Mock-ups and samples: How to assess construction details and finishes on your next project


Callum Brown

March 10th, 2020
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“Failing to prepare, is preparing to fail” – it’s something we’ve all heard many times before, especially working in the construction industry. It comes across as a throw away phrase used as a rebuttal when people have left things until the last minute and invariably come asking you for help. However, it should be viewed as more of an omen, a parabolic phrase for lacklustre and rushed planning, which is something our industry struggles with, endemically at times.

Labour Rates are on the rise, Material Costs and Lead Times are higher and longer than they’ve ever been. It’s evident across a multitude of sectors – the cost of making mistakes is more damaging than ever before. In the construction industry, getting even the smallest component of a contracts planning phase wrong can have large-scale adverse effects on the project spending limit and timetable.

These hypothetically damaging mistakes could manifest their effects in a host of ways, such as productivity and profitability, build quality and functionality, aesthetically and even as seriously as building integrity and life safety. We only need to look at recent events in relation to structural soundness of buildings during extreme weather, or how buildings responded in the event of fires and floods.

The case for pre-construction mock-ups

Pre-construction mock-ups for both external and internal segments of a project are starting to become the industry standard. A mock-up is a full-size model made with the specific development strategies and materials that will be utilised on a contract. This gives architects, principal designers, principal contractors, and the building owner/end-user the opportunity to illustratively assess and critique, not only the process, but also the final outcome of the construction phase. Doing a mock-up promotes and supports quality workmanship and an effective result, by way of a proper mock-up methodology that empowers contractors to control quality before a venture begins.

For commercial refurbishments and office fit outs, mock-ups can be a significant instrument for assessing various plan arrangements in a genuine ‘like for like’ setting. If the contractor, designer or architect feels that any part of the activity isn’t proceeding in line with programme or methodology, they are able to react in line with the mock-up, and make amendments as required. This can cover every item of the critical pathway from the raised flooring, data and cabling framework, and sound control strategy, to cover tiles, portable dividers, and glass office partitions. There is an element of foresight and an additional layer of preparation to the project to assist in managing contract risk.

There are different types of mock-ups that can be used, some are more expensive than others, some are specifically detailed and specialised for the task at hand. They share a lot in the way of aims and methodologies – however, they are attempting to showcase slightly different angles and outcomes in relation to their end goals. They can be divided into two categories, which are Visual Mock-ups (VMUs) & Performance Mock-ups (PMUs).

Visual Mock-ups

Visual Mock-ups are geared toward the aesthetic finish of a plan and share similarities with a traditional model, they give a strong overall feel of the completion stage. This can help to represent the ‘like for like’ scenario and give designers and architects the opportunity to see their creations in the flesh as opposed to on 3D modelling software – these VMUs would be ideal and used often in scenarios such as refurbishments of office blocks, or change of building use fit outs.

Performance Mock-ups

Performance Mock-ups incorporate the Visual Mock-up Stage to a degree, perhaps not in as intrinsically detailed to finishes and soft furnishing, but will also display that the resources and construction meet expectations in relation to strength, safety, security, energy use, mechanical commissioning, and even the weather – these PMUs are traditionally used for phases of construction such as exterior walls and building envelopes.

The advantages of using mock-ups

The advantages of mock-ups are simple to see; testing an answer on a relatively small scale to ensure it is done well on the larger scale spares time, cash, exacerbation, and waste. Beyond the physical advantages, there are other ways in which a mock-up can help a project. They can be used to assist in securing funding or getting the buy-in from stakeholders who perhaps find it difficult to understand drawings, plans or technical specifications. There is a realistic chance in the current market that they could actually be a requirement of a tender process when alternative methods, materials, or contracts are being considered. They could also be used as a means of demonstrating compliance – it’s much easier to set the standards on a smaller scale, have them approved and then apply that system wide – this can help with upgrades and maintenance packages for refinancing projects or indeed, with insurers.

The disadvantages of using mock-ups

Mock-ups aren’t always necessarily the answer for assessing a construction detail or finish. Everything has its shortfalls as well as its merits, such as the following:

  • Mock-ups can be time consuming to construct and only work when you have a long lead-in time to a project
  • They don’t necessarily help in reactive environments or niche corners of the market
  • They can be costly, and even though the up-front costs are recoverable throughout the savings on the project they inevitably make – not every contractor has the cash flow to proceed in that way, nor the inclination

Using samples as an alternative

Depending on the project in question, or the information required from the pre-planning phase of the construction process, there are alternative ways to get an idea of a finished build before you embark on the contract.

