Steps for a successful charrette

1. Hire one or two school design consultants who are experienced in the charrette process to lead the exercise.
2. All of the people who have an interest in the outcome should be represented. This could include community leaders, politicians, school board officials, principals, students, the architect currently working on the problem, and the district’s facilities people.
3. Include high-ranking officials who have decision-making power. When high ranking officials are involved in the charrette process they can grant permissions and give approvals that might otherwise be unthinkable—or impossible to gain later.
4. Locate the charrette where there will be few disruptions. Block off a period of time when the stakeholders have little choice but to participate in the process. There should be limited access to telephones, PDAs, and email.
5. Ideally, allow two days with no more than 6 hours each day for the design charrette to occur. A deadline for formal presentation to a larger group at the end tends to force the team to come to a solution.
6. It’s a good idea to hire consultants from “out of town.” They come to the activity without preconceptions, and they aren’t likely to play politics because they’ll be appearing before the board interviewing for work later.
7. Abandon all preconceptions. Groups should be open to all possibilities. In particular, don’t get hung up on budget. 
8. No one should pull rank. Frequently one or two people take over the charrette. The student’s input is just as important as the superintendent’s.
9. Start with a well-defined design problem. Vague problems tend to produce results which are hard to implement.
Building Great K-12 Schools in Economically Challenging Times
In these tough times making good school design decisions has never been more difficult or more important. To find out how some of the nation’s top architects and administrators are coping with these challenges attend Architectural Record’s Schools of the 21st Century Symposium. It will be held Friday, April 9th, at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago, the day before the NSBA Conference. The event is free of charge and is being presented with the support of McGraw-Hill Education and the American Architectural Foundation.

Click here for more information.

Charrettes Get Results
Here’s what was learned when five school districts got together with 10 architects and worked for 24 hours to solve some very difficult design problems
By Charles Linn, FAIA

The American Architectural Foundation has made excellence in the design of schools a cornerstone in its mission to educate the public about the power of architecture to improve the quality of peoples’ lives. On several occasions in the last few years, Ron Bogle, the AAF’s president and CEO, has invited school design experts to join educators in the foundation’s Great Schools By Design program to establish design principles that will ensure schools of the future take advantage of everything known about the relationship between school design and student achievement.

Last fall, the AAF and two presenting sponsors, Target and Architectural Record, held an entirely new kind of event: the National School Design Institute. Rather than simply discussing design problems in the abstract, representatives from five very different school districts and their architects were invited to bring the plans for a school they were at work on to a two-day meeting. Each district was paired with a resource team made up of two school-design architects with whom they had never worked before. They were given 24 hours to make a new assessment of each district’s existing design.

The Charrettes:

High School No. 3
Los Angeles, California

School of Entreprenuership
Buffalo, New York

A New High School
Natrona County, Wyoming

Central High School
Carroll County, Georgia

Community Campus Plan
Pass Christian, Mississippi

The 10 architects who were asked to be resource team members came from across the U.S. The American Institute of Architects’ Committee on Architecture for Education (CAE) helped select them on the basis of their ability to work collaboratively, their proficiency in design and presentation skills, and because they have successfully participated in some of the school design competitions held each year. CAE chair Kerry Leonard, AIA, and the AAF’s Nancy Sussman helped organize the event.

There were two goals for this unique gathering. The first was to see if, by taking a fresh look at several very specific design problems, larger lessons applicable to other districts across the nation could be taken away. In every case they could. Although there are thousands of school districts out there, many have problems in common. For example, almost every district has buildings which are functionally obsolete but must be reused or patched together for a few more years. Teams from Buffalo and Georgia both brought projects with these characteristics. Few schools face the challenges of officials from Pass Christian, Mississippi, whose schools were completely destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, yet much can be learned as they rebuild with few resources. A team from Los Angeles found themselves redesigning a project that was ready to break ground. It happens. The group from Wyoming got to do what everybody wishes they could do, exploring what it would be like to start anew. The following pages show the solutions the School Design Institute came up with, the design processes they used, and the lessons they learned.

The second goal was to introduce to the school districts’ representatives the idea of the “charrette,” and to see if guidelines for these events could be developed by observing what happened at this event. For readers who have never heard of a charrette before, architects use the term to describe work sessions in which a design problem is intensively attacked by its stakeholders over a short period of time, sometimes for a day or two, sometimes for just a few hours. Hopefully, with decision makers present, and preconceptions thrown aside, an ingenious, creative solution will emerge.

All design exercises are hard, but charrettes can be much more so. The short period of time involved creates stress, and personalities can play a part in whether the exercise is a success. Without a doubt, the hardest part is to get the people who are the ultimate decision makers to the table—mostly because they “don’t have time.” Yet, people who try doing a charrette often find that a few hours at the table can produce results that their staff and consultants might spend months of trial and error trying to achieve. The groups who attended this event did a fantastic amount of work in 24 hours, came away with fresh, workable ideas, and said they would do it again.

The charrette process can be used by anyone to tackle all kinds of problems, not just architectural ones. The sidebar at the right shows what we learned about doing them successfully at this event. It is an excellent starting point for those who want to give it a try.