The process of scientific investigation—in the simplest of terms—is one of trial-and-error. Researchers test proof-of-concept and then reposition their focus based on data. The idea is to fail quickly, to get to the desired result sooner. The design process is similarly iterative. Solving for user’s needs and anticipating challenges often requires a search and discovery approach to the built environment. Confident decision-making is reliant on metrics, substantial results and clear communication. Progress is also sometimes dependent on gut instinct, strength of relationships and a resolute certainty the agreed choice is the right one. Therefore, tools that help to make the project more real in early stages of design are crucial to enabling client comfort and generating excitement. Mock-ups help designers to communicate tricky concepts and inform decisions that greatly impact user experience. Mock-ups are nothing new. Designers have always used tangible tools in their practice; tactile and visual explanations are necessary for successful communication. But the concept of the mock-up is changing, due to technology, new design methodologies, user needs and an increasing focus on economy and efficiency.
Empower users with choice
One clear benefit of using mock-ups is they enable users to more confidently visualize the spaces they will inhabit, and vocalize opinions based on informed choice. All users have different needs and levels of comfort in understanding conceptual design ideas. Mock-ups are a visual, tactile way to create common focus and align the different visions of a space that exist in each user’s imagination. Through our work in clinical care and research settings, early assumptions about user preference can sometimes be verified or invalidated by data gathered from mock-up testing. It doesn’t always take a complex, full-scale mock-up to achieve the design goals in service of user needs.
In order to develop a color palette to support a new ground-up themed pediatric hospital environment—its parent academic medical center had just unveiled a new research mission, “Driven to discover”—our designers engaged children, families and caregivers in the “discovery” process. Three laminated color palettes with different levels of energy and intensity (bold, bright and cheerful, light and subtle) were circulated throughout the patient floors. Hundreds of recipients used color-coded dots to indicate their preference.
The team’s initial guess was that children would choose the “bold” color palette. Senior Designer and TK&A Associate, Chu Foxlin, AIA, IIDA, LEED AP BD+C, remembers the process. "The adult caregivers, staff and faculty favored the ‘light and subtle’ color scheme, while the children/patients overwhelmingly preferred the ‘bright and cheerful’ option and not the ‘bold’ palette. That surprised us all. In the end, the finish palettes (all 10 of them) for the entire building were developed based on the results of this invaluable exercise," says Foxlin. Color is a highly subjective topic, but the results of this simple, yet effective, mock-up process were conclusive. It gave the patients a voice in the design of their environment.
Accelerate the schedule by partnering with vendors and construction experts
The vendor community, construction manager and subs represent some of the most valuable knowledge resources throughout the design process. The earlier they are engaged in the planning, the sooner they can help to provide functioning prototypes for material analysis, performance testing, installation detail review and, ultimately, save time and cost.
In our recently completed project The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine, a collaborative design partnership with Centerbrook Architects and Planners, the team used mock-ups to meet the fast-track timeline (30 months for design and construction). In addition to exterior skin mock-ups and pre-fabricated elements, the construction manager, Whiting-Turner, created an in-place mock-up of one lab, one bathroom and one office. This accelerated the early completion of one of each room type. It also revealed issues for the building inspector, which allowed the team to proactively problem-solve.
In a research environment, FF&E vendors are also extremely helpful in allowing the design team and client to evaluate equipment. In our experience, it’s worthwhile to connect users with vendors early on to test utility, flexibility and long-term viability of lab equipment and the spaces designed to support these costly fixtures. Feedback hasn’t only informed space planning for efficiencies and adjacencies, it has helped to coalesce corporate culture and set new precedents for collaborative, dynamic workstyles. We worked with an equipment and casework specialist to help create a custom lab bench for a special Boston-based research client that was about to launch a very entrepreneurial, collaborative new business model. Opportunities to test their new bench allowed users to engage with each other on a personal level, revealing common investigational interests and giving rise to new research partnerships. In addition, early specification of the bench equipment allowed for fast-tracked MEP systems installation, and overhead plug-and-play utilities. This particular custom lab bench was such a success that it is now a standard product offering.
Tools like sophisticated scale models, renderings, sketches, axonometric diagrams and animated fly-through videos help designers share ideas. Mock-ups are getting more and more creative as the design community embraces new BIM technologies, planning methodologies and an increasingly integrated and fast-track approach (IPD) to building and design for complex lab spaces. But sometimes pragmatic simplicity is the most effective approach in gathering the information needed to inform design choices. Perhaps the most efficient and value-driven types of mock-up tools are occurring in the practice of lean six sigma design. Paper dolls, spaghetti diagrams and highly engaged participants reach consensus based on real-time, “right-now” data that uncovers opportunities for process improvement and increased operational efficiency, without the need for expensive, full-scale mock-ups. Our team of lean six sigma master black belts relies on a collaborative effort to improve performance by systematically removing waste. Their approach often uncovers opportunities to improve an organization’s existing processes and create new ones that make excellent common sense. The lean design approach doesn’t necessarily negate the need for other kinds of specific mock-up tools later in the design and construction process, but it can help to identify key areas of focus and hone in on value-add opportunities for the client.
Another way to enhance the knowledge that mock-ups provide is to emulate the best. Benchmarking admired facilities with clients is one of the most informative and easiest ways—apart from travel—to see what others are doing in their research facilities, and understand how those practices may apply to your client’s needs. But again, benchmarking studies don’t always serve as a substitute for, or negate the value of, the traditional full-scale or other type of mock-up. Full-scale mock ups can also serve as excellent fund-raising tools. There’s nothing quite as exciting and impressive as users, donors, research partners and the design team navigating their way through a full-sized lab mock-up, temporarily housed in a warehouse, or a full-scale floor plan, painted on a disused parking lot.
The amount of faith and mutual trust required in the undertaking of any capital project is significant, especially in the design for environments that impact research, education, human health and wellbeing.
A building isn’t an impulse purchase. It’s a long-term investment in an intangible product for which utility, value and impact aren’t always immediately measurable. Mock-up tools are all essentially a form of simulation, where direct human interaction, response and analysis is required in order to understand the impact of an event or choice. Maybe 10 years from now, we’ll be able to take clients on virtual reality tours of their proposed research space, and quite literally walk them through the physical experience. But until then—and perhaps even then—the goal is ultimately the same. As the saying goes, you can fix a problem now with an eraser or the stroke of a key. Or you can fix it later with a sledge hammer.
Erin Miller, MA, LEED GA, is an Associate and Communications Director with Tsoi/Kobus and Associates. She has 15 years of experience in communications across disciplines such as higher education, law, medicine and public policy, and marketing for architecture and design. She is respected for her team approach, energy, strategic vision and ability to quickly streamline complex challenges into goal-oriented results.