Effortless charretting: possible, realizable

Charrettes can be intimidating. Often in these intensive, user-focused design workshops, facilitators are working with a community they are not themselves a part of. The facilitators are chiefly concerned about participation and buy-in, and whether outcome-focused exercises will sink in with those unfamiliar with the design process.

We all want charrettes to be successful, to empower community members with a voice in a project’s design development. This means planning a workshop that can effortlessly collect the wisdom and passions of the participants, and playfully (not painfully) connect strangers and establish a comfortable environment for asserting one’s values.

Over the years, Architecture for Humanity Haiti has refined just such a process.

No matter the project, or the connectivity of the participants, our friends at the Petionville-based Rebuilding Center have developed a “zero-entry” suite of exercises that first brings everyone together, next asks for a listing of values, and then prompts choices between them. It’s a process that embraces, humanity and diversity while ultimately seeing groups discussing and working together toward a common goal – all so smoothly you hardly sense the funneling of an invaluable effort.

Below is a description of such a charrette as planned for a public school project in Port-au-Prince.

From Argentine School Charrette Planning report, Sept. 7, 2012, by B. Ferguson:

We will finally able to start the community charrettes next week to help us understand the needs of the different communities that will use the new buildings. We have started by planning three initial design charrettes with different user groups: the students, the parents and finally the teachers.

We were unable to start the process earlier as school was out for the summer, and it is difficult to contact anyone as next year’s [enrollment] didn’t start until late August and the teachers are generally not available during the summer vacation.

All the charrettes are to have the same format as follows:

  1. An introduction by the school director, M. Dany, followed by all the participants introducing themselves by name and a small piece of information.
  2. A fun, ice-breaking activity that often involves much laughing: all the participants arrange themselves in a large circle. One person is given a ball of yarn, who throws it to someone else in the circle that they know. That piece of yarn is held tight by those two people for the duration of the exercise. This is repeated again and again until everyone is holding a section of yarn, in essence connecting everyone in the circle. The group is invited to reflect on the symbolism of this activity. Some of the typical themes that come out of this are: everyone in the group is connect, even if not directly; if one person doesn’t hold up their end it effects everyone else, however if everyone holds strong together, the web they have made is also very strong.
  3. The group is then broken up into 2-3 smaller groups. Each group brain-storms and lists a set of items they feel are a priority for the new school, in no particular order. There are no restrictions on the size or type of suggestion – it is a time for everyone to be as creative and open as possible. Once the lists are done, each group presents their list of priorities.
  4. The priorities are then organized and grouped together to create a common list of all the priorities of the group. Each person is then given 2-3 votes for what they see as the highest priority item(s) in the list. The votes are tallied and the top 6-8 priorities are identified.
  5. Each group selects 1-2 priorities from the list to do a design charrette, imagining what the space or area is like, its adjacencies, its qualities, and important elements. This is done using a combination of writing, drawing, and modelling using a set of generic widgets.
  6. Each group presents their project, one by one, explaining the major elements in the design and the rationale behind their decisions and approach. The other groups then ask questions to clarify, make suggestions, and everyone then discusses the project as a group.
  7. Closing remarks by the school director.
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