Charrette Process Essential for Buy-In

Posted on August 24, 2011


charrette may be the most influential tool at a design team’s disposal. For those unfamiliar with what a charrette is, I will briefly define this important activity.

Charrette is an architectural term for a short, intense design exercise. In school, it meant a furious individual effort to meet a project deadline. In the working world, it is more of a group workshop where diverse viewpoints are quickly collected through discussion and subgroup design brainstorming.  Those ideas are then presented for review in contribution toward a collective solution to the design problem with which everyone has participated in, and ideally, accepts. Think city council meeting with lots of easels, markers, debate and sketching.

Charrettes are common ways to begin a project with any client, especially a healthcare client who may have complex owner, user, financier conditions in his project. Urban planners and developers often utilize charrettes to get numerous parties to feel ownership over an intricate, political, multi-faceted solution affecting many parties in a community.

However, the charrette is not the exclusive tool of the architect. Hospital systems use charrettes with the communities their hospitals reside in prior to a major project.  I know healthcare consultants who use charrettes to more effectively lead and implement change with clients rather than the typical omnipotent fiat employed by most.

Charrettes do four important things:

  1. Get all stakeholders in the same room.  People inherently understand the importance of a charrette and make an effort to attend or send representatives. Even if everyone cannot participate, if the parties affected by the design problem are invited, they feel included.
  2. Use consensus to elicit joint participation and commitment.  When everyone of importance is invited, they have the opportunity to voice opinions and shape the best solution. A good charrette leader will facilitate and get participation from everyone, and then mold those ideas into a design idea everyone feels good about without steamrolling people via gambits like majority rule. 
  3. Draw out the important issues and solution from attendees.  Few people like to be told what to do or told what is a priority, expecially with subjects they know more about than the charrette leader. More is accomplished when charrette participants define the rules and parameters themselves. It is more powerful to get attendees to identify the crucial issues, and even better when they can solve their own problem.
  4. Reinforce good corporate citizenship.  Community change can become very polarizing and politicized, major hurdles to achievement. No one wants to find out about outcomes that affect their property or lifestyle after-the-fact. Charrettes provide a system to explore options publicly so everyone can feel decisions were made fairly.

Building design is a collaborative effort. No hospital would want to or expect to design their own project, yet many designers are loathe to give up control of the design process. Yet, the more control given up, the more trust is secured around a solution. 

Make no mistake: a charrette’s goal is not to design the project, but to bring important issues to the surface that may not have been broached otherwise yet must be handled in the design. The charrette is a delicate balance of guidance by designers and self-directed problem solving without any preconceived notions of what the design solution will be.

Charrettes take a lot of organization and strong leadership, and are essential to the modern community design problem. Without them, projects suffer missed opportunities. If you are not familiar with a charrette, look to participate in one. And if your design or construction team does not use a charrette, consider demanding it.