Introducing Imagination (and Legos) to the Design Charrette Process with Friends of the Children-SW Washington
Critical to the design process in our architecture practice, the charrette represents a crucial step toward achieving practical, beautiful buildings with the needs of the community in mind. But what exactly is a design charrette?
Simply put, the design charrette is a short and collaborative meeting during which an architect or client can share their work with team members. It’s here where most ideation is done, where they can talk through, collaborate, and sketch while exploring and sharing diverse design ideas.
These charrettes are especially useful for projects that require many hands and even more inspiration. Given the importance of stakeholder engagement in this process, a unique approach (including Legos) seemed a natural fit in working with a non-profit aiming to inspire creativity in a new clubhouse.
Who is Friends of the Children?
Friends of the Children-SW Washington is a chapter of a national organization established in 1993 in Portland, Oregon. The non-profit seeks to provide mentorship, care, and consistency for disadvantaged youths. It was founded on the principle that one of the strongest protective factors a child can have is a long-term, nurturing relationship with a consistent and caring adult.
Starting with just 24 kids and three adult ‘Friends’ in 1993, the organization has since grown to serve locations across the country including this Southwest Washington chapter. With great growth comes a great need for facilities that are innovative and built with community’s needs in mind, the community in this case being the kids Friends of the Children-SW Washington serve.
Designing a Unique Charrette Process
While no two design charrettes are exactly alike, some are more creative that others. Given the goals for Friends of the Children in Southwest Washington, a unique approach to the design charrette process included the imagination of the same children who would eventually call the new clubhouse their own.
The architecture team ultimately designed two charrettes to gauge the needs of the organization and incorporate them into the facilities’ design.
To kick things off, the architects hosted a brainstorming activity to learn more about current facilities and what they mean to both the children and their ‘Friends,’ as well as the greater community. Five questions were posted on the wall meant to help us understand what the group already loves about their clubhouse. The purpose of this was to not lose the original vision of the clubhouse, but instead expand upon it — letting the children and their ‘Friends’ inform the design process directly.
In charrette number two, four more questions were posted on the wall, encouraging participants to use their full imaginations in ideating what the final project delivery should look like.
Responses to each brainstorming activity were placed on the wall with sticky notes, ultimately creating word clouds and design concepts, all of which were used to find out what the clubhouse means to the Friends of the Children-SW Washington.
Lego Charrette: Creation Stations for a Reimagined Clubhouse
After these brainstorming sessions, three groups were created for breakout sessions and assigned one of three ‘Creation Stations,’ complete with Legos to define how the pieces of the new clubhouse could potentially fit together, using the brainstorm and Otak staff to inform their design choices.
Broken into the categories, “Interiors, Adjacencies & Outdoor Spaces, and Landscape”, the Legos used at each Creation Station were strategic. Allowing the children to figuratively build their own space exposed them to the exploration of architecture and landscape architecture in a tangible, tactile way, inspiring imagination and creativity even further.
Outlining Clubhouse Site Facilities
Each of the three groups arrived at Creation Station #1 to find a 24”x24” piece of green poster paper and premade 3-dimensional shapes built with Legos that represented (to scale) the new clubhouse and other features, including the parking lot and exterior patios.
The groups were presented with the story that a big, new gym building had come down from the sky and landed in a large, grassy field (think Dorothy’s house in The Wizard of Oz). Each group’s job was to arrange the nine primary outdoor activities around the gym building.
One by one, the kids talked about where each of the functional areas should be. They sometimes explored a possibility only to discover a better location.
This exercise led them to consider what activities function well next to each other and what activities require space or separation. For instance, the children considered placing quiet activities next to quiet, noisy next to noisy. The kids were eager to add things initially overlooked, such as a pond, a basketball court, bicycle riding trails, a bicycle storage room, and a barbecue area, to name a few.
Identifying Ideal Interior Amenities
The focus then shifted to the clubhouse’s interior, and the children and their Friends were tasked with imagining the type of amenities the new clubhouse should have, either building their idea with more Legos or illustrating it.
Everything from new gaming consoles to interactive furniture to places to do homework, the children wasted no time in imagining what their space could be. Their Friends also identified needs for a coffee station, a full kitchen, a break room, and more board games. The design element is especially important here, as the needs of the organization directly informed Otak’s choices for the project for the greater community’s benefit.
Creating Outdoor Spaces
The three groups were then asked to represent their outdoor activities and desired amenities through, you guessed it, more Legos. Several children built creations that represented outdoor equipment (i.e., basketball hoop, tree house) while others created scenes that captured different activities or amenities (i.e., pond with a basketball court, a game of rock tag).
The groups were then given markers and trace paper overlaid on a large aerial photo of a potential clubhouse site. They were asked to brainstorm what types of activities they wanted to see outside the clubhouse and then identify the best locations for each. The kids discussed and made decisions as a group on where facilities or activities should be located and the spatial arrangement and relationships between them.
Some key themes emerged between both the kids and their Friends:
- Creating a ‘backyard’ for the children, Friends and community that provides different spaces, facilities and activities that evoke a sense of belonging or ownership.
- Providing a balance of loud outdoor areas and quiet spaces throughout all seasons.
- Separating activity areas to accommodate different age groups and activity types.
- Connecting indoor and outdoor spaces
- Providing access to nature and the environment through outdoor learning spaces
- Preserving friendships through outdoor art or installations that live across generations
- Establishing a safe and secure clubhouse and backyard (i.e., perimeter fencing, no pool, no trampoline)
Concluding the Design Charette: A Roundtable Discussion for Preliminary Decision Making
The final session in our second charrette with the Friends was a roundtable open discussion and preliminary decision-making process to identify the necessary spaces that would be designed in the clubhouse, and determine a sufficient square footage or size for each space.
As the group discussed each space, significant feedback from the Friends provided insight into what is needed for these spaces to function successfully, be fully utilized, and accommodate long-term growth.
Establishing Project Programming
This exercise regarding programming set the precedent for the following discussion about adjacencies and how the programming would translate into a visual spatial arrangement. As an example, the group was shown a Lego model created by the children at Creation Station #2 reflecting their thoughts on where different spaces should go and their relationship to others.
The goal was to encourage everyone to reflect on how they move and function throughout the current clubhouse and imagine their role in these new spaces, and a roundtable discussion is perfect for hashing out the multitude of ideas the children and their Friends came up with.
A Closer Look at Community-Focused Design
Throughout this unique design charrette process, community engagement and stakeholder involvement were paramount, and baked into the ideation phase seamlessly to understand the needs of Friends of the Children-SW Washington from not just an adults perspective, but from active users of the space – the children. This approach is critical to the ‘why’ of not just Otak Architecture, but Otak as a whole.
Check out more work from our architecture team, and we can’t wait to continue to report on this unique project. Thank you to Friends of the Children for having us, and we’re excited to get started!