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.