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When is a Charrette Appropriate?

Jim Pashek recently attended a Charrette planning workshop sponsored by the National Charrette Institute (NCI) and Harvard Graduate School of Design.  The Charrette, typically involving 6-9 months of activities, centered around an intensive 7 day workshop has been used to bring together disparate viewpoints, build consensus, and generate products that can often move forward projects that may have been on hold for years.

Route 30 Charrette
Route 30 Charrette

Although there are usually months devoted to workshop preparation, often including a public meeting, the heart is the seven day charrette.  This involves representatives from all sides of an issue, at least three “feedback loops” to make sure the proposals at the end are incorporating stakeholder views and a range of professional participants depending on the type of project.  It is not unusual to have at the seven day charrette, 12- 15 professionals, from land use planners, architects, landscape architects, illustrators, economists, developers, engineers and ecologists.  The cost of a charrette obviously varies depending on the complexity of the project. The NCI suggests that these charrettes often cost from as little as $125,000 to more than $350,000 for very complex projects.

The 9 steps for a successful charrette include:

  1. Working in a collaborative way – don’t start designing until seeking input
  2. Design cross-functionally – multiple disciplines will result in a realistic product, avoiding re-work
  3. Compress work sessions – facilitates creative problem solving and “thinking outside the box”
  4. Communicate in short feedback loops – quickly builds trust and project understanding
  5. Study the details and the whole – designs of varying scales will reduce likelihood of “fatal flaw”
  6. Produce a feasible plan – decisions must be fully informed regarding legal, financial and political
  7. Use design to achieve a shared vision and create holistic solutions – can contribute to resolving conflict
  8. Conduct a multiple day charrette – need time for at least three feedback loops with stakeholders to build trust and make sure design is going to be accepted
  9. Hold the charrettes on or near the site – allows design team to better understand project
Workshop in Prague
Workshop in Prague

Because we were in Cambridge for the training, we had the added benefit of a session with Stacie Smith from the Consensus Building Institute (CBI).  The Institute, who started as a group of professors at MIT and who authored the book “Getting to Yes,” have developed an interesting process for getting groups with polarized positions to identify common values that they can build on (the CBI is just beginning to do work in the middle east).

There are situations when viewpoints are so entrenched that consensus building might be a more appropriate process than a charrette.  Other times, this process might be a logical precursor to a charrette workshop.

The NCI has great resources for agencies including a standard scope of work for running a charrette process.  Check out www.charretteinstitute.orgor call them at 503-233-8486.  I would encourage everyone to become more familiar with this great public process tool and consider using it in the appropriate situation.  Anyone who is interested in more information could also give Jim Pashek a call at 412-321-6362 x111.

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