Designing Schools Together
Timothy Wilson, a freshman at Eastern High School, attended both days of the charrette. He visited every station, asking the architects about their schemes, and telling them his concerns and what he thought would make a school building better.
Timothy's own school in northwest Washington D.C. is over 75 years old. When he arrived there earlier in the year, having just moved to Washington, Timothy was dismayed at the condition of the building. With his principal's encouragement, he formed a committee to help clean up the school and make small but important repairs.
Later, when DCPS announced its charrette series, his principal suggested to Timothy that he attend. Timothy met with each of the design teams, asking questions and offering suggestions.
Among his concerns was the amount of space in the hallways. It was very tense between classes, he said, just trying to get from one place to another in the crush of students. That had to be an important consideration, in his opinion, in any new or renovated school building.
Timothy Wilson is one voice in the District of Columbia — one student, one representative of thousands in the district who care about their schools. Through this innovative charrette series, the school district provided a creative and responsive forum for his voice and many others.
Engaging the Community
A charrette is an intensive architectural design session or workshop. The term charrette is derived from the French expression "en charrette," which means "on the cart."
Specifically, the reference is to the Ecole des Beaux Arts architecture students in 19th-century Paris, who carried their design projects to jury competitions in carts and worked along the way until the last possible minute.
Today, the charrette process implies a collaborative, creative design session, usually performed within a compressed schedule. The use of multiple design teams enables the architects to achieve several different solutions to a particular design challenge.
Using the charrette process for school design provides a forum for community members to share their insights and concerns with the designers — and begin to see the results take shape.
How The Charrette Works
Depending on the design challenge at hand, charrettes can be conducted as brief, intensive work sessions lasting just a few hours, or as "marathon" sessions — extending over the course of several hours or days — enabling community members ample time to stop in and contribute.
At the DCPS charrette sessions, four teams of architects were stationed in a temporary "charrette studio." Each team received a set of the new DCPS Educational Specifications. This document served as a guide to the district's overall educational vision as well as to specific facility needs: sizes of classrooms, adjacencies, what types of classrooms and special spaces are needed, etc.
With these materials in hand, the architects designed, in floor plan format, conceptual solutions for new facilities. As the teams began to produce rough concepts and layouts, they printed and posted the results. At the conclusion of each two-day session, each of the architectural teams gave a formal presentation of their proposed solution.
How the Public Contributes
One of the most important reasons for using the charrette process is to provide an open forum for the community to observe and participate in the design sessions. The architectural teams should be receptive to questions, concerns, suggestions, and feedback.
Community members contribute by visiting each of the stations and talking with the architects. They ask about the images they are seeing on the computer screens, and review any drawings posted. Many visitors like to pull up a chair and join the team for a few minutes.
The public is also encouraged to attend and ask questions at the conclusion of the charrettes, during the architectural teams' final presentations.
The Architects Adapt
An architect's job is usually a little easier when work proceeds with a small, homogenous facilities committee. The smaller the group, the easier it is to make decisions and move ahead.
But some of the best projects don't work that way. Many clients, like District of Columbia Public Schools, are determined to throw open the doors and welcome not only the administrators and teachers who will be most closely associated with the buildings, but also the communities that these buildings represent and serve.
These districts are usually richly rewarded in the interest and support they build for their schools. The buildings themselves are enriched as well.
When neighbors, teachers, and parents sit side by side and plan a school together, a rare kind of give and take occurs. Ideas flow forth, and challenges are raised and met. Communities are strengthened. Buildings come to life. People representing all facets of the community benefit, but the students benefit most of all.
Kifah Jayyousi, chief facilities officer of DCPS concluded: "during a very short time span, the architectural teams were in place and able to interact with the community. It was an amazing experience for the nation's capital. It's critical to listen to community needs."
Sharon A. Poor is director of public relations and communications of Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc. in Celina, Ohio.