Model Rooms - What, Why and How

We have worked on many model rooms here at JMC. This article is an excellent explanation of their purpose.

By Mark Trudeau for LinkedIn

As a kid growing up in Detroit, I was always building models of some kind- autos, airplanes, ships, model rockets and the like. This was in the days before Lego offered extreme modeling kits like the Star Wars Death Star or architectural models of the Eifel Tower and John Hancock Building.  Modeling was a big part of being a kid in the 1960's and 70's, and it was always a thrill for Dad to take me to the Ford design studios where I might catch a glimpse of new auto platforms being developed.  That's the world Dad worked in, but on weekends we would drive north to the lake house where we would experiment with 2x4's, 5 quarter rough sawn oak, brick, steel and glass in a continual effort to improve our summer get-a-way home.  Over the course of many years, what started out as a simple cabin became a resort style, year round home that can comfortable sleep 12!  

  A model room we installed in Arlington, Texas

A model room we installed in Arlington, Texas

Looking back, my experience with models has greatly shaped my attitudes toward the use of model rooms for new or planned renovations of hospitality properties; with recent experiences causing me to ponder why we in the hospitality industry place such a strong emphasis on model rooms, but then fail so often to use them properly.  Here then a few thoughts on the what, why and how of model rooms:

What is a Model Room?  Contrary to popular belief, a model room is not a set aside room to test the characteristics of a proposed new guest room or suite design- in fact, competent designers will have worked out the majority of the functional and design issues within the Schematic and Design Development processes.  I suggest the true purpose of the model room is to confirm the design solution while addressing possible construction, FF&E, use, and ongoing maintenance issues. To this end, confirmation of the rooms interior design should be the shortest part of a review as the arrangement and finishes have already satisfied the interior design and budget criteria set forth before the model room was constructed.  The real purpose of the model room becomes known during its construction and outfitting by the various trades engaged to create the approved design, and later as its tested for actual housekeeping and long-term maintenance.  Unfortunately, this is when the room is generally given its least attention and scrutiny. Just like building a model rocket as a kid, the construction had to be spot on and all the related details properly understood and addressed or, regardless how great the paint job was, it wouldn't fly or continue to fly after its maiden voyage.

A model room is a fully functioning room (or rooms, and may include a portion of the guest room corridor)-- everything works, and the room can be used just as a guest would in the finished property, and in many instances will be used and tested prior to actual rollout, to ensure the rooms features live up to the original criteria set forth for its design.  Once constructed, but prior to final testing and evaluations, the model room becomes a perfect example of the approved product, and may require slight modifications to address minor design, construction or maintenance issues.  Major changes implemented to model rooms are indications that the room design was not well conceived or the design was not well implemented, which makes the room less of a model, and more of an experiment.

Pulling the trigger on the construction of a model room, or set of rooms, as the case may be, is solid indicator that critical design and budget evaluations have been completed and the property is largely satisfied that the product will serve the needs for which it is intended.  In the case of separate property Ownership and Brand involvement, the design process, including execution of finished construction documents, FF&E specifications (including shop drawings), material sampling, and departmental reviews have all been concluded with approving results. 

  We installed this model room in Rosemont, Illinois

We installed this model room in Rosemont, Illinois

Why build a Model Room? Model rooms have a specific purpose, but not the one most industry professionals believe they have.  Recent experience suggests that model rooms are constructed to prove the design, but as noted previously, this is a wrong and expensive premise. Today 3D photorealistic modeling allows individuals outside the design process to visually step into and confirm the various design characteristics and amenities that are part of the interior solution.  CAD and actual product mock-ups of critical millwork or furniture components allow the designer to work through functional issues in the studio before these elements become a part of the final design.  And of course, finish, hardware and OS&E material samples are collected during the Design Development phase and are vetted for appropriate use, including budget and lead-time considerations. As previously noted, once the model room is constructed, the design solution should be almost perfect, the designers having considered and worked through both major and minor functional and aesthetic requirements.

  A super-hip model hotel room in the middle of the install we did San Diego, California

A super-hip model hotel room in the middle of the install we did San Diego, California

Following a successful design process, the model room is used to confirm construction and outfitting sequencing, identify possible construction and site related issues, understand the application of FF&E in the space--especially any wall mounted or semi-built-in components, and test the final product for long term maintenance and guest use.  It also becomes key to identifying possible budget related issues not always factored into, or considered during the design, construction, or outfitting process.  A few examples of these important considerations include a) the need to address specific utility placement/ interface to, or consider the impact of utility work in the room following outfitting of FF&E components, b) addressing millwork or FF&E component sizing relative to site related limitations- this includes more than checking the service elevator size to make sure large items fit, c) the opportunity to coordinate construction (site) and FF&E component (manufactured off site) blending details when the two elements come together in the finished room, and d) the opportunity to effectively communicate scope of work requirements with various trades/ vendors.  Other important considerations involve the long-term use and maintenance of room.

Once constructed, the model room provides the various project teams with a working example that can be referenced again and again and used for problem solving actions, should issues arise.  This is especially true for the General and Sub-trades building the space, FF&E purchasing agent, FF&E installer, and for the property/ brand when planning OS&E and training housekeeping, food & beverage and other guest services staff.

How to Build and Use a Model Room? 

