What makes a Prototype Great: Why the Real Test Happens Long Before the Doors Open

Today’s prototypical building designs are morphing to deliver modern customer experiences at an unprecedented pace.

“A typical building prototype used to remain relevant for five years,” said SGA Design Group principal, Doug Tayrien, AIA, LEED® AP. “Now they are lucky to last two years in today’s competitive marketplace.”

And the rate of change continues to accelerate among market leaders.

“Some companies make quarterly and even bi-weekly updates to their prototypes,” Tayrien explained.

 

One-upmanship and the rate of change

 

If prototype designs are utilized to create consistency among facilities and customer experiences, why all the change? Brands are competing with each other to innovate and be first-to-market with concepts like free grocery pick-up, self-order kiosks, and banking centers that feel more like neighborhood coffee shops. 

“A prototype simply has to evolve with current industry trends,” said Tayrien. “If they’re not reinventing themselves, they’re dying.”

Other factors are amping up the rate of change, too. Different regions of the country and most municipalities have unique codes and regulations, and particular building sites demand customization. Change also comes from modernizing, improving constructability, and cutting costs. For example, construction material costs can vary based on location, so choosing a less expensive material based on local availabilty or other regional factors can significantly cut costs while achieving the overall design intent .

Moreover, in the current climate, “not too many companies” are developing ground-up construction right now, noted Tayrien. This means additional variables and modifications need to be considered when working with “takeovers,” that is, existing buildings that are adapted into a prototype concept. 

“It’s so much more than scraping the name off the old building. A good prototype, including adaptations, requires immense coordination to get things right,” said Tayrien.

 

First thing’s first: serving the owner’s needs

 

A prototype (that ever-evolving “active” set of design guidelines) must serve the owner by executing on the company’s vision as expeditiously as possible, while still keeping building costs down. You’ve heard the saying: good, fast and cheap — pick two. Owners willing to invest the time and money needed to develop a prototypical set of design documents will realize time & cost savings in the long-run on site adapt projects. A good prototype  anticipates varying conditions and incorporates predefined design options, thereby increasing efficiency and consistency.

This is important to owners because their needs go beyond simply achieving an appealing building, to also creating one that works in numerous regions throughout the nation. Unique building codes, municipal planning and zoning requirements, site issues, and the owner’s own regional requirements can all affect the appearance and performance of the building.

“As opposed to designing the prototype for the most stringent conditions, we design the prototype to have options that can easily be changed to meet the requirements of a majority of typical or likely conditions,” said Tayrien.

SGA Design Group also makes it a best practice to provide a mirrored option of the prototype, since building sites can sometimes dictate that the floor plan be flipped or mirrored in order to make it work. Providing this option once is much more cost effective than having the work done by site adapt teams every time the need arises. This is particularly true for projects produced in the Building Information Modeling (BIM) tool Revit, as mirroring those models can be very time consuming.

This forward-thinking and proactive approach helps control the owner’s overall building costs while still providing a consistent solution and customer experience.

While the owner’s needs are paramount, a great prototype must also serve the needs of the site adapt team — the designers responsible for modifying or preparing the prototype design for a specific location with specific requirements.

 

Accuracy without reinventing the wheel: serving the site adapt team needs

 

As you would expect, an effective prototype must be developed in a way that makes site adaptation as efficient and consistent as possible. What this really comes down to is options. Multiple design options within the prototype make the adaptation to the site easier, more accurate, and aligned with the design solution, regardless of the geographic location. Such options may include different exterior finishes like brick or stucco, different types of windows, multiple truck docks or configurations, or options for building specifications in areas prone to earthquakes or hurricanes. These design options should be more than conceptional and include all the plans, elevations, details and specifications required for those design choices. The goal is to reduce unnecessary creativity. In this case, unnecessary creativity means two people taking twice the time to solve the same problem in different ways. This increases the cost and time of site adaptation, produces inconsistent solutions, and makes future remodeling more challenging and expensive.

How many variations must high-quality prototype documents include? Perhaps the better question is: what elements are common to everything? On the whole, SGA Design Group finds that when addressing old buildings or takeovers, there may be 20% or more features that you cannot make common and must account for. Naturally, keeping all of these multiple design options up-to-date with the latest improvements and changes is paramount.

“To efficiently manage the wealth of design options we create for our prototypes at SGA Design Group, we develop custom automation interface tools that quickly generate the appropriate detailing throughout the entire set of documents,” said Tayrien. Once again, the name of the game is efficiency.

This technological advantage also serves as a type of version control of the design set so that solutions are consistent between design teams.

 

Clarity, confidence and collaboration: serving the general contractor’s needs

 

A tight set of prototype construction documents reduces bidding costs and gives the general contractor confidence to move forward with fewer time-consuming Requests for Information (RFIs). But providing quality documents to collaborative and astute general contractors unlocks a second powerful advantage as well: the ability for continuous improvement over time.

“I am always surprised when the prototype team is not soliciting feedback from general contractors for document improvements,” said Tayrien. “At SGA Design Group, we regularly ask GCs for their valuable feedback on the performance of the construction documents. We listen carefully to their suggestions for more cost-effective materials, better ways to detail the design, and faster methods to erect the building.”

Tayrien said this is simply good business and another way to look out for the interests of owners. 

Just as it is important to have a system to manage change, it’s equally important to have an organized process in place to receive feedback from general contractors and review it with the owner as expeditiously as possible. Another strategy is to review the RFIs from multiple related projects to determine if common issues are arising. These extra efforts pay big dividends in better-built, more cost-effective buildings.

 

Guiding the team: the role of the Prototype Holder

 

With so much change and disruption happening in the life cycle of a prototype, each system of prototype documents must have a “prototype holder” who acts as the spokesperson or gatekeeper for the owner. The prototype holder is responsible for releasing or pushing out all changes as quickly as possible to avoid confusion and duplicity. Accuracy is key because a mistake made in the prototype can show up in multiple projects.

Rather than distributing files to multiple parties, SGA Design Group turns to cloud-based automation for its file transfer protocol (FTP), allowing site adapt teams and general contractors to access and download the most recent, approved files.

 

Making every opening grand

 

SGA Design Group is a leader in the prototypical design field, with more than 50 national building programs in its repertoire and a client roster which includes leading brands like Walmart, Lowe’s, Target and Aldi. Headquartered in Tulsa, Oklahoma, it has completed designs for more than 4,500 projects in 49 states. And having designed more than 100 million square feet of space, the firm understands what makes a prototype successful for its clients. It starts with what a prototype is — and is not.

“We believe a great architectural prototype is more than a revised iteration of a previous design, with all its site-specific detailing and quirks of a one-off project,” said Tayrien. “Smart prototype design is a system of dynamic documents that is constantly improving to serve its three key stakeholders: the owners, the site adapts team, and the general contractors.

Leading prototype designers are increasing efficiencies and providing more flexibility, options, and room for continuous improvement. In a marketplace where the speed of change often dictates success, it’s the smart way to make every opening grand.