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Charrette Anyone?

A hands-on design process may be just the ticket for new facility or renovation pre-planning

The ability to communicate with clients during the design and construction of a new facility is incredibly important. This is probably no more true than when designing and building worship facilities, where diverse needs, tight budgets, and strong opinions are the norm. One way to speed the process along while encouraging open communication between designers, builders, and clients is to use a charrette process. The earlier in the project this is initiated, the better the results will be.

Charrette is a term that is derived from French architecture students. During the early 1800s, students in Paris needed to rush their design drawings to the Ecole Des Beaux-Arts. They placed them on a cart called a charrette, which was then taken to the Ecole (school). Over time, the meaning of the term was expanded to include any short-term student design project. In the design community today, the word describes any intense design effort that takes place over a short time period.

The different types of charrettes used with church clients include master planning, architecture, construction, and cost estimating. The type of charrette determines who will attend, but usually involves the client, design team, consultants, cost experts, and construction personnel. The client will bring any key decision-makers involved in the project, while the design team should include architects, engineers, planners, and any other key personnel. Sometimes, more than one charrette is needed for a project over the course of the project’s development.

When properly run, a charrette can lead to better communication between the [church] client and designers. The creative process is facilitated by bringing together everyone involved in a project and encouraging participation. When the key personnel are together, sharing ideas and talking them out, a highly charged, creative atmosphere is created that is similar to visual brainstorming. This helps to develop solutions and solve specific problems in a limited time period.

A Time-Tested, Hands-On Approach
I have participated in charrettes for approximately 15 years. During this time, I have found that they consistently provide efficient and inexpensive design tools that bring fresh viewpoints to the project planning process. Team members are energized by the process, which can bring unexpected new ideas to the table as well as collaboration between the client and design teams. Typically, this helps communication throughout the design process and into the construction phase.

By bringing all the relevant parties into the process early, relationships among all of the decision makers can be established. Charrettes also save churches money because the decision makers are working together. They are analyzing and addressing the issues that could affect the project’s success. This eliminates the need to re-work the design during construction, which can be very costly.

Abrupt, last-minute changes also lead to resentment and frustration when one ministry has to give up space or facilities to accommodate a change. At the end of the charrette, the design team puts together a booklet that summarizes the agreed upon plans and ideas. When important decisions need to be made further on in the process, the booklet is referred to so that everyone is speaking, literally, from the same page.

The location of the charrette is important. The more flexible the charrette space and the more technology that can be brought into a charrette, the easier the process will be. Ideally, this space will be at the designers’ offices, which are suited for such a process. It also allows for additional people, new drawings, and historical information that can help facilitate discussion.

A charrette most often takes place over two or three days, depending on where it is held and the amount of work that needs to be done after the first day. After the first full day of brainstorming, the teams leave the meeting with their own sets of tasks. The clients leave to ponder all of the ideas and what course they want to pursue next. The designers go back to work, putting concepts on paper and coming up with action items for the return meeting. A two-day charrette is very efficient and compresses the process, while a three-day charrette gives the designers a day in-between meetings to come up with a more complete set of drawings and concepts.

After the whole team returns on the second or third day, they review the new concepts. Eventually, the team members agree upon the conceptual direction. Once they have taken this important step, they then review architectural styles or typologies. The client team indicates its preference for the style or typology and the designers have a good idea of how to proceed. Everyone leaves the meeting with an understanding of the direction for the project and what to expect next.

One Recent Example
When planning a new church facility, a great deal of public input is needed. Charrettes work particularly well in this kind of environment. Recently, the process was utilized when the Gateway Church in Southlake, Texas needed to plan a new facility for its burgeoning congregation of 8,000. Because of its newness, the church has very little experience building facilities, let alone one as large as its current congregation requires. This particular charrette was aimed at master planning the church’s needs on a site that had just been purchased.

Taking place over two days, the charrette included approximately 40 people from Gateway and the building and design firms. The attendees included Gateway’s development committee, strategic and master planning professionals, large church construction experts, an acoustical consultant, and the architects.

On the charrette’s first day, the team members reviewed the church and its organizational aspects. The team also went over the site characteristics and the church’s needs. Additionally, they discussed strategies for the master plan development. Finally, they reviewed building designs and selected preferred architectural types.

Day two saw the teams come together to work out a course of action. After two days of working through all of the relevant issues, both the church members and the design team had a good idea of how to proceed. They established a master plan process. The team members developed an understanding of the architectural style they would employ. Most importantly, they established lines of communication for all to use when necessary.

The charrette process contributes greatly to success on church projects. It also sends a strong signal about the collaborative nature involved in these projects. The more involved clients are in the process of designing their projects in controlled but participatory ways the better the product(s) will be and the more efficient the architects can be.

The Beck Group (214) 303-6200 www.beckgroup.com

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