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A Valuable Tool, with Caveats

Rich Michal reviews Design Charrettes for Sustainable Developments, by Patrick M. Condon

Design Charrettes for Sustainable DevelopmentsAs an architect and resident of a New Urban community, I was excited to review Design Charrettes for Sustainable Developments by Patrick M. Condon (Island Press, 2007).  I was even more excited after I read the preface and introduction.  And even though Chapters 1 through 4 were both too long and too dry—they could have been effectively consolidated into two chapters—the final chapters, which provide actual concrete advice and a suggested outline for conducting charrettes, make the book worth buying, reading, and using as a resource. 

The strengths of Design Charrettes for Sustainable Developments are the actual examples provided by the experienced Condon, and the subsequent experiences and advice he shares.  The book’s weakness, on the other hand, is that it does not provide enough examples (especially in Chapters 1 through 4).  Nor does it provide enough images of the final products—especially projects actually built—in the two case studies that conclude the book. 

Additionally, I take specific exception to three of the author’s recommendations.  First, Condon’s apparent premise at the end of Chapter 1 and the beginning of Chapter 2 is that the product of design charrettes should only be drawings.  While I agree that drawings and the ability to communicate through illustration and design images are critical to charrettes—both as final products and as tools to be used during the charrette process—in my experience a balanced approach of both drawings and narrative is necessary to convey and memorialize the mission and vision of the charrette.

Second, while a design charrette may indeed cost $80,000 to $200,000, I fear that putting these large figures out there so early in the book (page 26, specifically) without more balanced discussion and examples of possible funding sources will discourage many smaller firms, not-for-profit entities, and community agencies from even attempting design charrettes.

Finally, I’m concerned with Condon’s take on queuing streets, just one of many design parameters, but critical nonetheless.  In the 3.1 Queuing Streets example presented in Chapter 3 (see below), Condon states that small, 24-28 foot-wide curb-to-curb queuing streets are “recommended by many sustainable community design experts as a natural way to slow traffic, reduce costs, improve aesthetic appearance, and reduce impervious surfaces.”

3.1 Queuing Streets

Queuing streets are narrow residential streets typical to older North American neighborhoods. They are usually between 24 and 28 feet wide measured curb face to face and allow parking on both sides of the street. This leaves a travel lane between parked cars that is too narrow for smooth, flowing two-way traffic. Cars approaching each other must slow and proceed with caution to pass, with one often migrating into an available marketing space to allow the other to pass, thus the name queuing or "take your turn" streets. This kind of street is recommended by many sustainable community design experts as a natural way to slow traffic, reduce costs, improve aesthetic appearance, and reduce impervious surfaces.

Source: Chapter 3, "The Design Brief," Page 49.

Appropriate street designs for sustainable communities, however, should be based upon an array of smart growth principles as opposed to simply encouraging congestion associated with queuing in order to slow traffic and reduce costs.  Smart growth principles encourage slower and steadier traffic flows to reduce the reliance on larger, wider arterial roads within a community. 

While these rights-of-way should include on-street parking, they should also include medians (for improved aesthetics, impervious surface reduction, and pedestrian queuing at intersections), bike lanes (to reduce auto dependence), and sidewalks or multi-use paths (for pedestrians). They should also include provisions for landscaping areas between the curb and the sidewalk or trail for aesthetics, reduced impervious surfaces and heat island effect, and to separate, buffer, and protect pedestrian traffic from vehicular traffic.

Still, I recommend Patrick Condon’s Design Charrettes for Sustainable Developments.  It is a valuable tool for those interested in learning more about and conducting design charrettes for sustainable communities.


Rich Michal is a LEED-accredited design professional, licensed professional engineer, and has bachelors degrees in engineering and architecture and masters degrees in business administration and architecture. He is an adjunct lecturer at the University of Arizona College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture and the director of project development and the principal manager in charge of the Tucson office of Adolfson & Peterson Construction, the largest commercial green building contractor in Arizona. He has published and presented academic papers on sustainability and done consulting work on sustainable and LEED-registered development projects both nationally and internationally.

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Design Charrettes for Sustainable Developments

[view press website for book]

By Patrick M. Condon

   Island Press
   ISBN 978-1597260534


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