Prioritizing aesthetic value and innovation through consensus-based design

As design professionals, we often hear that innovative design, environmental sustainability or aesthetically-pleasing space may be difficult goals to achieve within a publicly-funded budget.  The truth is, if an innovative design or an environmentally sensitive project isn’t a priority from the very beginning of a project, those goals will certainly be difficult to achieve. That difficulty has more to do with project planning than project budget.

However, there are design methods that we utilize time and time again to successfully meet any reasonable design priority within a given budget.  I’ll outline the design process below to show you how project teams can successfully prioritize aesthetics and innovation and still meet the project budget.

1.)    Establish need:  Typically, the first step for an owner in any construction project is establishing need.  A current facility is too small, too old, or too expensive to continue to operate.

2.)    Establish project budget:  After the project need is established, determining a budget and programming the use of the building often follow.  While the overall budget is established through a bond issue in major capitol improvement projects, it is important to remember that how the building program fits within that budget is almost always malleable.

3.)    Establish design priorities: During the programming and planning process of a project, appoint a representative (or representatives) from each stakeholder group in the proposed project.  If the project involves a school building, invite student, educators, administrators, board members, parents and the public to be stakeholders in establishing the design priorities.  Once the stakeholder group is established, open the planning discussion to those stakeholders through a design priority workshop (also known as an “integrated design charrette”) – check out the end of this article for several resources on design charrettes and workshops.

Teachers, administrators, parents and design professionals meet during a design charrette for Ferguson Township Elementary School

Successful workshops incorporate the following elements:

  • Ensure that design professionals are present at the workshop that can inform, guide and educate stakeholders on the design possibilities.  These design professionals are typically architects, engineers and construction managers that are adept at fostering creativity and discussion.  They are there to educate, inspire and convey professional expertise to the stakeholders.
  • During the design charrette, democratically establish design priorities from all of the stakeholders.  Discuss the priorities as a group and rank each of the priorities in order of importance.  In our experience organizing and overseeing design charrettes, most stakeholders actually nominate aesthetics and innovative technologies as top priorities.  There may be several stakeholders that prioritize “budget” as the top priority.  While project budget will always be the ultimate priority, it is important to educate all stakeholders that project budget is not scope budget.  Each design priority’s scope only makes up a portion of the over project budget.  Prioritizing one scope of work over another allows the group to understand where funding priorities fall within the overall project budget.

4.)    Establish a plan:  The next step is finally putting pen to paper to develop schematic designs that balance the budget and design priorities into a cohesive building program.  From these preliminary plans and some additional design development, the design professionals are generally able to generate rough cost estimates for each design priority.  These estimates then allow the stakeholders to evaluate cost vs return on investment for each of the design priorities and determine the feasibility of pursuing one priority over another.

Elementary students sit down to design their new school during a charrette

For further reading on design charrettes and integrated project design, reference the National Institute of Building Sciences’ Whole Building Design Guide:  and the National Charrette Institute .  Both of these sites provide excellent resources for those interested in the integrated project design method.