I. Location and Site Conditions: Ideally, model rooms are constructed at the actual property and not in a remote location.  This is not always possible, especially for new ground-up properties, or properties undergoing extensive renovations. Having the model room close at hand, increases the effectiveness of the room as tool to be used and referenced. If the model room cannot be constructed on site, care should be taken to build the model as close to the physical property location as possible and to create as closely as possible, the conditions that will exist at the property-- wall framing should be the same method and materials, as will utility systems, ceiling heights are correct, as are doors and door hardware, etc., with special care given to site differences.  In one example, a service elevator at a remote location that was much larger than the elevators used on the actual site was temporarily framed out during the model room construction to mimic the elevator size the construction trades and FF&E installers would actually be working with. In another example where model rooms were constructed in a small warehouse, care was taken to simulate corridor lengths, widths and heights, including the flooring and wall finish materials for FF&E installation planning.

  We enjoyed  installing this luxurious model room in Dallas, Texas

We enjoyed  installing this luxurious model room in Dallas, Texas

II. Actual Products Used: During the model room construction process, care is always given to use the actual finish materials used in the room, but not always with FF&E products, which are sometimes fabricated by different vendors.  Its not unusual, largely due to cost, for FF&E to be fabricated by a local (to the property location) entity, while the rollout goods are made off shore in another country. This can prove disastrous, as was the case on a project in Chicago where stone clad FF&E products were made for a model room by a local (Chicago) millwork shop.  The actual product arriving from out of the country arrived with the stone separate of the finished wood products.  Costs to install the FF&E package greatly increased, while fit and finish were nowhere close to the millwork constructed product, which was the approved "solution".  As is the case with many larger projects, the finish materials are actually ordered and delivered to the construction site in lots to be used during the construction/ outfitting process, as this allows the various teams members to understand a products weight, type of storage required either on or off-site, sizing of packaging, which can impact movement and handling of the product at both the warehouse and facility, and of course how waste is to be treated.  

III. Audit the Construction Process: The construction process should be audited to track possible sequencing issues or uncover possible impacts on the design solution not recognized during the design process.  A recent example was placement of electrical behind large headboards--the electrical contractor required and was granted by the General Contractor, a range of placement options depending upon back to back guestroom electrical placement site conditions, and other in-wall obstacles.  The result was not all cords used for headboard lighting reached the intended electrical locations when the FF&E was installed resulting in installation delays and go-backs. Had the construction team and the design team been in sync during the model room buildout, its likely the cord length issue would have been caught and a major negative impact to the project never occurred.  In another example, black painted entry doors into guestrooms had to be re-finished several times due to poor construction installation sequencing which would have protected the fragile door finish. Floor finishes (mostly carpet & pad), fan coil trim out, and other minor construction detailing all took their tool with multiple sub-trades in and out of rooms for weeks after the doors were hung.

IV. Evaluate the Model for Use: The evaluation process involves more than acceptance of the rooms aesthetics.  Remember, form follows function!  When conducting model room evaluations, I always start with the Housekeeping staff and measure results- how difficult and thus how long to make up a room?  Has the design created areas where cleaning is not easy or efficient, or will require a custom or special cleaning tool?  Clean rooms are the result of access.  Limiting access to areas than need regular attention produces poor cleaning results, regardless of how dedicated and well trained the housekeeping staff may be.  I then bring in Maintenance to test simple to complex maintenance items--everything from replacing air filters and light bulbs to repainting ceilings, or replacing wallcovering. Furniture touch-up and servicing in-room appliances should also be considered.  It's especially critical to look at issues that are all too common in hotels of all service levels--clogged toilets and drains.  As room designs become increasingly complex and elevated in their level of finish and amenities, ongoing maintenance is a critical review component for mapping out a long term maintenance strategy.  Then there's the Room/ Guest Service staff/ operations. On a recent project, in-room dining was compromised by the size of the portable dining table given the rooms FF&E arrangement.  Comfortable two person in-room dining was next to impossible and had to be addressed.  Finally, simplicity of guest use should be reviewed. Many upscale properties are installing lighting control and even whole-room automated control systems.  Such trends are appealing, but not for everyone who can find the degree of technology incorporated into guest rooms to be overwhelming.  One of the chief complaints by guests to some of the newer properties recently opened is the lack of ease associated with room use.  I recently stayed at a high-end property that offered a narrow but deep shower in the bathroom.  The primary shower head was a rain head in the ceiling. Unfortunately, the shower control was placed deep inside the shower. For several mornings a rush of cold water literally rained down upon me every time I turned the shower on! Lastly, I bring in the luggage and test for ease of use getting into and out of the room.  This is especially true of resort properties where guest luggage use can significant in quantity and size.  Moving luggage in and out of a room, including temporary luggage storage in the room, impacts a room maintenance, its housekeeping, access by guest services, and guest comfort and satisfaction.

AV. Evaluate the Model for Cost Savings: Many complex hotel properties today vaunt large number of guest room types.  Personal experience has shown that many designers will identify differing room types by small, almost unnoticeable changes in FF&E selections or sizes.  Complexity in guest room types increases all costs associated with implementation and maintenance, and is not always necessary to deliver dynamic and impactful room design. Good design considers such. Great design seeks after simplification to drive costs down and increase guest satisfaction.  When evaluating a model room, ask the difficult questions as they relate to the project as a whole--was the rooms function, based on the criteria set forth by the Owner/ Brand effectively addressed? Are there ways to simplify the guest experience and in the process increase satisfaction? Are the dollars being spent, being spent in the right areas?  Again, I'm of the opinion that these questions should have been answered long before the model was constructed, but time and again, I see opportunities for cost savings and increased guest satisfaction after the design has been finalized and the model is being evaluated.

To conclude, it costs much less to work out the design on paper than it does in the field.  A model room should never be used to prove a conceptualized design, but is an effective tool for working through a range of related concerns, especially on the construction front.  When built, the model should confirm the designs functions and aspirations, not pave the way for extensive alterations or new concepts.