Comparing the design charrette process to traditional project development processes for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Alaska District

Steven J. Roemhildt, P.E., Major, United States Army
Jang W. Ra, Ph.D., PMP, Associate Professor, University of Alaska Anchorage
James R. Kinney, P.E., Instructor, University of Alaska Anchorage


The U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army forces in Alaska are required to use the engineering and construction management services provided by the Corps of Engineers, Alaska District. The Alaska District is vital to military interests, and is substantially involved with civilian projects as well. The Alaska District is interested in constant and consistent improvement. One of the areas that they felt needed improving was understanding and meeting their customer's needs. In an effort to achieve this understanding, the District implemented the Design Charrette Process.

One of the prime concerns was the design process. The Alaska District's customer's design input, including the program facility requirements, budget, and schedule, would be submitted to the District on a Defense Department (DD) Form 1391. There are at least three sources of potential errors using the DD Form 1391 to define the program needs and budget. The first source is that the drafter of the DD Form 1391 does not fully, or correctly articulate the facility needs in the form. The second source is that limitations of the form itself cannot completely convey the all of the facility needs. The third source of error is that the designer does not correctly interpret the statements in the form.

However, DD 1391 was the primary means used to communicate customer wishes to the Alaska District. As a result, often the conceptual design completed to the 35% level did not fully meet the intent of the customer. The customer would demand changes that in turn required more design time and even redundant engineer effort (lost effort). Design costs rose and the design team and customer were often frustrated. Eventually, the customer would accept the conceptual design because of pressures to meet schedules and funding obligations even though they were not satisfied with the design.

The Alaska District awards project to a contractor based on a low bid. Because the design did not fully meet the customer's needs, the customer often requested changes during construction to bring the project in line with their original desires by citing changing requirements. However, the underlying reason for these changes was the misunderstanding of customer input during the original conceptual design. Costs escalated and construction time increased. Customer satisfaction with the District's services decreased. The situation got so bad across the entire Corps of Engineers that change was necessary. Major General Albert Genetti, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Director of Military Programs, directed that more emphasis be placed on establishing a better working relationship between the designer and customers. He stressed the use of teamwork to identify customer needs early in the design process. The Alaska District leadership concluded that the crises dictated a management change. The design charrette process is the Alaska District's response to this problem.

Design Charrette Process

The root of the problem can easily be traced to the designer's initial lack of understanding of the customer's desires. Moreover, the DD 1391 form was the method of communication, and was not an effective means of describing program needs, customer desires, and complex elements of a project. The customer repeatedly would try to bring the design back to his needs as it went through development, with increasing costs.

The cost of applying change to a project is lowest at the beginning. As the project progresses, the cost of change increases and gains diminishes. In the programming phase, changing the site layout may only require annotation to the design. That change results in minimal time and costs. However, after the project advances, this same site layout change affects mechanical, electrical and other architectural and engineering drawings. This change is exponentially greater than the one at the earlier programming phase. High costs and schedule delays result from scope of work changes during construction.

The design charrette addresses the problem by bringing project stakeholders together and communicating at the earliest possible time, the time when Exhibit 1 shows that the cost of change is the lowest.

The charrette process is a technique used to facilitate the creation of the Project Management Plan prepared by the District's project manager. It includes mutual decisions on major issues necessary for design such as schedules, budget and cost estimates and resource allocations. More importantly, the Project Management Plan validates the requirements of the customer. The District project manager must define the customer's requirements and confirm that the project delivery team can meet these requirements within the project's constraints. The customers are primarily concerned with quality and function. The technical decisions, cost controls and scheduling aspects are the primarily responsibility of the design team.

Exhibit 1. Normal Project Charrette Development Schedule

Normal Project Charrette Development Schedule


Participants in the charrette process must include stakeholders in the project, including the District, the customer, outside agencies and a facilitator. The District representatives should include the entire project delivery team. This design team usually consists of one representative of each applicable subdisciplines such as architectural, civil, electrical, mechanical, structural and geotechnical. The project manager usually leads the Districts delivery team. The team also includes the value engineering representative and if required, the small, disadvantage business representative. Members from construction, contracting and regulatory are part of the team.

The Base Civil Engineer or Directorate of Public Works usually represents the ultimate user of the facility. The customer's project manager usually leads this team. Additionally, important installation support elements include communication, security, and environmental. It is also highly desirable to have representation from the actual occupants or users of the project. The customer and user are usually not the same entity in military construction.

Other stakeholders may include Municipal, State or Federal regulatory and resource agencies, especially when permitting is a component of the project. The project managers may require subject matter experts to attend to add insight to the process.

A facilitator is an important element in the charrette process. The facilitator keeps the charrette on track and is required to move the process forward. A person not representing the District, the customer, or any other stakeholder best enables this process and is viewed as an impartial overseer. Usually, the District hires an independent person from a consulting firm to fulfill this duty upon approval of the main participants.

The cost estimator is a critical element of the process and, as with the facilitator, should be a third party. An impartial cost estimating consultant is hired through the same procedures as the facilitator.

