For many industries, design charrettes are an essential component of the initial project planning phase. Though they vary greatly depending on the scope of work, their purpose is always the same: to collect detailed information from decision-makers to reach concept-level conclusions. Whether gathering to develop a program approach, concept layout or building floor plan, the structure of these meetings — previously large-scale planning sessions that brought numerous stakeholders and user groups together in one room — has evolved. For federal projects, technology utilization, a previous pain point, is streamlining not only meetings but also the information-gathering process — and, therefore, the charrette — to efficiently define project progression.

In the past, design charrettes, often combined with kickoff meetings and guided by vague scoping documents, lacked the time and detailed information necessary to accurately develop the initial concept, which defeated the overall intent of a charrette. But as part of the fee negotiation, it literally pays to have materials at the ready in preparation for the charrette ahead, especially if its allotted time frame is only a day or two.

As a result of the pandemic, these large in-person gatherings have been replaced with virtual team meetings. While this makes organizing easier and attendance higher — no travel necessary — the challenge comes in technology platform proficiencies, including retrieving documents via a secure network, and user engagement. Each participant must be able to access the information, view the visuals, and understand what’s being presented to give precise feedback.

Such significant change can take some getting used to. To set the stage for a productive charrette, multiple communication sessions now are conducted beforehand. In addition, a few select participants from varying user groups — consultants, IT, and installation and Department of Defense personnel — meet for a trial presentation run in hopes of preventing technical difficulties during the main event. Meeting mostly virtually has brought to light the need for virtual presentation skill sets as well. A team member who is practiced in leading virtual meetings and navigating virtual environments knows how to explain specifics and maintain engagement to achieve desired results.

Going virtual has reinforced the importance of having tangible data during this preplanning step as well. Traditionally, site visits and investigations have allowed team members to obtain information on existing site conditions before the charrette. In the past year, however, the number of on-site visits has been dramatically reduced, limiting access to current information. Existing documentation provided generally is outdated, which can lead to misinformed decision-making. Since charrettes have become the basis of design, any necessary details not captured or clearly understood during the charrette will be susceptible to sacrificial change down the road. By using 3D scanning and wearable technology solutions for virtual site visits, vague and inaccurate scoping documents are a thing of the past.

When designing a corridor that will be heavily trafficked by both users and infrastructure, for example, a still image shows only one viewpoint of the finished environment. A 3D laser scan quickly and easily captures millions of individual data points, which can extend above the ceiling and within space beyond the walls, to develop highly accurate as-built information. Some critical components, from electrical infrastructure to interior wall finishes, simply can’t be captured within notes from a site visit. Though charrettes don’t dive into a detailed level of conflict resolution, the magnitude of potential design challenges is considerably reduced thanks to confirmed site imagery and visualization.

Virtual headsets also are delivering precise information by utilizing video to collect asset data, complete scoping, geotag physical assets and inspect components. A wearable technology solution that offers advantages in design accuracy and site safety, RealWear glasses with a voice-activated computer tablet can capture and relay crucial project information to the project team, wherever members are, in real time. Limiting the number of personnel required on-site, the wearables have proven extremely effective in collecting data in the field while protecting users. This availability of real-time data also enables the project team to decide if an additional charrette is necessary to further discuss a specific detail.

Retooled with technology, design charrettes now are efficient preplanning meetings that work like a high-tech charm and continue to be a highly requested budgetary requirement for many federal projects. With involved parties invested in the new processes, achieving a charrette’s overall purpose is smoother, more effective and more accurate than ever.


Federal and military projects come with a host of challenges, from substantial security demands to complex facility needs. Identifying the most effective solution, with proven results, requires an experienced project team.


Erik Velazquez is a department manager at Burns & McDonnell. He has extensive experience in architectural design for commercial, federal and Department of Defense clients.