Vision and Teamwork for Successful Design Charrettes

After a short hiatus for a summer break, we are back. We recently began a discussion on design charrettes and now it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

Design charrettes are a rapid, solution-seeking workshops that are typically facilitated, however any family household or community-minded group can come together as a team and work through these steps to improve their home, neighborhood, or downtown. Even though the underlying process is similar for charrettes in each of these realms, as the shift from private to public realms advances, the complexity and number of participants involved will vary. 

The design charrette process starts with you and me.  We have to be leaders and project a better reality forward by creating a vision. What is yours? A remodeled, energy efficient home, with a great connection to the outdoors? A neighborhood playground and gathering space? Improving downtown green spaces and public art? There are many ideas to list, and everyone will see different needs from their own point of view.

Some of you will be interested in how to conduct a design charrette for one realm in particular. Others may find that considering each realm in turn will inspire new ideas they want to champion. A  primary goal for a design charrette involves brain-storming, considering all ideas, and then determining the most sustainable solution. What will your team see?

Gathering Your  Team

Even if you lack a definite vision, a design charrette can help you set the course toward sustainable change. Seeking a group with different viewpoints is key to the rapid process design charrettes often follow. This kind of inclusive, open dialogue yields a much more refined solution to any particular design problem. It also means that the solution will have a stronger chance of being implemented and supported down the road.

Finding others with a common interest many involve some consideration, but is usually fairly obvious. Make sure to keep the cross-section of the charrette team in mind at the outset. Who is going to benefit from the outcome of the final ideas? Ideally, your charrette team should represent the group served proportionately - by generation, gender, ethnicity, religion, etc. 

Private property and public property interests vary to large degree. Although we can easily put our finger on the realms of home, neighborhood, and downtown, there are other, less-defined zones. The “in-between places” where realms overlap should not be overlooked, as their woven structure may provide unique opportunities for building community engagement.

Finally, in fleshing out the charrette team, we must remain creative and ready to call on community members, public officials, and professional consultants to fill knowledge gaps at any point in the process. 

Design Charrettes in Your Own Home

Design Charrettes at home can be a lot of fun. Getting everyone in the household together to consider a design solution gets everyone involved and invested in sharing ideas. Children, young adults and older generations see the world in different ways. This is a big plus in design thinking! 

In new marriages, sitting down together for a quick charrette is great tool for making home design decisions. You can use the process for something as simple as selecting paint colors, or something as difficult as deciding whether a particular home is just right for you. One person may take the lead in the process and have ideas that both love, but when there are differences of opinion this kind of structured approach might save some poorly reasoned conflict. 

When I begin working with a family to remodel, add an addition, or design a new home, I love getting the whole family together to hear all their ideas. Sometimes I bring an assignment for the group to do together. Getting everyone involved in design thinking is fun and actually helps establish the flavor of the project. As the project progresses, we all get to see reality take shape. We also get to exercise creativity, working in some far-out concepts and touches of whimsy. 

Affiliate Links: Check out Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big House” or Marie Cusato’s “Just Right Home” for some great ideas. Both of these professionals are architects with a true sense for sustainable design. 

In-Between Zone #1

At the boundary between the home and neighborhood realms, you might call on neighbors for design problems such as a common fence, creative use of an alleyway, or neighborhood design covenants. This is all basic, but might be fun to approach by means of a design charrette. Beyond the basic, those with green hearts may still want to improve this boundary, and need to dig even deeper. 

Photo credit:  Joybot  via  /  CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Joybot via / CC BY-SA

Ever discover a common gate in the old chain-link fence in your back yard? This simple remnant should serve as a reminder of loosely-woven neighborhood fabric we once enjoyed. Why do homes today set hard boundaries at a privacy fence and garage door? You can change this. 

Pocket Neighborhoods along with many decades of European Co-housing have given over the concept of a private green space to the larger neighborhood community. Creating this kind of mutual space is a great chance for others to connect and a mutual respect for each other to grow - for both children and adults.

What if your entire block decided to take down their back fences and create a more connected place? The idea of a common green that is central and directly accessible to each home is attractive to Baby-Boomers, Gen-Xers and Millennials alike. The social isolation caused by modern auto-centric development is very real. 

Beyond the private (back)yard, there is an opportunity for unspoken dialogue with the neighborhood passersby.  Front porches and sidewalks are returning thanks to the New Urbanism Movement. As a function of neighborhood planning, our city officials would be wise to consider the benefits of these walkable, human-scaled, and mixed-use neighborhoods. For existing suburban neighborhoods, introducing some of these principles has the potential to build resident cohesion, happiness, and higher real-estate values. 

Affiliate Link: Check out Ross Chapin’s book “Pocket Neighborhoods” for more on creating places of community. Ross is an architect that essentially created this amazing typology. This is definitely a must-read on the topic of creating closer knit connection with neighbors. 

