Hands-on brainstorming

July 2005 » Business
One recommended tool for developing strong, successful designs and for communicating effectively with clients is to incorporate a charette process soon after a project has been awarded. But what the heck is a design charette? The term charette initially appeared in the early part of the late 1800s.

Charettes provide intense, creative exercises for building consensus and supporting design excellence.

BY MARK A. MATHEWS, AIA

One recommended tool for developing strong, successful designs and for communicating effectively with clients is to incorporate a charette process soon after a project has been awarded. But what the heck is a design charette? The term charette initially appeared in the early part of the late 1800s.

Architecture students in Paris, who needed to rush their drawings to the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts, placed them on a cart that was called a charette. Later, its meaning was broadened to describe any intense, shortterm, student design project. Today, the word is used by the design services community to describe any intense, onthe- spot design effort.

Typically, charettes involve the client (including any major decision-makers involved in the project), the design team (architects, engineers, planners, and other key personnel), and construction/costestimating professionals. Basically, the parties involved are determined by the type of charette being held such as master planning, architecture, construction, or cost-estimating.

The charette can be a useful tool for developing the right framework to support design and construction excellence. It allows for participation of everyone involved in a project, resulting in a highlycharged and creative atmosphere. This creative process is akin to visual brainstorming, which often is used by design professionals to develop solutions to a specific design problem within a limited time frame.

A powerful, hands-on tool I have been conducting charettes for about 15 years and find consistently that the process provides a powerful, hands-on brainstorming tool for consensus building.

Charettes are a fast, efficient, and relatively inexpensive design exercise that brings fresh and objective viewpoints into the project planning process.

At The Beck Group, our staff engages in this process with the client to determine their design goals clearly and to develop a vision for the project that is common across the entire client/Beck team. We have developed several strong collaborative techniques to get dialogue moving and to help create better relationships, among clients' personnel and between the client and the design team. In addition, we use charette techniques and sessions to help communication throughout the design process and even during the construction phase.

Charettes help us build relationships and consensus among a project's decisionmakers.

They also shorten decisionmaking times. At the end of a charette, we produce a booklet that becomes the conceptual reference document the team refers to when approaching difficult decisions during design refinement. We always can refer to the first concepts that were explored, and it usually helps the team to move forward.

Whenever possible, our charettes are held within the Beck corporate offices, in a room we call The Imaginarium - a space dedicated to creative pursuits. The large, flexible room offers a design-studio atmosphere that is appealing to our clients and seems to stimulate individual innovation and ideas. This home-court advantage also can affect the charette process because it makes preparation easier by allowing us to bring in technology, tools, historical drawings, and other team players on a moment's notice. Occasionally, we also will produce two to three concept diagrams to facilitate discussion and to help clients visualize the project parameters and potential.

When outside the office, the meetings have a little less technology and usually no manual drawing workstations. We have conducted charettes in both two- and three-day sessions, depending on where they are held and whether we want a work day between the sessions with the client. A two-day charette compresses initial design work down to the most efficient timeframe and, after the first full-day of brainstorming, the client leaves the ideas to “sleep on them” overnight, returning the next morning to discover the final direction with the charette team.

Sometimes we use a full-day initial session format, then work at our offices on concepts the second day, and meet back with the client on the third day for a halfday session. This timeframe also works very well. When we are doing a charette out-of-town, we most often schedule a two-day event and complete the design refinements at night, instead of adding a day to the trip.

Often we include a “paper doll” exercise in the charette process to enhance client participation. Since most people don't feel comfortable drawing or sketching concepts in front of a group of people, we have created paper building footprints, to scale, to be placed over a scaled aerial photograph of the site. This allows the participants to play with different elements and to try out different building scenarios on the site. After using this technique, the Beck designers leave to explore further the concepts on the computer. At the final session, the whole client/Beck team reviews the new, refined concepts.

Once the conceptual direction is agreed upon, the client's team looks at a series of images of architectural styles or project typologies that we think they will want to explore. The client team gives input to these typologies, and the Beck design team leaves the meeting with a strong and clear direction for the project.

Case in point We have conducted charettes for many projects and find they work particularly well in environments requiring a great deal of public input. Churches are a good example. A typical church design charette will include the church's building development committee, a strategic planning consultant, an acoustical consultant, a client's project management consultant, and the design/construction team.

Recently, the charette process was used in working with Gateway Church, an 8,000-member facility in Southlake, Texas. The charette was held in Beck's Imaginarium, where we have access to all of our project development tools and room for all team members. The inclusiveness is important, as the motto for every charette is “no ideas are bad ideas.” The charette process contributes greatly to our success on projects. It also sends a strong signal about the collaborative nature of our company. The more we involve our clients in the process of designing their project - in controlled but participatory ways - the better the product will be and the more efficient we can be.

Mark A. Mathews, AIA, is the director of planning and urban design and an associate with The Beck Group (www.beckgroup.com).

The Dallas-based firm specializes in project development, architecture, interiors, and construction. Mathews can be reached at markmathews@beckgroup.com.


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