• Visioning charrette sounds like a design-related process, but Archimania principal Todd Walker (left) emphasizes that the meeting with clients is not project-related. What is it about? Principal Barry Alan Yoakum explains: We want to get into their business. We want to get in their heads.

    Credit: Scott Greenwalt

    “Visioning charrette” sounds like a design-related process, but Archimania principal Todd Walker (left) emphasizes that the meeting with clients is not project-related. What is it about? Principal Barry Alan Yoakum explains: “We want to get into their business. We want to get in their heads.”

Architects like to talk about how they partner with clients, but a true partnership takes time to develop. And time, as any project manager will tell you, is often a precious commodity. Is there a way firms can jump-start the process? Memphis, Tenn.’s Archimania—known as the design firm in River City—has been pioneering a new predesign service, dubbed a “visioning charrette,” that helps the 15-person practice bond with clients. The result, say principals Todd Walker and Barry Alan Yoakum, is better buildings. “Mania is an intense desire and enthusiasm,” Walker says about the name of the firm he opened in 1995. “We still have that for design.”

How long is a visioning charrette?

Barry Alan Yoakum: It’s a one-day session, usually four to eight hours.

How do you start?

Yoakum: As designers, we’re trained to pursue project issues, but we start by pursuing business issues. We do a whiteboard approach with big sticky pads. We tell them, “What we’re going to do is going to seem like organized chaos.” And it truly is. We purposely sound like we don’t know what we’re doing because it lowers the threshold. The barriers drop, and we start discovering things.

How many people are involved?

Todd Walker: There are two to four people from our side. Barry and I are always there.

Yoakum: The sweet spot is six to eight for the client. Above that, it’s difficult to manage the process.

Are you designing during the day?

Walker: It’s not a design charrette. “Visioning” might mean different things on different projects, but we’re not walking away with a design in mind.

So what’s the process?

Walker: Barry leads all of our visioning charrettes. He can’t do it without a giant Post-it pad. He stands there and writes on them. The clients have a visual connection with this note. It’s a collaborative effort of note-taking.

So the vision is not necessarily visual?

Yoakum: It’s almost never visual. The most visual thing is the words and statements on the pads.

Walker: It took us a while to realize we didn’t want to draw in the charrette. Sometimes it’s hard not to, but we keep that in check.

How does the discussion develop?

Yoakum: We let the client manipulate us. We’re very open that we may not know what we’re doing. And to say that to a client who’s paying you large sums of money is a tenuous thing. I tell Todd, “I’m really nervous that I’m about to look really stupid in front of these people.” That’s the magic, but you don’t know until you get into it.

Walker: The clients like the idea that we’re walking into their project with an open mind. We don’t have a preconceived notion before we understand their issues, needs, and concerns. Most clients are businesspeople, and they’re excited about somebody who wants to understand their business.

How do clients respond?

Yoakum: We always hear, “This is different from other architects.” We dig for the nonobvious drivers. They substantiate the designs we do. It intrigues clients that we try to use both sides of our brain.

Walker: Clients see that our decision-making process is based on issues. Architects are problem-solvers, in general. This puts us at the front, leading clients through a process. They begin to perceive us as leaders.

It sounds a little bit like group therapy.

Walker: At every visioning charrette, Barry has used the analogy, “I’m becoming your psychiatrist.”

Yoakum: If you’ve ever seen somebody walk out of a psychiatrist’s office, they look exhausted and drained. Most clients walk out of our sessions that way.

How do you fit the visioning charrette into a contract?

Yoakum: We start with a one-page agreement that outlines the visioning charrette process and programming. When we get into design, we move to an AIA document. We get compensated for it. We get better fees. People will pay for quality work.