Working as a Charrette Landscape Architect, Part 2

by Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP

Interdisciplinary team members at work in a charrette studio
In a charrette studio, team members from different firms and disciplines mix up and work at tables together. / image: Daniel Ashworth

Part 2: The Studio, Tools, and Lessons Learned

In part one of this series, I introduced and described the charrette concept and talked about its benefits for larger planning projects. In this post, I would like to get into what the design studio looks like, how to set up a studio space, the tools you should and could bring, and some lessons learned.

The Studio

A charrette studio is normally set up as a series of tables, most of which are working tables for team members to sit with their computers and/or drawing tools. The first things normally identified are the electrical outlet locations, as that has the biggest impact on table locations. There is usually a large table dedicated to layout/team gathering discussions or large drawings and models. One or two tables are also set up either on one side or around the corner from the charrette studio to have the technical committees and stakeholder meetings. And finally, there is usually a wall that is kept blank for pinups or to be projected on for a slideshow.

As the charrette is in progress, it is always good practice to cover up the walls with base maps and images and then replace those with each day’s production as the charrette progresses. This helps the design team find information for their work quickly, and also helps to show the public that work is occurring. When we can’t have the studio on the physical site, we have rented bicycles for team members to get to the site, and usually someone on the design team rents a car.

Charrettes are often about being nimble and testing out different ideas quickly, while making sure to not be too married to a single one. The more options, the better. / image: Daniel Ashworth

The Tools

The items needed on a charrette can vary based on the project type and the team’s skills. Computers are a must, at the very least to assemble slides and start assembling the charrette or master plan report. Along with that is the need for several multi-plugged surge protectors and then having someone on the team bring a projector. Outside of drawing tools, the other helpful items are flipcharts, easels, keypad polling devices (if public preference voting is not being done with sticky dots or by smartphones), blank foamcore boards, a roll of butcher paper for big ideas note taking and idea wall public engagement, and trace paper in various sizes for drawing media. It also helps to have printed aerials and base maps at various workable scales with at least two copies at each scale.

For drawing tools, many designers working mostly by hand, like myself, bring a charrette bag. For me, this usually includes thicker felt pens (Sign Pens and Sharpies) and Micron pens of various sizes with multiple backups in case one or two of them dry out or get messed up by air pressure changes on the plane. I also bring a couple of mechanical pencils which I mostly use to rough in drawings before quickly going to ink. I also bring a collection of Chartpak AD markers in the colors I use most, and I find it helpful to rubberband the color families together to keep track of the markers while I am rendering quickly. I do not bother with this on shorter workshops (less than 3 days) as for those I have a box of about a dozen most-used marker colors. I also do not bother with colored pencils, either; this medium is too slow for charrettes. I usually bring a rolling ruler, engineering and architectural scales (or a metric scale if in Canada or overseas), triangles, and circle templates as well.

Lessons Learned

It is my belief that many landscape designers are not adequately prepared to work well in the charrette environment unless they interned at a charrette-based design firm while in school, or started their career in such a firm. To perform well at a charrette, a landscape architect needs to be nimble and able to think quickly on their feet and to be able to produce fast graphics that communicate well. They also need to know when to lean in and just get stuff done, and not worry so much about getting it right on the first shot. In charrettes led by architects and urban designers, you often have to elbow your way in and create your own space to show what you bring to the table—making the spaces between the buildings an asset by making them people places with a sense of place—and showing that graphically.

My workshop space at the office, which I usually emulate while traveling on charrette. / image: Daniel Ashworth

One of the early mistakes I made in my charrette graphics work was to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Charrettes are all about getting quick ideas down as legibly as possible. There is little time to perfect things, and ultimately, the “mistakes” become part of the art form of the graphics. Designers on charrettes have to learn to loosen up and let the ink or computer linework flow and realize cleanup and corrections can happen at the office after the charrette is over. Working in SketchUp, Adobe Illustrator, and Photoshop is not immune to this tendency either.

Another issue I have seen on charrettes is a designer can get so married to an idea or concept and they can get thrown off their game if it gets rejected by the public or stakeholders. A good way around this is to test early concepts in multiple “fat pen” diagrams (or in bold lines and colors if done on a computer), quick plans, or cross sections and then present those early on at a public drop-in meeting before developing one idea further.

These two images are of a pinup wall of the day’s production at a small area charrette in Memphis. We usually have a public-invited pinup of progress at the end of each day in a charrette. / image: Daniel Ashworth

There are workshops out there that can be helpful for a landscape architect interested in charrettes. A popular one is James Richards’ Sketchbook workshops that has scheduled sessions and provides on-site training as well. Another phenomenon surfacing in the last few years is Urban Sketchers groups that have organized organically in many cities. Joining or starting a local group in your city may prove beneficial to your charrette graphics and production. Watching online videos and tutorials of other designers drawing and generating graphics can also be a helpful tool.

I hope this two-part series of my perspective as a landscape architect working in multi-disciplinary design charette teams is helpful for those working in or interested in charrettes. In this environment, graphics and analysis exhibits are drawn up quickly and a landscape architect working in the charrette process has to keep up with the flow of things and stay on top of production tasks, especially as things change with public input. Hopefully as a result of this series, more landscape architects improve their graphics skills and take steps to participate in, and even lead, more design charrettes.

Daniel Ashworth, Jr., PLA, ASLA, AICP, is a Senior Associate Landscape Architect in Alta Planning + Design’s Memphis office and Co-Chair of the ASLA Urban Design Professional Practice Network (PPN). He holds degrees in landscape architecture from Mississippi State University (B.L.A.) and the University of Pennsylvania (M.L.A.). He is a certified planner and licensed landscape architect in five states (AL, AR, FL, SC, and TN). Daniel’s 15 years of professional experience include comprehensive and master planning, site design, urban design, planting design, construction documents, and construction observation and administration. When away from work, he enjoys time with family, running and biking in parks and trails, and going to music concerts and festivals.

Daniel will be speaking at the 2019 ASLA Conference on Landscape Architecture in San Diego on the session FRI-A10 – Manassas Street, A Tactical and Artistic Urban Street Transformation in Memphis, taking place Friday, November 15, 1:30 – 3:00 PM.

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