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Class Act

The Architectural Charrette Team aims to bridge the gap between high-end design and production building.
By Hadiya Strasberg

Charrettes are nothing new to New Urbanist planning and design firms – the collaborative workshops are now verging on becoming ubiquitous. But charrettes are a new concept to most production homebuilders. Now, the rec-ently founded Architectural Charrette Team (ACT) aims to change that.

In the fall of 2005, Geoffrey Mouen, principal and owner of Celebration, FL-based Geoffrey Mouen Architects, developed a series of architectural design charrettes aimed at production builders. ACT is intended to simplify and accelerate the design process, with the goal of increasing the number of Traditional Neighborhood Developments (TNDs) in the United States.

Development
The idea for ACT came to Mouen during a schematic design charrette for the Dallas, TX-based production homebuilder Centex Homes, Inc. "While I was the principal planner for Randal Park [in Orlando, FL], I was trying to figure out how to develop the architecture for the company," Mouen recalls. "The standard process involves writing architectural code, going through the architectural review committee and paying designers individually. But Centex didn’t want to go through any of those steps and, because it is used to having only one or two house types per development, it wasn’t prepared to work on the project in-house."

Mouen realized that the system needed to be revised to satisfy his client. "We talked about doing another charrette to take it to the next level, to convert the drawings to CAD," he says. He formed ACT, a "virtual corporation" of architects and designers from all over the U.S. who produce the entire project in a series of charrettes. This way, Mouen is able to draw from a growing talent pool of traditional designers. He bases the makeup of his team upon the development’s location. "We ask architects to participate depending on their expertise," he says. "If the project is in Georgia, it makes sense to have a professional who specializes in that region’s architecture."

While speed is a key aspect of any charrette, ACT’s charrette schedule is compressed into an even shorter period of time than many others. The process consists of three charrettes that take place over a 20- to 30-day period. "It can sometimes take upwards of 30 days," Mouen explains, "because we need to allow time in between charrettes to review, download and analyze the drawings and let the clients review them internally. We have added a few more interim workshops."

Design and Documentation
For any given development, ACT conducts three charrettes: schematic design (SD), design development (DD) and construction documentation (CD). During these sessions, architectural plans and elevations are designed and the CAD versions are produced. Not only is ACT generating construction documents, but it is also using the builder’s CAD templates to standardize them.

A pre-charrette workshop with builders and developers gets the ball rolling. ACT participants study the urban plan, photograph houses in the surrounding neighborhoods and research local historic books and pattern books to determine a regional architectural vernacular. "We also listen to the developer and the marketers," says Mouen. "We listen to the builders and learn how they can build."

During the SD charrette, a four- to five-day session, four to six architects analyze the programs and design houses. Similar to other charrettes, this requires long hours, pin-ups, a final presentation and a review. "We do pin-ups around lunchtime and hold a presentation to involve all of the necessary people," Mouen explains.

Each architect generates about one house with one elevation per day; in total, the architects design approximately 20 to 25 residential plans and alternate elevations, or about 75 homes, when combined over the week. The drawings are stacked in a designated area below each person’s name and by the end of the charrette, "the entire conference room, plus the studios, is filled with the designs," says Mouen. "This way, everyone can view them and we can easily track what’s going on."

Before the next charrette, the DD, an SD follow-up is arranged, in which the builder analyzes and reassesses the existing designs. A DD prep workshop also precedes the DD charrette. More professionals become involved during the DD; ten to fifteen CAD draftsmen and consultants are added to the original team. "We add additional people to the formula," says Mouen, "including draftsmen, structural and mechanical engineers and anybody else that the developer wants to bring in." Each architect is paired with a draftsman or two, and together they work on the plans from the previous charrette. The house plans are scanned into computers and the draftsmen work with the files, while the architects tweak the designs. This charrette is performed in two five-day sessions.

The DD charrette is "more difficult than the SD charrette," says Mouen. "We have to not only carry the design forward – improve it, answer the builder’s questions – but we also have to orchestrate the production of it, which is complex." The plans, elevations, sections and details are circulated so that the engineers can advise and contribute. Working from the builder’s CAD template, the draftsmen then create CAD documents.

A DD follow-up and CD prep workshop are next. The CD charrette is comprised of the same people, but is shorter than the DD. In five days, the finishing touches are added and more CAD documents are drawn. "No design work is happening anymore," says Mouen. "We are purely adding dimensions, notes and finishing details to produce a full set of construction documents."

As for the work approach, Mouen says, "The format for the CD charrette is quite different. We turn our office into a factory setting and run the houses through a system like a machine. This way, all of the standards are the same and redundancies and checks are eliminated." One or two people work on the dimensioning; the notations, load calculations, electrical plans and other documents are created by other people, depending on their specialties. At the end of the DD, and a subsequent CD mock-up review, between 20 and 30 CAD plans and elevations for each house are presented to the builder or developer.

The design review process is simplified, because it is held during the charrette and is only reviewed by the builders, not an entire team of government officials, local citizens, public and private interest groups and builders. These time-saving aspects are huge selling points. "We save a lot of time – at Randal Park, we saved the builder about six months," says Mouen. "This translates into lower costs, which clients love."

ACT also offers general cost savings compared with the conventional method of designing a large development. The SD charrette can cost between $50,000 and $75,000, depending on the number and complexity of the house designs. The DD and CD charrettes charge by product. Each design is about $4,000 or $5,000. For instance, for a development of 2,000 units, the builder may want 100 plans. In this case, it will cost $10,000 per plan for a total of $1 million. Broken down, each unit ends up costing the builder only $500.

"No architectural code is required and there is no pattern book to create," says Mouen. A town architect is unnecessary, though ACT recommends that one of its team members be on site to supervise construction.

