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Design Charrettes lead to creative solutions

Most projects, especially multi-discipline projects, involve a number of stakeholders, including the client with its departments and user groups, community groups, authorities having jurisdiction, the general public, and of course the design team. On projects large or small, there is generally a lot of background information to review: planning documents, project definition reports, programming documents, user requirements, reports, and site information, for example. The project team must understand the overall objectives of the project and develop the work plan and design process that will foster a creative solution. One tool that has been very successful in the design process is a design charrette.

What is a design charrette? 

The design charrette provides a forum for exchanging ideas and exploring alternate approaches. It is an intensive planning session and design workshop where clients, stakeholders, designers and others brainstorm and share ideas to develop a vision for the development of the project. Ideas are generated and documented, usually in the form of sketches and notes. By the end of the charrette, the project team has a common understanding and documented vision.

The design charrette (from the French word meaning “chariot” or “cart”) is believed to originate from architectural students in Paris in the 1800’s. Their exams were collected in a “charrette”.  As the story goes, as these exams were being collected, some of the students continued to furiously sketch--up to the last minute. What developed from the story was the underlying theme of generating ideas quickly and documenting them.

Benefits of holding design charrettes include the following:

• Each participant is engaged, has a voice and is considered an equal on the team
• Stakeholders come together in a positive environment that facilitates fast and interactive decision-making.
• The forum creates partnerships and positive working relationships 
• Participants understand priorities of different functional groups
• Open sharing of ideas inspires all members of the team
• Brainstorming and dialogue are helpful in situations calling for new ways of looking at things 
• Joint problem-solving results in creative solutions.

How do you conduct a design charrette? 

Conducting a design charrette can be quite straightforward. In its very basic form, the project manager gathers participants together in a room. Paper and pens are provided to each person. One person is designated as the facilitator, who writes out each goal or design challenge. The group will then provide their ideas for each goal, followed by discussions. At the end of the design charrette, there should be a final presentation and documentation of the ideas and issues discussed.

On larger, complex projects with many stakeholders, design charrettes are increasingly being used, especially where a number of public and private sector groups and agencies are involved. An example of this might be where a water treatment plant is being planned for a residential neighbourhood. Involvement and engagement by the public is critical, as well as gaining input from the public in the design of the facility. Design charrettes are used quite extensively in urban design and community planning projects. In this case, the design charrette might be organized in the following stages:

• Information Gathering: The design team solicits input from all stakeholders and the general public, and records the information (white boards and flip charts are great tools for this)

• Design Interaction: Ideas are generated by both the design team and stakeholders, and documented

• Final Presentation: The design charrette concludes with the final design ideas that the design team will take back with them for further analysis and development

A design charrette doesn’t just have to occur at the outset of a project. There can be design charrettes at any point during the course of project development. It may be appropriate on a large and complex project to conduct design charrettes at key milestones to ensure that the design objectives established at the outset are being met, as well as to ensure stakeholder engagement throughout the project. Also, a design charrette can be held for the design team to assist each member with their own respective discipline, and to increase overall engagement and collaboration. Design charrettes and workshops are successful forums for problem solving and generating creative and innovative solutions through an inclusive, integrated process.

About the Author
John Cope is a Professional Architect and Senior Project Manager with over 28 years of experience in the design and management of projects, as well as building and managing teams. He has considerable experience in sustainable development, and has applied this knowledge to many projects and initiatives.