What’s a Charrette?

Two years ago, I was interviewing for an internship with the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast. The director at the time was telling me about the organization’s workforce housing design charrettes.

A what? What’s a charrette?

Luckily, it was a phone interview, so I whip open my laptop and quickly Google “charrette” while she is talking. Today I am the director of the Coalition and I am the one muddying things up with jargon and niche acronyms. So, here I am answering the number one question I get during my day-to-day, “what’s a charrette?” I almost didn’t write this piece. I wasn’t convinced the Stay Work Play blog was the best place for this discussion.

Until I attended Stay Work Play’s event NH Next: A Summit for Young Changemakers in mid-April. During a small group discussion about housing affordability, it became apparent that young people not only need, but also want, to know about the resources available to their communities for tackling the issue of housing affordability – and other issues, too. 

So, What is a Charrette?

The French word “charrette” literally translated means “cart,” referring to the use of a cart in 19th-century Paris to collect architecture students work on the day of an exhibition. According to Google, we now use it to refer to a “meeting in which all stakeholders in a project attempt to resolve conflicts and map solutions.”

Put simply, a charrette is fancy word for a workshop. Charrettes are brief, intensive planning exercises that rely on the talents and energies of volunteers from planning-related professions including architects, engineers, landscape designers, historic preservationists, housers, and more. Charrettes rely on the realistic challenges presented by a real site and encourages the participation of community members. The objective is to help host communities reexamine their policies and processes to plan for their future or achieve a specific goal, such as creating opportunities for the development of workforce housing. Done well, a charrette is a holistic, inclusive, collaborative tool for community planning that incorporates all members of the community and encourages creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

For the state’s two housing coalitions, the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast and the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition (MWVHC), the objective is to identify barriers to the development of housing that is affordable to members of the workforce and provide a platform for engaging and educating community members.

The charrette process engages elected officials, housing industry professionals and community members in an experiential learning activity that demonstrates the effects current zoning ordinances have on housing development and compare it with the positive impact that smart growth strategies can have.

– Victoria Laracy, Executive Director, Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition

The MWVHC made this great video about the charrette process and the organization’s 2017 charrettes:

The Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop

Let me walk you through the charrette process using the Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop as an example. The charrette, which was held in late September last year, took place over the course of two days. On the first day, the charrette team and members of the community were invited on a walking tour of the downtown, including a stop at the study area on Hanson Street.

Charrette team members and local leaders tour the study area in downtown Rochester during the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast’s Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop. Photo by Laura Harper Lake of the Regional Economic Development Center.

Two community listening sessions followed the walking tour. The listening sessions included a presentation about workforce housing and an opportunity for community members to share their take on housing in their downtown.

Charrette team members gather feedback from community members and local leaders during the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast’s Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop. Photo by Laura Harper Lake of the Regional Economic Development Center.

Two days later the charrette team regrouped and got to work drawing sketches, drafting recommendations, and crunching numbers. At the end of the day, the community was invited back to see what the team had come up with. The full report is available here.

Charrette team members brainstorm ideas for downtown Rochester during the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast’s Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop.

Charrette team members sketch their ideas for downtown Rochester during the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast’s Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop.

Charrette team members sketch their ideas for downtown Rochester during the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast’s Downtown Rochester Housing Workshop.

See for yourself!

The housing coalitions are aren’t the only organizations using charrettes as a tool. Portsmouth-based nonprofit, Plan NH, hosts community design charrettes across the state. Plan NH’s charrettes tend to focus on a town center or significant neighborhood in a community, but charrettes can be used to explore nearly any goal, area, or idea. One of the most fun charrettes I ever participated in, the Kelley Park Design Charrette in Bristol, NH nearly one year ago, was hosted by Plan NH. The charrette team channeled our inner Leslie Knope and redesigned a large, beautiful downtown park! Plan NH has been around since and the organization has done many charrettes. All of the reports are stored here

Connect with the Workforce Housing Coalition of the Greater Seacoast, the Mount Washington Valley Housing Coalition, and/or Plan NH to learn about upcoming charrettes, volunteer to serve on a charrette team, or host a charrette in your community!

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