Shanghai, built the whole model of the city for him. Dubai would be the ideal city to have something similar. I will reveal more soon.
As someone privy to development plans before they are made public, how do you see Dubai’s real estate future?
As I do future projects that often result years afterward, I can say that there is a lot more to come. The leaders are dreaming a lot further than what they have fulfilled so far. What we’ve seen so far is possibly a portion of what they have planned. I’m proud to be a small part of it as a model maker.