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, 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 minimal 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 e-mail.
5. Allow two days with no more than six hours each day for the design charrette to occur. After that, a formal presentation of the results to a larger group tends to force the team to come to a conclusion.
6. It's a good idea to hire consultants from "out of town." They come to the activity without baggage or preconceptions; they aren't likely to compromise because they will appear before the school district to interview for work later.
7.Abandon all preconceptions. Groups should be open to all possibilities. In particular, don't get hung up on the 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. Come with a well-defined design problem. Open-ended problems tend not to yield useful results.
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.

No One-Size-Fits-All
The American Architectural Foundation's second National School Design Institute gathered surprising solutions to building design problems faced by school districts across the country.
By Charles Linn, AIA

What if you had the opportunity to have two top school-design architects spend 24 hours doing nothing but working with you on the redesign of one of your district's schools? No doubt you would bring the most vexing problem you had, and work as hard as possible to solve it.

Such was the case with four school districts from across America who were selected to participate in the American Architectural Foundation's second National School Design Institute (NSDI) in Washington, D.C., this past September. It is part of the AFF's Great Schools by Design program, whose objective is to show that architecture and design can improve the quality of peoples' lives. Target was the AAF's presenting sponsor for the event.

The Charrettes:

Cleveland High School
St. Louis Public Schools; St. Louis, Missouri

Jefferson High School
Portland Public Schools; Portland, Oregon

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology
Fairfax County Public Schools; Fairfax, Virginia

St. Paul's Episcopal School
Independent; New Orleans, Louisiana

The format for the NSDI—several intense, tightly scheduled design sessions followed by a presentation of the results of the work—is known as a "charrette" in architectural circles. These particular charrettes demanded that teams consisting of teachers, principals, district facilities managers; architects already working for the districts; plus two resource architects who had not previously worked with them—focus quickly on the analysis of the problem and its solution. The purpose of the NSDI is not only to help a few school districts work on their problems, but to gain an understanding of how other school districts across the country could address similar problems.

Of all the schools that participated this year, St. Paul's Episcopal Church and School in New Orleans might have the most unique circumstances. A levy collapse after Hurricane Katrina left its 3-acre campus 5 feet underwater for several weeks. In the two years since this happened, the school has made a remarkable recovery. It is up and running, however, with half the students it once had. This gives St. Paul's an opportunity that few have: to completely rethink not just the way its buildings are organized, but also how well the structures support their educational programs. But they must act quickly, since they need to enroll more students in order to regain financial health. The master plans created by architects Chris Grae, AIA, and Steve Crane, AIA, truly reflect the courage, vision, and passion for rebirth brought by the St. Paul's team.

Many cities have old high school buildings that suffer from poor maintenance, and whose configuration no longer works well. Built for a few thousand students, many are now attended by just a few hundred. Two districts brought this scenario to the NSDI and got very different kinds of advice. Representatives from the Portland Public Schools in Oregon presented Jefferson High School. Insensitive additions have transformed this once-magnificent structure into a rabbit warren of disconnected rooms completely unsuited for the small learning academies that have been formed to serve its student body. And the school's site did not allow it to take advantage of its adjacency to a community college across the street. The district agreed with architects Pat Bosch and Paul Winslow, FAIA, that the best solution would be to demolish the school and rebuild a campus of small buildings.

Representatives from St. Louis Public Schools working with Amy Yurko, AIA, and James Hoagland, AIA, found the opposite. The district's currently-closed Cleveland High School should definitely be saved, and could likely be configured to accommodate theme-based small learning communities.

Fairfax County Public Schools' team brought Thomas Jefferson High School and a problem that plagues many districts: what to do with a spread out, single-story,1960s-era high school that is bursting at the seams? John Pfluger, AIA, and Laura Wernick, AIA, helped them determine that selective demolition and a multistory addition would work. Their solution emphasized science labs and social-learning spaces.

The charrette process used at the NSDI is one that can yield fantastic results in a short time, although some groups are better at it than others. Readers who have never been involved in one may find our guidelines (below) to be of assistance.

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.