The stakeholder's organization must empower their participants to make decisions at the charrette in order for the process to succeed. The decisions made by the participants are considered binding. The project manager must inform the participants on potential decisions well in advance so they can prepare adequately. The project managers also must coordinate the level of military rank to ensure fair representation and ensure overall acceptance.

Exhibit 2. Normal Project Charrette Week Activity Schedule

Normal Project Charrette Week Activity Schedule

Location and Facilities

Charrettes are typically held at the same installation that the project is located for easy access to the project site, and visits to similar facilities on the installation as well as access to specific records and data. If the project is at a remote site, the project managers may schedule the charrette at a convenient location to all participants. This location should consider feasibility of a field trip to the project site.

A workroom with tables for the participants is necessary. Ideally, an adjacent conference room is available for meetings or side-conversations. Equipment should include printers, projectors, flip charts, tack boards, copy and fax machines, CADD stations, LAN and e-mail capability, office supplies, clerical support, passes and security clearances and supplies for models as required.

Overall Timeline for the Design Charrette Process

The project managers must coordinate the charrette early for the necessary participants to schedule their time. They check installation exercises or other large events that may conflict with resources and attendance by participants. The managers will send an official message to stakeholders formalizing the charrette schedule. This message must impress the importance that the sessions are to the project's success. It is necessary to distribute schedules and project information to participants before the charrette so they will be prepared, understand the purpose and recognize the importance of the meetings.

The timeline for charrette preparation, execution and followup action extends over eight or more weeks. Exhibit 1 shows the typical time dedication for the process.

As Exhibit 1 illustrates, preparation for the conduct of the charrette occurs during the two weeks prior to the start of the charrette. The third week is the actually charrette process. The design team uses the remaining weeks to prepare the charrette documents. The design team then prepares a formal presentation approximately five weeks after the completion of the design.


The project delivery team prepares a questionnaire to understand the user's requirements for space, staffing, and equipment. The questionnaire also gathers information on priorities from the customer. The team asks for organization charts, diagrams, and matrices that show the user's functional relationships. The District project manager sends these questionnaires to the installation commander for a cover letter of endorsement. This usually ensures better return rates and provides leadership buyin for the process.

Exhibit 3. Comparison of Charrette and Non-Charrette Projects Using Engineering Parameters

Comparison of Charrette and Non-Charrette Projects Using Engineering Parameters

The design team must research industry codes and standards for the type of facility. The design team must also meet with the various installation support members. These members include the BCE/DPW, fire chief, police, communications officer, safety, environmental regulation and the ultimate user. Interviews are a good technique to use to uncover concerns or solutions that may not emerge in a larger group.

The project delivery team should visit the site about a week before the start of the charrette. The team may want to visit similar facilities at the installation or at another site especially upon the recommendation of the users. This would provide the delivery team a sense of what the customer wants.

The Charrette

The format of the charrette is not as important as the products of the charrette. The format is flexible and should have the ability to change to reflect different approaches to various obstacles or problems. The District and customer project managers must agree on the products of the charrette. The project managers mutually develop a day-to-day schedule that will ensure the creation of these products.

The size and complexity of projects require different kinds of charrettes. Most charrettes are either a normal charrette typically one week (five days) in duration, a complex charrette for difficult projects, occurring over nine days, or simple, lasting only a few days for projects that are less complex.

The purpose of the charrette is to achieve consensus on requirements and develop a schematic design. The project delivery team completes requirement analysis and finalizes space utilization. The team will then develop design alternatives. If a conflict over requirements delays the design team, the charrette could fail. However, the on-site pressure to settle requirements to allow the design team to proceed with design may often help resolve this conflict. Nevertheless, the customer and the design team must study the program documents and agree that a resolution on the requirements is possible within the first two days of the charrette.

The normal charrette week activities are shown in Exhibit 2.

The duration for a complex charrette is typically nine days. The format is similar to that of the normal charrette. However, the complex charrette is more encompassing. The participants encounter a more intense schedule, as they are required to work through the weekend. The project managers usually do not schedule a break because after action review found that sometimes the project focus is lost. The structure of the complex charrette divides the process into a more structured requirement analysis and design phase. This type of charrette is less risky than a normal charrette since the participants conduct the analysis in conjunction with the design. However, a complex charrette is more expensive and time consuming. If the customer is comfortable with the level of requirement analysis, the entire duration may focus on the design phase.

A small programmed amount or previously performed design work characterizes simple charrette projects. If the project is small and simple, a charrette that last only part of a week is more appropriate. The events discussed with the normal charrette are all likely to be included in a simple charrette. The events just take less time so the project managers compress the duration into one or two days instead of five.

Exhibit 4. Comparison of Charrette and Non-Charrette Projects Using Construction Parameters

Comparison of Charrette and Non-Charrette Projects Using Construction Parameters

Some of the work products and resolved issues from the charrette may include the Site Development Plan, Furniture and Equipment Layouts, Building Area Tabulations, Exterior Elevations, Building Sections, Design Criteria and Selected Building Systems Narrative, Schematic Floor Plans, Operability and Maintainability Report, Environmental Checklist, and a Cost Estimate.

