Community Collaboration

Aug. 1, 2004
Design charrettes are a good strategy for school planning.

The challenge in designing a new school: amass a staggering amount of differing input from a number of diverse individuals while maintaining some sense of a unified vision. The standard approach is to gather groups, share discussion, formulate a design, then review. Like a neverending loop, discussions continue as the design proceeds over weeks and months — sometimes on parallel tracks or more often, two diverse roads.

So, how can a district be sure that education priorities help shape the building plan?

Defining focus

Part of the answer is to use a method to facilitate and focus conversations so that top school priorities influence the final design. Designers are revisiting a classic tool, the charette, to collect and translate discussions about education in the greater context of new school design.

The term “charette” initially appeared in Paris in the 1800s. At the deadline for a design exercise at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts, a cart (called a charette) would be rolled through the studios to collect student work. Not quite finished with their renderings, the students often continued drawing even as the cart was moving (en charette), taking every last minute to complete their work. Later, the meaning of the word broadened and came to describe any intense, short-term design exercise or graphic brainstorming session.

Typically, a charette is organized to gather input about a new school from a large, diverse group over a two- or three-day timeframe. This allows a consistent group to provide input and get immediate feedback as concept sketches are created from the dialogue. Participants include district administrators, school board members, facilities staff including maintenance, students and key community members working alongside the architectural design team.

“It was critical to involve architects from the start so that they share the history and maintain the continuity of early community discussions,” says Jon Allen, chief financial officer for Nampa (Idaho) School District 131. “Ten years ago, we completed the typical ed spec process with mini-meetings over a three-month timeframe. You spend most of your meeting time bringing people up to speed with what was discussed. There were not as many different participants. The charette workshops provide a much more comprehensive, condensed outcome where broader issues, such as your uniqueness as a district and educational goals, are part of the dialogue.”

Charettes allow the visual and the verbal to come together at the same time. The design team's role is to produce concept sketches that evolve from the shared ideas into an organizational floor plan and site plan. This technique has proven especially effective for educational facility design because of the wide range of user groups involved. The more traditional approach of multiple meetings held over an extended period of time often loses the group dynamic as some individuals miss meetings, and the conversations are less focused and not as instantaneously productive.

Laying the groundwork

Prior to a charette, school officials should understand the intent and anticipated outcome of the exercise. A complete design won't emerge after two days of discussion, but architects intend to complete a charette with a clear direction of the design concept — everything from the architectural style to the general building layout. For this reason, it is especially important for a school to decide upon space needs before conducting a charette.

The workshop format is organized to begin with a large-group presentation of roles and expectations, with emphasis on defining the expected outcome. In what can be a combination of presentations and open questions, topics are presented to help set the stage for what a new school can be, such as:

  • What is the school's education philosophy?

  • What are its goals?

  • What are the educational and building expectations and requirements?

  • What are the site's advantages and limitations?

  • What is the school's role in the community?

  • Are there partnerships worth exploring or continuing?

  • What things are working, and what can be enhanced?

If time permits, a visit to the site and a review of building and site layout conditions can be helpful. If the district and the design team are able to prepare for a charette and provide a fairly well-defined framework, this exercise can be a lot more meaningful.

Breaking out

After the groundwork of these discussions, small-group breakouts begin work on initial design concepts for the school. These smaller groups then reconvene and present their ideas for review and comment from the larger group. At this stage, the group is reviewing three or four different schemes and can begin to prioritize favorable elements from each plan. The design team takes these recommendations and develops a single, refined plan graphic for group review. Often, a core group of individuals from the larger group is identified to work through more details and dialogue. By the end of the workshop, the group leaves with agreed-upon building priorities and a concept drawing that identifies all areas of the building on the site.

A facilitator must be mindful to elicit viewpoints from all participants, as some may be more vocal than others. The facilitator, usually a design leader, should honor the process and be willing to capture and communicate priorities that the group chooses. The educational facility solution that emerges as a result of the group dynamic of exchanging ideas and dialogue often is one that works on many levels for learners, teachers and the community.

Open communication should continue following a charette. For the Nampa district, the charette themes and priorities were revisited at four subsequent public meetings, including board meetings. The summary statements and concepts were shared at public events: after a bond issue passed, during construction tours and at the building dedication. When the initial workshop group is invited back for milestone events, they stay involved and informed throughout the project. As participants walk through a completed school, they can see elements that are a direct result of ideas from the initial charette.

As a dynamic practice, a charette is something that needs to be rethought, reapplied, adjusted and experienced. Incremental workshops also can be helpful as design alternatives take shape and become more detailed. These allow a design team and school representatives to step out of practical management of the project and focus solely on the larger education vision. It allows participants time to look at progress compared with the initial charette backdrop, ask questions, and relate how building decisions, from lighting layouts to interior finishes, support the charette goals. These checkpoints validate the original design intent expressed by the creative collaboration of the community.

“People have much more ownership than the typical planning process,” says Allen. “This process will enhance any school system's efforts for designing a new school.”

Mason, AIA, and French, AIA, are principals leading education projects for DLR Group, a national planning, architecture and engineering firm. Both serve as national design resources for the 15 DLR Group offices, regularly leading charettes for districts across the country. The firm, along with CSHQA, conducted charettes for the Nampa School District (see sidebar on p. 157).

Conducting success

Nampa (Idaho) School District 131 recently conducted two charettes.

“I am extremely excited to be a part of designing a new high school where education came first, and the building and design came after,“ says Jon Allen, chief financial officer, Nampa (Idaho) School District 131. “This new high school will be around for 60 years or more where thousands of students will be educated.”

Some tips for conducting a successful new school design charette:

  • Obtain support and commitment from the superintendent and school board. This means gaining support for the whole process and listening to recommendations from a wide range of participants.

  • Prepare in advance. A charette exercise will be more meaningful if participants and the design team are familiar with and able to work within well-defined curriculum and site parameters. It helps channel the creative discussions with knowledge of the district's detailed requirements and expectations.

  • An architecture firm must have staff, resources and experience designing schools to be effective. They should be involved from the beginning. It is important to have participation from multiple designers, representing school design experience from areas around the country.

  • Involve as many stakeholders as possible, including teachers, students, maintenance staff, city government, administration, neighboring residents and businesses with a future stake in a new school. Try to invite three to four individuals from each targeted group, so that small group breakouts will include a cross-representation. Invite one member of the school board who will serve as liaison with the community group.

  • Plan to follow up with participants. After working with such a broad audience, you can build up their level of ownership throughout the project with regular communication and invitations to key events.

  • Effective facilitation is important. When gathering a large group of individuals who don't know each other, it is important to have a facilitator who encourages participation from the entire group and keeps discussions on task and on schedule.

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