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Working ‘In the Cart’

Design meetings that involve every employee generate better results and a deeper understanding of the project

December 18, 2017

My wife and I founded TriVistaUSA in 2005 as a boutique design/build firm. We specialize in larger projects, whether it’s a custom home, whole-house remodel, or a large addition. We average about $4.5 million in annual revenue. 

In 2011, we joined the industry best-practices organization Remodelers Advantage—it was my wife’s idea—and that group gave me the tools to make the company that I saw in my head actually happen. 

One of the initiatives I’ve started since then is something called a design charrette. Common in architecture schools, the word charrette comes from the French word for “cart.” During the 1800s, student architects in Paris would work on their projects until the very last minute, when a cart would be wheeled in to transport their scale models to the professors. Some students would still be making final adjustments as their work was being rolled away. This came to be known as working en charrette, or literally “in the cart.” 

Our design charrette is far less frantic, but is very helpful for our process. At the beginning of a project, the whole team comes together to brainstorm ideas in a freewheeling, creative way. We have seven employees—three in the field, one designer, an office manager, and my wife and me—and all of us attend the charrette. If we’re bringing in an architect as a subcontractor for the project, then he or she will be there as well. 

One important goal of the charrette is to tap people’s ideas. I don’t want to hear anyone say, “I’m a project manager; all I do is pound nails.” No. You’re a smart, amazing, incredibly creative person. Show me what you’ve got. 

The charrette starts with a 20-minute review of the project where we discuss the scope of work and any challenges. We then take one hour to quietly sketch out ideas for the project that are tied to the budget. Everyone uses a short pencil with no eraser, figuratively speaking. No computer. Afterward, we look at the results and discuss for another hour. There are always common themes in the team’s solutions. 

Not only is the design charrette great for generating ideas, it has another advantage: Whoever is ultimately executing that project in the field has a deep understanding of the thought process that went into it. They were involved from the beginning and are partly accountable for making sure we have a solution that works.

A critic may say, “What you’re doing is singing Kumbaya,” and I’d be like, “Yeah, that’s right.” And the result is that everyone is united and understands the project.

About the Author

About the Author

Michael Sauri is a co-founder of TriVistaUSA, a design/build firm based in Arlington, Va.

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