Samples are one alternative, which are used on a range of projects – from large-scale housing developments to small-scale office conversions. Samples in construction tend to be for items geared towards the final stages of development and allow the opportunity to scrutinise the final finish and even soft furnishings. The chance to inspect and observe these products in a real-world setting can save a lot of money and mitigate problems further down the line.

Everyone from designers, contractors, and procurement specialists all the way to the building purchasers and end users are given the opportunity to compare products.

For example, if you are building a new housing development with 180 flats, and each one has the same finished bathroom design, you would want to compare several faucets, showers, tiles, heated towel rails, doors, basins etc. before you made purchasing decisions.

These could be specified by the architect or the principal designer, but the contractor and the procurement manager will want to make sure they are fit for purpose and available at achievable price points.

Sampling allows all these parties to identify which product has the desired effect for them and the project as a whole. This is not limited to the aesthetics though and is far from being a case of purely judging items based on the way they look, or they way they feel.

Testing on a small scale

With samples, tests can be completed on a much smaller scale than with mock-ups, which ultimately saves time and money. The project team would be able to carry out tests, for example, on the robustness of tiles, and they could set up a 2m x 2m tiled area in a warehouse without much fuss or cost implications, then proceed to drop certain everyday items on that flooring over and over again to see how long it took a tile to chip or become damaged. This very simple wear and tear test could be expanded upon and incorporate three separate tiled areas of the same size and construction, but using different designs or suppliers and the results would be able to showcase which one had the highest resilience to wear and tear, and which one provided the greatest value for money.

Cost effective testing

One of the traditional advantages of samples over mock-ups is that suppliers will usually be happy to provide the materials, fabrics, furnishings or fixtures and fittings required for a project to complete a sampling exercise free of charge, or for a drastically reduced fee in the hope that they will be successfully chosen as the item/items for the duration of the project. However, with mock-ups, the cost to build the environment that is to be tested for suitability comes directly from the project coffers and it is an additional cost most project managers and quantity surveyors do not want. A sample is risk adverse by comparison as the initial outlay for a sample in relation to cost and time is vastly reduced.

In the event that a sample fails altogether or falls somewhat short of the performance expectations required by the ultimate decision maker, there is usually a degree of funding still available in that particular budget pot for alternatives to be sourced. That means, in most cases, that the process can begin over – this means that multiple options can be tried and tested in a comparatively short space of time. It also allows for tweaks and comparisons for products that meet expectations, but are perhaps not the cheapest, or most swiftly sourced.

In the event that a medium to large-scale mock-up fails, options are greatly reduced and there are limitations on how quickly a retest can be carried out. Due to the obvious connotations regarding lead times and that the design itself would need some level of technical overhaul in order to combat whatever the failings or shortcomings from the first run were – there is a huge drain on time resources as well as financial ones. Depending on the size and complexity of the project, and the lead in time that has been provided by the client, there may well be contingencies in place for such events (as would be good planning!). Compensatory measures can be put in place to counteract failures at the early stages as they are somewhat expected in the more intricate design and build projects, hence the initial requirement for medium to large scale mock-ups in the first place.

One example of where this worked well in recent times was on the Crossrail projects. A lot of elements of the stations, platforms and rails were mocked-up, from an engineering perspective and from an end user experience perspective. They were visited and viewed by people involved at all levels of the contract, from the original designers, down to journalists and future passengers. The Crossrail project have used that element of the design stage to form part of their learning legacy division.

3D Modelling

The construction industry employs a wealth of technology and software which allows designers and architects to render and produce 3D modelling and imagery of buildings and their composite components. The availability and intricacies of these technologies constantly improve and evolve. However, the cost to 3D modelling can vary greatly – as the technicians who create these drawings and models are not a cheap or easy to identify.

In-house teams have been producing CAD (Computer Aided Design) and BIM (Building Information Modelling) with reasonable ease for years on vast arrays of construction builds – but when it comes to full building or project mock-ups and virtual walk throughs, the skill set and price are usually somewhat higher. These models and renders will also only give a visual representation to the design and build teams and are not a replacement for performance testing and analysis.


The bottom line is that each individual project will require a unique level of ingenuity and depth of analysis on components in the building design and finish. There are inventions and techniques available for dealing with them all, the choice, ultimately rests with you, your budget, time constraints, and the level of certainty you require before giving the green light on a particular detail or finish.

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About Callum Brown

Callum is a Contracts Manager in the Passive Fire Protection Industry, with previous experience as a Quantity Surveyor and Operations Manager in Fire Protection, Construction, and Plumbing & Heating.

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