Can prototypes help you think outside the box?

It seems like a good idea at the time- if you are going to build something more than once, you should develop a prototype.  In theory, your standard can then be tweaked with lessons learned from each subsequent project, allowing the ultimate in efficiencies for design, construction (hello purchasing power), maintenance, even optimizing the efficiency for staff, patients, customers, vendors, you name it.  However, the idea of a prototype is very different from realities on the ground: this project, in this location, with this demographic and these codes.  I used to do a lot of commercial retail projects (where prototypes reign supreme) and I think I only ever once built anything straight out of the box.  That was in a really small town where the community was happy for any development at all and the city planner was also the plan reviewer and the building inspector.  I also got a building permit in less than 24 hours, so that should tell you something about THEIR standards.  If you think that developing a prototype is a shortcut, a way to circumvent the design process, it’s time to take another look at your motives:

The standard with no standards
Architects and their clients alike are guilty of developing prototypes based on the lowest common denominator in an attempt to build more,cheaper, and faster.  Elementary schools with no windows that got replicated over and over in two rapidly growing school districts who shared a facilities manager is a distasteful (yet sadly real) example that comes to mind.  Sure, the buildings were practically indestructible and went up in record time, but the staff and students were placed in an environment that was one step below prison requirements.  I’ve also worked with prototypes that were so low-budget that the building essentially served as a billboard and nothing more.  How much time and money (including architect and landscape architect fees) do you think got wasted every time the cheap, somewhat gaudy prototype exterior had to be upgraded to pass muster with a local planning department?  Avoid unintended consequences that cost you time and money by having design goals for your prototype that extend beyond the desire to save time and money.

One size does not fit all
Other organizations try to create prototypes for finishes and standard room types.  The goal is to circumvent a lengthy design process, including extensive user input.  This use of prototypes is especially prevalent in the healthcare sector, but you can also find it in the residential market in the form of subdivisions offering a choice of models.  Theoretically, the prototype has been carefully researched and will provide the most efficient and “best” layout for each type of space.  In practice, users customize their space as soon as they begin using it because it doesn’t really work for how they need to use it.  Standards for colors and finishes may also need to be modified if they project the wrong image to a community because there is a culture clash related to how the organization is perceived.  You are not necessarily even saving time and money when the prototype for a room or department has to be applied to an existing building or unique use and therefore requires modification.

So is there ever any circumstance where prototypes are good?  While a bit of a slippery slope, a prototypical design can be used as a tool to enhance the user experience, and learn more about operational goals and the specific design elements that can help achieve them:

Prototype as Pilot
It’s really exciting to think about a project as a test lab for all an organization wants to achieve with a particular space.  That can’t happen if the prototype isn’t constantly in question.  Not only should extensive mock-ups (including finishes) be constructed, but input from staff in all departments, at all levels, patients, customers, other community members should be sought.  Once a prototype design gets the green light, a thorough post-occupancy evaluation of the space should be conducted to learn about what worked and what didn’t BEFORE this prototype is used again.  Lessons learned need to be examined as part of the design process for the next project where the prototype will be used.  Don’t forget to collect data related to demographics of your building occupants; you may start to notice some patterns that cause your prototype to evolve into options over time.  You need to have a very clear set of goals for the project and each element of the prototype should be carefully researched to contribute to those goals.  When an element fails or underperforms, it needs to be analyzed in the context of those goals to determine whether the cause is a design or an expectation.

Prototype as module
There are many different scales of prototypes: master plan, building, department, room.  It often makes sense to have a prototype just for room types and finishes.  Sometimes, it is more important to map ideal processes and flows that you want to standardize and develop modules that can be applied with a greater degree of flexibility to an individual project. Prefabricated construction can often do more than prototyping to help you build cheaper, better and faster, without compromising a solid design approach that applies evidence based design and enhances the environment.  This module can be easily fit into a multitude of existing conditions, and has the flexibility to adapt over time.  Modularized prototypes give you a kit of parts that allow an open and honest dialogue with user groups about what needs to happen in the space to ensure that the standards of care are supported, not circumvented by design.

We’ve all certainly seen plenty of badly applied prototypes.  However, even in your own experience, there are design elements and combinations that work and that get used over and over in projects (although we don’t label them as prototypes).   These can represent just as much of a closed circuit as the officially sanctioned prototype and lead to equally banal and unresponsive design.  Saving time and money can be accomplished in a lot more interesting and effective ways than cookie cutter architecture.  The important issue is to constantly upgrade your knowledge based on a thorough assessment of how a design performs and to apply what you learned to consistently raise your design standards.