Using Mockups

Mock-ups are the tools we will most often use to check our judgment of the house as it unfolds. They provide a direct link between ideas and reality, by allowing you to imagine the best solution for a particular situation, and then test it, quickly, easily, and cheaply, in the real world. With little more than cardboard and 1x2's, you can create an impressive variety of complex three-dimensional forms within a matter of minutes, which then tell you in no uncertain terms whether the solution you imagined is correct, or needs to be modified in some way, be it higher or lower, bigger or smaller; more cozy or more expansive—whatever the case may be. Mock-ups are a way of getting a taste of the real thing in advance. If you have never used mock-ups—and few people these days have—you will be surprised, even shocked, at how much, and how quickly, you can learn about the answer to almost any design problem.

Mock-ups are not new. The Romans used them, as did the builders of the great cathedrals. The tradition carried on up until the early 20th century, when the famous architects Bernard Maybeck and Julia Morgan used them extensively to test ideas, shapes, and forms for their buildings in progress. We are simply reviving this time-tested technique, proven to supply invaluable information to a designer willing to recognize that pencil and paper are a poor substitute for actually feeling out a design in three dimensions.

Imagine this scenario: There is a chef, asked to create a new and special dish for a visiting V.I.P. He plans this meal by developing a list of the specific ingredients he expects to use, and their precise quantity, as well as dictating the exact sequence for combining them at precise temperatures during the course of cooking. Perhaps you can start to imagine the problem. "Well, that’s not so bad," you may think, "it just sounds like a cookbook, and we all know that works." Unfortunately, the cookbook analogy does not apply here, because it refers to a meal that has already been developed and thoroughly tested by previous chefs. It is known to work. All the mistakes have already been made by others. And even so, the chef would be a fool not to taste the dish as he cooks, to see if it needs a dash of salt, a squeeze of lemon, what have you, in order to make up for expected variations in the flavor of the produce.

The difference here is that we are talking about a meal that exists entirely within the imagination of the chef, who has never tasted any of the combinations he is proposing, but nevertheless proclaims it to be four-star cuisine. Would you buy dinner from a chef who never tasted the food he is cooking? Because that is exactly what families today are expected to do when dealing with an architect planning their home.

We at the Center cannot ignore the fact that as thoughtful and careful as we may be about the quality of the spaces we design, often these designs—which look good on paper—simply don’t feel quite right when experienced in real life. You yourself have no doubt felt this while working as a contractor and craftsman—that the architect didn’t quite get it right. For example, a fireplace may appear in a set of drawings to be a particular size and shape and material, and you are expected to make it just so. But we would be surprised if you had never thought to yourself that the thing would be better if it were a changed a little one way or another; made more substantial, for instance, so that it really took command of the room. But what could be done about this?

Our method, invaluable during the twenty years we have been developing and refining it, is to create a test version, quick and dirty, but roughly accurate, which mimics the proposed design, and allows it to be evaluated and modified before that stage of construction begins.

So, in the case of the fireplace, to ensure that something of the right size, shape, and material gets built, you would first make a mock-up.

Using cardboard sheets and scraps of wood, you would box out the shape shown on the plans, step back, and take a good, long look while asking yourself "How does this shape make me feel, sitting here next to it in this room? Or seeing it as I enter the room through the archway? Does it correspond with what I know is supposed to take place here, socially?" As is, the fireplace may be perfect, but that would only be blind luck on our part, and you should not expect those kinds of results very often. More commonly, you will see that something is not quite sitting right with regard to something else. In the example above, the fireplace was not substantial enough to be a real player in the life of the room. The mock-up will quickly show you whether it is the mantel that needs to stand higher and more proud of the surround, with a corniced overhang; for instance, or if it is the surround itself that is weak, and making each side into a pilaster—or even a column—would bring the fireplace into its own. Just as easily, though, the version spec'ed in the prints may be too big for its own good, and the sitting spaces nearby may feel overwhelmed by its looming presence. In this case, the thing to do would be to cut away some cardboard; pare it down so that a family relaxing in the eveningtime feels connected to it, but not imposed upon in their conversation together.

Any or all of these ideas may be tried in matter of minutes by cutting out and adding on the appropriate chunks of cardboard, cutting and shaping, adding and refining until the fireplace has just the quality that is needed to bring the room to life.

In this way, the mock-up is the most powerful tool in the craftsman’s belt. And like a good coping saw, in the hands of a pro it gets a delicate job done quickly, cleanly and gets results like nothing else out there. Clearly, it is time to dust it off and put it back into the center of the action, where it belongs.