Of the many advantages to the production homebuilder in utilizing ACT’s charrette system, two stand out: ACT produces more housing types than are designed for a conventional development and not only does the team produce construction documents, but they are also based on the builder’s CAD standards. "All of the windows, doors, showers – all of the things that are found in houses – are easily plugged in exactly as the builder wants them," says Mouen.

TNDs
ACT has conducted charrettes for a few new TNDs and has more projects in the works. The firm has been hired by Centex for three developments to date, and is currently working with Washington, DC-based Somerset Development Company and Lowder New Homes of Montgomery, AL.

With each project, Mouen needs to be firm about the type of architecture he designs. "Production builders generally jazz up the front elevation so that they can sell the plan on paper," he says. In a TND, however, the elevations, the massing and the detailing are usually very simple, because, Mouen says, "it’s more about the streetscape than about individual houses. The environment is more cohesive and coherent when the architecture is calmed down and the elevations are well composed." He adds that he will only work on good New Urbanist developments. "We design only traditional houses. We are getting efficient at designing them."

It is also important to take things slowly with the builders at the start of a project. "There is a lot of hand-holding in the beginning," says Mouen. Because the team is targeting builders who are new to New Urbanism, ACT ends up teaching an NU101 course. "We often have to educate the builders and negotiate the design of the buildings and how they are going to look," says Mouen. "This means making sure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to the quality of details, materials and mobility of the bui-lder’s construction team.

"The builder knows that the market for TNDs is strong," he says, "but doesn’t know how to translate that into tangible housing." Much of it boils down to fear of doing something unfamiliar, and the cost involved when changing plans. In fact, on the first project on which ACT worked, Randal Park, Centex had originally wanted to create a typical suburban development with its existing home plans, but the City of Orlando required a TND on that site. "The government and ACT got Centex to change its product," Mouen says.

During the SD charrette, held for five days in September 2005, a "St. Augustine-like" Spanish Colonial style was chosen for Randal Park's 90 buildings and ten house types were designed. They include a carriage house on a 42x42-ft. lot, a live/work unit with a convertible first floor, both large- and medium-sized detached houses and different town houses in widths of 16, 18, 20, 22 and 36 ft. ACT convinced the builder to have three to four typical house designs and to intersperse the large detached homes with these. This way, the development maintains a mix of people in regards to economic class and the "mansions" become more special, because they are rarer.

It is at this stage or during the DD pre-charrette that the materials are identified. "Before we start the DD process, we have to know which windows, doors and exterior materials the builder wants to use," says Mouen. "We want to draw the windows, doors and everything else only once, because it is a lot of work and time consuming to redraw them even in CAD." ACT has negotiated with the builder when it comes to materials, choosing quality and style appropriateness, but doesn’t always get its way. Due to either financial reasons or because the builder has an established relationship with a company, ACT has lost the fight over materials more than once.

In December 2005, about 15 houses were designed in the DD charrette. The first floors are masonry and the second floors have wood frames. "We identified how they were going to be built structurally," says Mouen, "and then detailed them."

The construction documents were completed at the CD charrette in March 2006. "The CD took longer than we had originally figured," Mouen explains, "because two people on our team had other last-minute engagements. We were also held back because we hadn’t done enough in the DD charrette. Since then, we have modified our process a bit."

Another development ACT is working on is Wesmont Station in Wood-bridge, NJ, a brownfield project currently under development by Somerset. With illustrious New Urbanist beginnings – Duany Plater-Zyberk & Company (DPZ) of Miami, FL, designed the town and New York City-based Marianne Cusato is the town architect – ACT was brought on in April 2006 to design the architecture. "We’ve been working with DPZ for a while," says Mouen, "and have done the SD and DD charrette already." He adds, "We love following Andrés [Duany, of DPZ] around and designing buildings for his developments, because so much has already been carefully considered."

Another Somerset community that ACT may work on soon is Hudson, located in Esopus, NY, on the Hudson River. ACT is in discussion with another production homebuilder, Lowder New Homes, regarding the TND Hempstead in Montgomery, AL. The pre-charrette planning has been completed and ACT is scheduling the SD charrette.

Recycling
ACT’s process works well for production homebuilders partly because they end up owning the charrette-produced documents. However, Mouen makes it clear that each set of documents is specific to the community for which it was designed. This means that the builder is held liable, "but we maintain authorship of it," he says. Thus, if a builder moves on to a new development, the company would need to pay ACT royalties, in effect, to reuse the old documents if it so chooses.

Most builders don’t take issue with this. "Builders would rather reuse the product they already have than change it," says Mouen. "Otherwise, they would need to re-price the houses internally and relearn how to build them, which is much more expensive than having us design something from scratch." ACT charges a market rate for reuse.

Mouen says that it is important to give companies this option, but that he would prefer that ACT be rehired to do another project in a different language. "I enjoy the fact that we can plug in the product we have already designed, but I want to keep the design process going," he says. "We’re the easy button. It eliminates so much work for them and brings good traditional design to companies that would normally shy away."

Mouen adds that there is no issue regarding the inappropriate reuse of ACT’s designs. The builders are market driven and know that products change from region to region. "The developer is making the call to redesign the product for each region, due to the market analysis," says Mouen. "We design regionally and they purchase accordingly."

ACT’s own marketing is less than precise in comparison to that of production homebuilders, but the company is getting plenty of work just the same. Word-of-mouth seems to be the best advertising. Mouen has also presented ACT at Con-gress for the New Urbanism (CNU) and Urban Land Institute (ULI) seminars.

ACT has performed quite a feat by encouraging large production homebuilders to create New Urbanist developments. "I’m interested in raising the quality of work of production builders," says Mouen. "I think our work effort is geared towards making people’s lives better by increasing the quality. It’s the biggest challenge that New Urbanism has."  

 

 

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