Post-Charrette Activities

During the two weeks that follow the charrette, the design team finishes the work products. Other charrette products include the first draft of the executive summary and Project Management Plan for the final partnering agreement, value engineering report and the project engineering report. Each one of these products is extensive and unique to the individual project. However, each charrette will create these same products. The design team delivers these products at different time frames.

The Project Management Plan contains the documented scope of work, the preliminary budget and all cost estimates. It also provides a process to incorporate change during upcoming design and construction phases. This process defines how each party can present or request change. Additionally, it describes what level of approval is required for the approval of this change. This is an important concept as it can eliminate unnecessary change due to whims and personal preference. The Project Management Plan also contains information unique to each project describing items as work breakdown structure, real estate planning and environmental compliance plans. These sections contain plans on how the District or customer will addressed these various issues. Finally, the Project Management Plan depicts the project organization, including relationships of the design charrette participants.

The Value Engineering Report contains the final version of the Executive Summary/Partnering agreement. The design team prepares this report submits to the customer approximately two weeks after the completion of the charrette. It contains all the information previously described; however, the format is more formal. It is a formal documentation of the charrette containing the partnering agreement, the Project Management Plan, the design charrette out brief, all supporting data and value engineering documentation. The value engineering report lists proposals discussed, and those implemented with associated savings.

The design team prepares and submits the Project Engineer Report approximately four weeks after the completion of the charrette. This report contains the formal drawings and engineering solutions for the project. This report does not constitute a formal 35% design as per Corps of Engineers definition. However, this report takes the place of the 35% design in that it receives customer approval for the continuation of design. The actual report may contain a design that is more or less resembles 35% design.

This report contains an updated DD Form 1391, which reflects changes to scope of work and the budget resulting from the charrette. The essential element of the report is the concept drawings and the basis of design.

Charrette Projects vs. Non-Charrette Projects

Parameter Comparison

An analysis was performed comparing the engineering and construction parameters of charrette projects to non-charrette projects. Engineering parameters included cost index (actual cost less lost effort / budgeted cost), design time (days per $1000 of Programmed Amount), reduction in lost effort (cost spent on obsolete design) and increases in value engineering (savings proposed and accepted in design). The construction parameters include cost growth (final cost compared to awarded amount), completion time, and cost value of user requests.

Exhibit 3 below summarizes the engineering parameters for design charrette and non-charrette projects, values, and whether the difference is statistically significant using p-value, or probability of a type 1 error (rejecting null hypothesis when null hypothesis is actually true) was set at 0.10 (10%). Charrette process values that are bolded and italicized indicate that they statistically significantly more favorable than traditional process values. When all projects are reviewed, charrette projects show a statistically significant lower cost index, less design time, reduction in lost effort, and increase in value engineering. The parameters that are not significant within project cost categories (<$12 million, >$12 million) are because of the smaller population sizes.

There was not enough data to perform statistical significance tests for construction parameters. Exhibit 4 shows construction parameters for charrette and non-charrette projects.

Customer Satisfaction

Probably the most significant indicator of the difference made by charrettes has been the reaction of the Alaska District customers. Customer satisfaction is an intangible but valuable benefit of the charrette process. The customer feels like they are an essential part of the team and they actively participate in the design formulation.

The District sends surveys to their customers each year. The survey asks the customer to rate the District's performance on a 1 (Low) to 5 (High) in 29 areas of project execution. The Alaska District began extensively using design charrettes in 1996, so any perceived customer satisfaction effects from charrettes would be evident beginning with the 1997 survey. The Alaska District found that their satisfaction level averages increased from 3.26 in 1996 to 3.96 in 1997 and finally at 3.82 in 1998. Overall the Corps of Engineers on the whole had an average of about 3.75 for the three years from 1996 to 1998.

While the results of the survey do not prove that the design charrette process directly contributed to the higher customer satisfaction levels, they do indicate that something happened between the years of 1996 and 1997 that positively influenced the Alaska Districts customer's perception of the Districts performance. The Alaska District leadership believes that the charrette process raised customer satisfaction.


The charrette fulfills its intended purpose in delighting the customer, empowering employees, reducing cost, and improving quality. The Alaska District uses the charrette to revolutionize effectiveness in producing quality goods and services to the Nation and to the U.S. Army. The charrette process is a valuable and efficient technique in producing a quality design. There is not enough data available to make an analysis on the charrettes effect on actual construction. Initial indications show that there is indeed a positive effect; however, small data size prohibits statistical analysis of these effects.


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Department of the Army, ER 5–7-1(FR). (1992, September). Project management.

Park, Richard J. (1999). Value engineering. New York: St. Lucie Press.

Richardson, Terry L. (1997). Total quality management. New York: Delmar Publishers.

Roemhildt, Steven J., & Ra, Jang W. (1999). Quantifying the design charrette process. ESM 684 Report. University of Alaska Anchorage.

USACE. (1997, May). Strategic vision.

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Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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