For as long as architecture has been a profession, practitioners have come together in charrettes. In recent years, the hackathon has gained traction beyond its tech-sector origin as other industries, including AEC, have taken up the ideation exercise for its informal approach to discussion among project stakeholders. As the role of technology in the built environment grows, it’s worth considering what the charrette can learn from the hackathon.

The Root of Charrettes
The use of the French word charrette, meaning “cart” or “chariot,” in design dates to 19th-century Paris’ École des Beaux-Arts and refers to the cart that would carry students’ models to class. Today, the term is used for multiday working sessions to engage and receive feedback from project stakeholders. There is even the National Charrette Institute (NCI), in Portland, Ore., which offers guidelines and classes for a variety of industries to learn the process.

“We call it collaboration by design,” says NCI executive director Bill Lennertz, who has an M.Arch. from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. “The real potential is where you have a lot of disparate positions around contentious urban design projects.” The charrette is a mechanism to “take all this uncertainty, volatility, and work with it,” he says. The key to its success, and why it’s often held over multiple days, is the feedback loop: the need to revise the plan once stakeholders have weighed in.

A Different Take
Hackathons are also multiday affairs but differ from charrettes in that they rely on digital tools. “A hackathon without technology, code, or working prototypes is not a hackathon,” says Damon Hernandez, founder and executive director of the AEC Hackathon series, which brings technology experts and members of the design and construction industries together in cities worldwide. Although hackathons are used to generate a working prototype to establish proof of concept, they tend to place a greater value on an open-ended spirit of invention than do charrettes. At the Dallas AEC Hackathon, for example, Timothy Logan, a computational applications developer at HKS, recalls his team connecting an EEG reader to building design software in an attempt to enable design by thought. “A lot of teams had practical ideas, but a few of us just wanted to make something wacky and crazy,” he says.

Often that wackiness generates a serious result: getting different practice areas to work together. “Each hackathon begins with a briefing document and general guidelines, but we intentionally keep the mechanics loose to provoke creative thinking,” says Ryan Mullenix, AIA, a partner with NBBJ, in Seattle. In April, the firm held a hackathon with Time Inc. and the recruiting platform PowerToFly to explore the future of workplace collaboration. “Those surprising outcomes are what we find most exhilarating,” he says.

Bringing Them Together
There is room for compromise between the (nearly)-anything-goes hackathons and the results-oriented charrettes. When Skanska was planning a 38-story commercial tower in Seattle, the company used a hybrid charrette–hackathon interview format to select an architect after its executive vice president Lisa Picard happened upon a hackathon being held in a co-working facility near her office in Seattle. After shortlisting two architecture firms for the project, Skanska used a multiday, hackathon-inspired selection process featuring a series of problem-solving exercises to test the firms out.

Although Skanska didn’t formally incorporate technology, it used the hackathon moniker to signify the diversity of thought and the endurance element of the event, Picard says, adding that while the building industry often changes slowly, the tech industry’s inclination toward rapid innovation makes it one source of collaboration solutions. Overall, the abbreviated hackathon format encouraged teams to “push through design fatigue,” she adds, when new approaches to a problem were needed and time was running out.