Neighborhood Design Charrettes

In the outlying area, beyond the in-between zone, neighborhood design charrettes center on deeper public concerns. We have to shift gears and think beyond our own direct experiences. What kinds of projects benefit everyone in the neighborhood generally, and the city particularly. Residents tend to think in terms of amenities and services, while the city idealizes infrastructure and the tax base. Find the common ground and you will have a winning project!

We have to take the time to seek out the ideas and opinions of others - even the naysayers. The additional effort is well worth the work. Understanding (and sometimes discounting) negative thinkers while encouraging the green-hearted among you can produce stimulating, big-picture changes, making a neighborhood more cohesive and vibrant.

Beginning at this level it is fundamental to involve the city directly in the charrette process. Extending an invitation is a great way to get some great feedback, as well as a partner with some of the key resources. Also, look to other civic and community organizations, as well as state officials that might know more on topics such as historic preservation, infrastructure planning, and federal redevelopment money. There are also local organizations such as  foundations, arts coalitions, and groups like the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) that may have funding available that aligns with your project. 

To organize a charrette getting people together is a little more challenging at the neighborhood scale, especially if you live in a very large neighborhood or have not met a lot of your neighbors. A wonderful tool to build the initial engagement required to work well with other neighbors is to create an official neighborhood association.

Oklahoma City is fortunate to have one of the most excellent networks of neighborhood associations in the country. This is in no small part due to the leadership at the Neighborhood Alliance of Central Oklahoma, which oversees 400+ neighborhood associations across the state. 

Once you have a solid group of neighbors together, it will be much easier to begin discussion on ideas for neighborhood projects. Trust me - everyone has ideas! They key is to establish a base level of engagement with as broad a group of neighborhood households as possible. Not being invited to participate is much different than deciding not to participate. 

In-Between Zone #2

The border land between the neighborhood/downtown realms is more nebulous than the home/neighborhood zone. In this in-between zone, design charrettes can focus on unique community assets. They also provide a forum for members of the public to discuss the future direction and vision for the pubic space in their neighborhoods and downtown.

Photo credit:  Joybot  via  /  CC BY-SA

Photo credit: Joybot via / CC BY-SA

At this juncture it really helps if the city can agree to participate directly during the design charrette. In addition to local volunteers and community non-profit groups - like Main Street America - the city’s assistance with project implementation is critical. Towns and cities with planning departments strongly benefit from a "Comprehensive Masterplan" for sustainable community development and growth. This helps everyone stay one track with both what to do, and what not to do.

It will be to your charrette team’s benefit if your charrette teammates from the City understand the principles of sustainable development. Often municipalities jump too quickly at the first development options, and favor the easy “cookie cutter” big box development and industrial parks. Considering the life-cycle costs involved in supporting this kind of development is almost never in the best interest of the community at-large. A good place to refer for sustainable development at the community scale is Smart Growth America

By working to defeat the automobile paradigm and big-box development pattern, a municipality can focus on design solutions that benefit people, instead of cars. The idea of reinvesting in the historic core of your community and established neighborhoods is the best way to boost quality of life for everyone. Placemaking, healthy living, and creating vibrancy are top goals that can inject color and life into your community. 

Strong Towns has some wonderful writing concerning communities as a whole.

Downtown & Main Street Design Charrettes

Your downtown is the most complex and vibrant of community realms. At their potential, great downtowns are a sight to behold! They are the one place we can become an observer and see people living, working, and playing all at the same time. Naturally, with all these layers of activity, a design charrette will need to account for each one them and consider holistic balance with any solution.  

When planning a design charrette downtown - involve everyone!  Reach out through social media, the newspaper, radio, and other means to reach the community. Include the usual suspects, such as small business owners, merchants, property owners, volunteer groups, art and environmental nonprofits, and individual residents to gain valuable input and secure critical support in the community. Partner with your local Main Street America™ group, city government, and other community organizations. Again, it feels much better to be asked to participate in a design charrette and decline, than not be invited. 

From my experience, it is a good idea to create a steering committed (aka. advisory group) consisting of key leaders, including town officials, volunteer board members, downtown organization staff, elected officials, property owners, merchants, and residents. Think of this group as the group leaders. They will make the decisions based on input received during the charrette. They should also agree at the outset to assist in the implementation of selected design solution.

Some of the best groups with ideas for the downtown realm are Main Street America™ and the Project for Public Spaces (PPS).

Next week we will wrap up this short series with the step-by-step process for facilitating your own design charrette in your home, neighborhood, or downtown. We will also compile the resources mentioned so far and share a few more. 

Under the surface, in your community, there is a greener paradigm waiting to be discovered and we all play a part. Together we can all live fuller lives today and leave a better world to our children. 
— LL


"The Neighborhood Charrette Handbook" by Dr. James A. Segedy, AICP and Bradley E. Johnson, AICP. Contains in-depth information and some great ideas on charrettes at a neighborhood scale. A good general reference.