Design Charrettes and models

November 28, 2012 — 15 Comments

We just started a new project in Highland Village, a city in Denton County and a suburb to the North of Dallas just along Lake Lewisville. This is going to be an exciting project for many reasons but one of the initial design considerations we will get to work with will be the site’s rolling topography. To kick things off, we brought in the staff, passed out topographic surveys and projects requirements, and had a good old-fashioned design charrette.


Design Charette with Bernbaum Magadini Architects staff

In design charrettes, the purpose is to get participation from several team members so that a myriad of concepts and issues can be discussed and reviewed. Topics discussed can range from how the site should be accessed, how to best take advantage of the land and its surrounding views , down to more ethereal topics like how to create the desired emotional response from approaching and physically entering the house. Usually that only things that are limited during these discussions are the amount of time we have to spend on them … that or until we run out of beer.


Topographic model created using a 3d printer

As an added visual tool to aid us during our design charrette, we created a physical model using a 3D printer. These printers can do amazing things – and the more detailed the digital information that goes into the printer, the more detailed the final product. In our case, we just wanted to get a better understanding of how the elevation changed on the site. While our 3D model did that, we didn’t feel that the magnitude of the change was sufficiently conveyed in such a small model.


So we went bigger …

topographic model using cardboard

topographic model using cardboard

This cardboard model is at 1/8″ = 1′-0″ scale and measures approximately 45″ long x 24″ wide and hopefully you can see why putting in the effort to create such a model can be so important. While we have visited the site and walked the property, tools like models and drawings can help create a bigger picture that will ultimately yield a greater understanding of the whole site. The property itself is just under 1.5 acres and covered with trees so creating models like these allow everyone to get a proper sense of what we have to work with and take advantage of – they are valuable tools in a design charrette.



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  • Rémi

    Hi, I’m a french architecture student, and i just learnt something today, i didn’t knew that the term charrette was used outside our country.

    Except we use this word with a total different meaning :
    In France, charrette means being late on a assignment. We say “Je suis charrette.” (I’m charrette) all the time.
    A charrette also means the night(s) you spend working to catch up on the work still not finished.

    Anyway, I really like reading your posts.

    Best Regards.

    • I’ve heard how the term was originally used and I supposed we’ve co-opted it to mean anytime there is an intense focused period of work – that’s a charrette.

      Thanks for adding a comment 😉

  • Corey Vaillancourt

    i’m getting my Masters in Architecture, i know cardboard Topo models very well, haha. How is the actual design process on the site going?

    • pretty well – exciting. Bridges, ramps – all the cool stuff. Once we get out of schematics and the owner has had a chance to provide input/ response to our schemes, I’ll probably revisit the project.


  • architectrunnerguy

    Design charretes are a great tool. I do them all the time. And I think clients like the participatory aspect of them too.

    And I remember as an office boy while working in an architects office in high school building a fair amount of “topo bases” for the designers to put a building on.


  • Richard

    Design Charrettes work wonders. Having all disiplines in the same room to discuss pros and cons of design ideas saves so much time & money down the road. I hadn’t considered using beer to get the creative juices flowing before…LOL
    I am jealous. I would love to have a 3D printer for modeling. Although it’s nice to have Cheif Architect run 3D walk thrus & renderings, there is nothing like physical models to truly get the idea across. Perhaps when the costs come down on these items I’ll purchase one. Until then, 3D video and rendering images will have to do.

    • we had someone else make the 3d model for us as a “test”, we don’t own or rent a machine either. Most of the time we use 3d software like SketchUp to help our clients visualize the design but there sure is something magical about having a physical model. I’m sure I’ll always love them

  • Kelsey

    the cardboard one is so much better!

    • the #D printer is really cool but at $12 per cubic inch, it get’s pretty expensive to make a model of any size or substance.

      We like cardboard 🙂

  • tom.c

    I work in SE Louisiana, so our landscape is mostly flat….. and sinking. Haven’t built a landscape model since college.

    • most of our sites here in Dallas are relatively flat as well – that’s part of the reason we decided to make the topo model.

  • Karen

    Now that’s the way to brain storm!!! Are those really beers on the table?

    • yes – they really are

      • Could be drafting fluid! How big is the 3d model from the printer?

        • approximately 8″ wide x 12″ long and 1.25″ high