A Common Sense Approach to Design
If you have never participated in a design charrette, then you have missed one of the most innovative decision-making processes.
"Common sense is not so common." While Voltaire
may not have had design and engineering in mind when he coined that phrase, it
still applies. When it comes to preliminary designing and engineering of
wastewater facilities, that application could not be starker. It might seem
like common sense to have owners and users integrally involved in the
preliminary design process, but that is the exception, not the rule. However,
some pioneering architecture and engineering firms are changing all of that.
Best of all, this process can be applied in the water and wastewater
"The best facilities are the ones that are designed
hand-in-hand with the owner," said Mark Ellis, senior project manager for
the Maintenance Design Group (MDG). "It makes perfect sense. They are the
ultimate user and it is their dime. As designers, we walk away and move onto
another project. We don't live in that facility everyday. They do. So
they should have intense, valuable input into the design."
"Now that sounds like a great marketing
strategy--and it is--but it also is a working philosophy,"
Ellis said, "and it serves a very real purpose: we bring our expertise to
the client's facility and incorporate their individual and specific needs
during an open and evolving forum. We don't design anything in a vacuum.
We work with the owner's people--the end users--to address
issues up front and make more options available to owners in a faster and less
Creating an Ideal Facility
Ellis and his MDG team recently applied this philosophy for
the Town of Windsor, Calif., Corporation Yard. The planned facility is located
on 10 acres at the Town's wastewater processing facility. Deploying a
wide number of innovative planning techniques, the team incorporated
considerable owner input throughout the design process, culminating in two
four-day, onsite design charrettes. Ellis believes that the charrette approach
(a process where the design team essentially brings a complete design studio to
an owner's facility for an extended, integrative design session) not only
saved money, it further empowered the Town's staff to create their ideal
"Everyone has preconceived notions of how they want a
facility to look and function," Ellis said. "In Windsor, we went
through the charrette process and it changed everyone's mind quite a
A great example is the overall architectural design and the
highly functional and flexible layout of the various buildings and yard
elements. Traditionally, corporation yards are industrial in nature with
limited opportunity for "curb appeal." For Windsor, putting
aesthetically pleasing structures on the recently improved Windsor Road was as
important to the Town Council as the function of the yard was to the public
"During the charrette, we showed the Town staff how to
achieve the design goal and still get the ideal facility from a functional
standpoint," Ellis said. Also, due to funding constraints, the Town
needed to phase the Corporation Yard development. This presented an additional
set of issues to the design team.
"Although we were developing concepts based on a
campus approach, which typically is the best if we know going in that we will
need to phase the development, in this case we needed to be able to phase the
construction of individual structures and still accommodate the projected
growth within spaces that were being designed with specific functions in
The charrette process allowed the design team and the Town
to explore numerous phasing options and building configurations very quickly,
efficiently and successfully. The final challenge for the design team was the
existing wastewater plant operation.
"We had to incorporate the daily operation of the
wastewater processing plant and design around the various large infrastructure
components already in place," Ellis said. "The plant also had its
own plans for expansion in the proposed Corporation Yard site. So, during the
charrette we brought in a wastewater plant design expert to provide input on an
effective plant expansion plan that could work with the various Corporation
Yard concepts we were developing."
"In addition, we were able to provide the Town with conceptual
master plans for adjacent properties that included a new Fire Station and an
alternative learning center for the new High School. It's not difficult
to get people involved in the process when it's going to be their new
facility," Ellis said. "In this particular instance, we were faced
with a number of challenging design and functional issues and were able to
address them all and still provide the Town with their ideal facility.
That's exactly why we go through this process."
Steve Silkworth, MDG senior project manager, believes that
the onsite design charrette may be the single most important innovation for
creating facilities that truly serve their owners' needs.
