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Mock Trial: How Experimenting with Visual Mock-Up Tools Can Enhance Senior Living Design

Mock Trial: How Experimenting with Visual Mock-Up Tools Can Enhance Senior Living Design Banner Image

The process of designing a community for older adults is complex with multiple, cumulative decision points and voices shaping the final project. Each participant in the design process has not only a unique perspective, but a different aptitude to understand the traditional tools used to express ideas, such as floor plans and building sections. Everyone learns and processes information a little bit differently. The use of mock-ups (physical and digital) can help bridge the gap in understanding the design process and encourage a collaborative approach and increased participant ownership and enthusiasm. If people are living and working in these buildings for years, it’s important that they are getting what they need. As Designers, we want you and your loved ones to have a place that’s right for what you need, not what we assume you will need. The right mock-up can help us both get there.

Physical Mock-Ups

There are three basic types of physical mock-ups: taped outlines, flash roll outs and full-scale models – each of which has its advantages.

Taped Outline Mock-Up for HarborChase-Shorewood in Shorewood, WI

Taped Outline
The least expensive physical mock-up is the taped outline, which uses tape adhered to the floor to replicate a full-scale version of the floor plan. Multiple colors of tape are used to highlight different components (i.e. fixtures or furnishings) or to indicate different design options. With a few rolls of tape on hand, it’s easy to make changes during interactive discussions. Although a very cost-effective option, taped outlines do take time to create and may interrupt the use of spaces.

A flash roll out example in the cafeteria at the Brookside Care Center in Kenosha, WI provided realistic visuals to inform the final design.

Flash Roll Out
The second type of mock-up, the flash roll out, can be installed in a few minutes and removed just as quickly. Flash roll outs utilize large scale plotter print outs of a full-scale version of the floor plan. Once on site, a space is cleared and the rolls are laid out and taped together within a few minutes. Through interactive discussions with the designer, markers are used to document changes on the paper, taking photos of the end result. Once the discussion is over, the paper is removed and recycled.


The series of mock-ups constructed for the Saint John’s On The Lake in Milwaukee, WI helped encourage staff, resident, and reviewing authority (City of Milwaukee & State of Wisconsin) involvement in the new building design. Each mock-up encouraged changes and development of the design for the next iteration. The final temporary mock-up was constructed with actual materials and methods to assure complete functionality. The City and State both stated that the mock-up was invaluable in understanding and eventually approving the design.

Full-Scale Model
The full-scale model is the closest physical mock-up to actual construction, using 3-dimensional portions of the building to scale. Mock-up walls may be constructed of wood or metal studs, corrugated cardboard, or a sheet of cloth/plastic. The fixtures and furnishings may be the actual installed items or a creative representation.

No matter which type of mock-up you and your Designer choose to use, mock-ups should be located in places that allow easy access for all participants in the design process. Any operational discussions, such as performing care routines, should occur while standing in the space where the activities will take place and include the presence of actual or representative fixtures and furnishing for the best understanding of needs and requirements. This is especially important when considering the design of a three-piece bathroom. The space should be explored from the perspective of different mobility levels ranging from independent ambulation to wheelchair dependent.

The successful use of a mock-up is also dependent on providing complete information. For this reason, I suggest designating an ambassador, or mock-up champion, someone within the senior living community to play the vital role of assuring that correct information is relayed about the features and intent of the mock-up. Following the mock-up exercise, a survey can provide crucial feedback and focus attention on important design discussions and common themes.

Never underestimate the power of walking through and imagining a daily routine in a space. The ability to discuss ideas as a group while standing in the mock-up promotes a sense of collaboration and ownership in the design. Even the simplest taped outline mock-up can elicit responses that will ultimately shape the space, making the exercise well worth it.

Digital Mock-Ups
We rely heavily on our eyes to gather information and make sense of the world around us. Interpreting traditional building documentation requires the combination of a visual task (viewing seemingly abstract construction documentation) and an understanding of the construction process. Unless you’ve been trained in the A/E/C industry, this is not necessarily intuitive for most people. However, the expression of design ideas in a form that is essentially a “picture” changes the task from a more complex process to a strictly visual one.

In the design process, we utilize technology with three types of digital representation: static 3D images (often called renderings), the manipulation of a “live” 3D model, and Immersion Virtual Reality (VR), or being virtually in the design.

3D Rendering of HarborChase Schaumburg, IL

Static 3D Representations
Historically, architects have created static 3D representations, or renderings, of buildings, often utilizing water colors or other mixed medias to create an evocative image to depict the design. With contemporary renderings, we can now stylize a more realistic representation of a design, complete with accurate sun/shadow depiction.


Screenshot of a working virtual model used for design discussion for HarborChase Schaumburg, Il.

Live 3D Model
The use of a live 3D model is the projection of a virtual model (illustrating the interior and/or exterior design) on a screen or desktop to provide a talking aid for design decisions. Easy to manipulate, many people like that this type of mock-up offers immediate communication of suggestions or concerns with the designer making changes on the spot.

Experiencing an immersion virtual reality model.

Immersion Virtual Reality
Immersion Virtual Reality utilizes hardware, specifically a headset, to give the user a visual perspective of walking around outside or inside of the proposed building. This is a powerful tool and helps to quickly clarify design intent and identify any potential obstacles.

The amount of detail a Designer includes in this representation depends on the purpose of end use. For example, a basic 3D building model can be used to produce construction documents and provide a base level of viewable detail including floors, walls, ceilings, windows, doors, and casework. Additional details can be added to help enhance the design discussion and try out options.

A major advantage of contemporary digital tools is portability, ranging from emailing images to a designer packing up 3D immersion hardware in a carry on and bringing it directly to your office. The digital tools now available help to express design ideas in a format that is much easier to understand in comparison to traditional documentation methods. However, it is important to look beyond the newness of the design tool and utilize it for informing and initiating discussion. Don’t let the razzle dazzle of the tool outshine the importance of the topic under discussion.

In order to create effective senior living communities, we can’t accept what has always been done. If one of these mock-ups sounds like it would be helpful to you or other stakeholders, speak up! You have the full right to challenge your Architects and Designers and provide input to create communities that meet your goals and needs. The ultimate goal of every architect is to provide a project that does just that, so the more they understand of your needs, and you understand of the design, the more successful the end result will be.

Senior Living Contributor