Charrettes: Laying the foundation for project success

Middle East District
Published March 18, 2010

Mark Curry, center, an architect in Engineering Division, has participated in charrettes to Afghanistan. USACE photo.

If a successful project begins with a good plan, then how important is it for an organization to accomplish its planning for projects located thousands of miles away in foreign countries and often in warzones?

The Army Corps of Engineers conducts charrettes as a standard practice for project planning and preparation, which sends teams comprised of personnel with specialized skills from various internal divisions to a proposed project site. What makes the Middle East District unique is that its charrettes occur in many of the 20 countries within the U.S. Central Command area of operations, far from the district’s Winchester, Va., headquarters.

Middle East District charrette members make their way through the Afghanistan sand to visit a potential project site. Photo by Joseph Zaraszczak, Middle East District.

There are primarily two types of charrettes: planning and design.

Planning charrettes are conducted in the formulative stage for projects identified in the Future Years Defense Program. The purpose is to identify and resolve issues of standardization, functionality, location, scope, and cost that might affect execution of the project.

“A planning charrette provides an initial assessment of the project,” said Robert E. Schaible, chief, Military Construction (MILCON) Branch. “We gather sufficient information to accurately program the funding of a project.”

The planning phase largely concentrates on the broad scope of work, such as visiting project sites, developing rough floor plans, or assessing airfield pavement requirements. This generally results in an improved DD Form 1391, which outlines the scope of work, said Roger Vogler, chief of Engineering Division. This effort also ensures that all of the necessary elements of a project are included with their associated costs. Projects that don’t include a planning charrette almost always have a square footage designation that cannot be sustained by the programmed amount because associated systems have not been accounted for.

Design charrettes involve a process where designers, users and an installation’s decision makers come together and focus their input on the design of a specific project. This process maximizes the customer’s access to the designer and the designer’s access to both the site and the installation during design development.

According to Corps of Engineers guidance, the benefits of a design charrette are significant. The design team receives functional information from the customer and installation personnel, so more alternatives can be explored, resulting in the best possible design solution. The result is more accurately defined project design and construction schedules and more effective cost management through reduced lost design and construction changes.

Joseph Zaraszczak, chief, Afghanistan Branch, works during a stop in Kuwait while participating in an Afghanistan charrette.
“We really want to refine the scope at this stage,” said Philip Dinello, deputy chief, Engineering Division. “Basically, design charrettes gather sufficient details and criteria required to produce the initial project design.”

Each charrette commonly includes a project manager and one of each from the various disciplines in Engineering Division: architect, estimator, and mechanical, electrical, and civil engineers. Engineering Division logged approximately 5,000 man-hours performing charrettes in fiscal year 2009.

Of eight project managers in the Afghanistan Branch, six have been part of a planning or design team and a seventh is scheduled for the next design charrette in April. Three project managers from the MILCON Branch have experience leading charrettes and a fourth is scheduled to visit Afghanistan in May. These charrette veterans claim the experience is invaluable.

“During each trip to Afghanistan, I learn something new that helps in preparing for the next one,” said Chris Campbell, a project manager in the Afghanistan Branch.

“I have learned a lot from the charrettes I’ve led,” added Janet Rigoni, a MILCON project manager. “For example, one of my projects involved a maintenance facility for reconnaissance aircraft repair. Although the user’s function was to maintain aircraft, their ultimate goal was to assure each mission was successful. This meant that the design team not only needed to understand what the mechanics required to perform their jobs, but what the pilots needed as well. By spending a few hours watching a launch preparation, the team was able to provide a more well thought out design.”

Occasionally, MED will enlist engineers from other Corps districts to participate in a charrette. For instance, a fuels project or a port study may benefit from having an individual with that particular expertise on the team. According to Vogler, architect-engineer firms also provide representatives for the team when MED cannot fill a slot with one of its own people, due to his division’s work load at the time.

There is an old proverb that states, “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” This is certainly true for those leading charrettes in a warzone, where often the most important lessons are learned through trials and hardships.

“The key to a successful charrette is proper planning long before the team even arrives in country,” said Joseph Zaraszczak, chief, Afghanistan Branch. “Having the right stakeholders involved is also critical.”

“Logistics,” emphasized Mike Dubois, a project manager in the Afghanistan Branch who conducted a planning charrette last summer. “It is the key to success and everything associated with it. The challenges in that environment are endless, from being able to travel to your destination to having all the appropriate representatives present and engaged in discussions.”

“Logistics can be frustrating,” agreed Campbell. “Even securing lodging and conference rooms are challenges. The resources are hard to obtain due to the massive number of personnel on the main installations in Afghanistan.

“Planning for and leading a charrette is quite intense and involves a significant coordination effort,” continued Campbell. “Participation from all the project stakeholders is imperative if the charrette is to be a success. Getting these people together may be the single most daunting task, but it is also very rewarding when it happens.”

Regardless of the location – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Iraq or Afghanistan – everyone involved agrees that spending time with the project users is essential.

“Having boots on the ground and face time with the users are invaluable,” said Dubois. “Emails and teleconferences just don’t cut it. There is no substitute for living and breathing with those who will ultimately benefit from the concerted efforts of the team.”

“Meeting users and establishing relationships always provide more incentive,” added Rigoni. “It’s easy to sit behind a desk and push around paperwork or email for ‘another project.’ When you meet the guy who is actually working in the Middle East summer heat and simply wants a maintenance facility with air conditioning, it inspires you to work that much harder to get your projects awarded on time.”

While the concept is simple – face-to-face communication and relationship building contribute to the successful planning, design and completion of projects – the practice can prove more difficult. Traveling long distances and being away from home for up to a month can take its toll, and the sacrifices of those who put themselves in harm’s way to make life a little better for our service members and civilians serving in warzones cannot be forgotten. However, MED’s engineers, project managers, construction personnel and contract managers know very well that charrettes are necessary.

“From a mission perspective, the charrette is probably the most important aspect of project development during the pre-award stage,” said Campbell, who led a planning charrette at Kandahar Airfield last summer and is scheduled to participate in a design charrette in April. “It is during this time that the details of the project scope are discussed and confirmed by the customer. A successful charrette usually leads to a successful project.”

Last year, both the Afghanistan and MILCON Branches had three significant efforts. While both are planning a charrette for this spring, Schaible and Zaraszczak believe the frequency of these efforts will be unpredictable beyond that. One thing is certain though, MED will continue its work in the area of operations. And, as long as there is work to be done, MED personnel will travel great distances and dedicate the time and effort to conduct charrettes and achieve project success.