"Unless someone is constantly involved in design work,
it's very difficult for them to look at a space needs program (basically
a spreadsheet with room names and dimensions) and truly understand what those
numbers mean in a real physical sense," he said. "The charrettes
not only deepen that understanding, they make the whole design process more
Essentially, the design process is a series of review
meetings during which the client has the opportunity to choose the best from
the best. Each day the designer comes back with different revisions, solving
problems, adding options, addressing concerns. There is never an ideal site or
set of conditions that address site issues and conditions. Charrettes
illustrate how the design process evolves and builds consent among all
Speeding Up the Design Process
While providing a more tailored facility for the client, the
single greatest advantage of a charrette is speed. Rather than a design team
presenting drawings, hearing feedback, going back to the drawing board, then
returning weeks later with revised drawings, the charrette facilitates actual
design changes in immediate, real time.
For example, if a client wants a control room center to be
in one particular spot, the design team can try that action and see if it fits
in with the rest of the plan. If it doesn't, they'll propose
another solution and try that configuration instantly. Gaining input from all
concerned parties, the team irons out the design in days instead of weeks or
months. There are a whole host of intangible benefits as well.
By working closely with all of the future stakeholders in a
facility, a design team observes subtleties and preferences that would normally
go unnoticed and incorporates them easily into the design. In addition, because
the charrette is usually done onsite, anyone can be brought in by the owner to
offer their opinion. Lloyd Mack, general superintendent of light rail
operations for Denver's RTD, provides a perfect illustration.
"I had a question about railings," he said.
"I wanted to know what would work best on the work floor. So, I went onto
the floor and pulled one of our mechanics into the charrette. First of all, he
was shocked--no one had ever asked him about design before. Then something
incredible happened. He offered the best perspective we could have gotten on
how those railings are used everyday. It never had occurred to us to ask him or
someone in his position before. It just never would have happened without the
charrette. Now that mechanic feels tremendous ownership in our new
Mack also found another advantage to the charrette. He got
to find out what everybody's needs were. This included groups such as
facility maintenance, communications and computers that Mack had no idea what
their working concerns were. It also gave him a chance to know each group
"Traditionally, many of their concerns were
afterthoughts; we weren't addressing their needs in the facility design.
Now they've got what they need to do their job and they, too, are
invested emotionally in the new building," Mack said. "I
can't think of a single project where the charrette approach
wouldn't help. This was the first charrette I've ever experienced,
but you better believe that I'm going to insist on them from here on
Owner Participation Is Invaluable
The charrette approach is only part of an entire,
integrative philosophy of incorporating owner and user input into the initial
decision-making process. From identifying key design features particular to
individual owners' needs to the application of current equipment and
technology to touring existing facilities, the operative concept that separates
this process from the traditional modality is the early and valued inclusion of
the owner and end user as a resource and valued participant in the design
process. Their recognized input in that design process (as opposed to only
learning their desires from a Request for Proposal and a series of meetings)
serves to reduce the amount of time and rework inherent in the traditional
Understanding the concept is one thing. Expressing it to owners
unfamiliar with the approach can be quite another. At first, many owners are
skeptical. The process is unfamiliar and many have never been asked in working
detail what they want. However, Ellis believes that the concept can be
explained clearly by pointing out how the integrative approach takes the
traditional approach and "folds it into itself."
The integrative approach also can save time and money. It is
easier and more feasible to change one's mind at the beginning of the
process. Changes at the end of the process are expensive and difficult. Change
orders and RFIs are very costly and do not enable the best designs.
"By incorporating dynamic input from the owner at the
beginning of the process, we're folding the change-order and RFI process
into programming and conceptual design. For example, we can compress two or
three months of conceptual design into a two-week session. That's a more
effective way to design and construct a facility and to ensure that owners and
users get exactly what they want," Ellis said.
Common sense can never be overrated. Yet as Voltaire
admonished, it is often the exception and not the rule. However, for owners who
have experienced the benefits of the integrative design approach, common sense
is fast becoming the rule for designing their maintenance facilities.