Dual-Purpose Design Meetings

By Sandy Bliesener
Photo Courtesy Of O’Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, Inc.

Would you like to initiate major donations for facility improvements before the next capital campaign even begins? It’s as easy as extending an invitation to potential major donors to take part in a two-day event at the camp! If this seems too good to be true, it isn’t. It’s just a matter of getting the right people together and undertaking the right master-planning process.

App Extra (PDF): How To Develop a Master Plan with Your Major Donors

The common approach to a typical site master-planning and design process is for the design consultant (landscape architect, architect, and/or engineer) to meet with a client to learn what problem is to be solved. The design consultant returns to the office and generates ideas (or concepts), and then presents them to the client to see if what was discussed is accurately depicted in the generated concepts. Once the ideas are reviewed, the consultant further refines them in the office. These steps repeat themselves anywhere from a few weeks to several months until the consultant has accurately locked in on the client’s vision, or until the fees to generate more ideas are gone.

One of the greatest things about working with camp people (including potential major donors in many cases) is they typically LOVE their camp. Many have been involved with camping since they were seven or eight years old, and many now have professional degrees in unrelated fields because they became side-tracked working as a camp counselor one summer, and decided that was their true passion. So how could any professional consultant--no matter how experienced or knowledgeable about camps or master planning--come in after a meeting or two and tell a group of people who live, eat, sleep, and breathe camp how to improve it?  Many have tried, and a few have been successful, but a better approach is to work with camp personnel and alumni in a way that is different than the approach commonly used with other clients. It is a better approach for camp master planning, and has the added benefit of giving major donors the opportunity to be part of creating the plan.

Exploring The Design Charrette
Here’s the way it works: Instead of developing a plan using the typical process of meetings interspersed with work in the office, the design team develops the plan at the camp in partnership with the key decision-makers (board, staff, volunteers, and potential donors) or stakeholders. This method is commonly referred to as a design charrette , with the goal of creating a well-thought-out and feasible plan within a two- to three-day timeframe. Besides being much faster, a charrette involves stakeholders in the actual on-site design and problem-solving process, and builds consensus from the ground up. It’s a real-life teambuilding exercise!

Prior to visiting the property, a design team:

  • Reviews the camp’s strategic plan
  • Works to develop an understanding of the goals of the master plan
  • Assembles base maps and plans of the existing facilities.

Once the design team arrives at camp, a complete tour of all of the buildings and program areas is conducted by the stakeholder group so the consultants can see and hear about the camp’s strengths and weaknesses through the camp people’s eyes. Then the design team sets up a work space/studio--often in the dining hall or a program space that has plenty of room for both drawing and meetings--and begins to generate ideas with the stakeholders.

The magic of the charrette occurs when the ideas begin to take shape on paper--before the eyes of the stakeholders.  Ideas are generated by the participants, quickly sketched up by the design team, then explored further or set aside as better ideas emerge. Throughout the process, camp administrators and volunteers have the opportunity to see their ideas come to life on paper and understand how they will impact the existing and future conditions of the camp. Because of this direct involvement, the result of the design charrette is often the commitment of major donations to support implementation of the proposed improvements.

Endorsing The Process
Over 20 camp master plans have been developed over the last decade by YMCAs throughout the East Coast and Midwest regions, using the design charrette process. One such organization is the McGaw YMCA of Evanston, Ill., which developed a master plan for CampEcho in 2007. “The charrette process was perfect for our needs,” says Rob Grierson, Vice President of Resident Camping and Branch Executive Director. “The prep work we did with our staff and policy volunteers helped us to define and clarify the issues we were facing; the charrette itself allowed a number of key stakeholders to provide input and take ownership of the decisions made; and the master site plan and sketches produced afterwards have been invaluable for planning purposes and for our fundraising efforts. I highly recommend the process to other camps.” Several small projects identified in the master plan have already been implemented, and when the funding was in place for a new kybo to be built in the center of camp, Grierson held a “Kybo Charrette” in 2011 to pin down the final design and location of the building before completing the construction drawings.

A design consultant team capable of undertaking this process would typically be composed of planners with expertise in both site-planning (landscape architects), and facility design (architects) who can draw building and site-design ideas as they hear them, incorporating barrier-free access and building code requirements into each concept as it is developed. In addition, a designer skilled in three-dimensional rendering acts as the “interpreter” of the flat plans that few people can visualize, bringing the work alive.

A note of caution: computer-generated “walk-through” views have become common, and work well for many buildings. But the beauty of trees and the textures and materials most often used in camp facilities--timbers, logs, wood siding, and stone--don’t look natural unless drawn by hand. Since emotion and mood are a huge part of camp design, a skilled sketch-artist can make the difference between consensus and confusion.

The key to developing a consensus-based master plan at a camp is gathering the right people to attend the design charrette, and undertaking the right master-planning process. Finding potential donors, who love the camp, care about its future, and are willing to commit two or three days to be part of the process, is critically important. And once the right people are assembled, using a process that gives them the opportunity to be part of creating the master plan just might trigger donations before the next capital campaign even begins!

Sandy Bliesener , LLA, LEED AP is Principal/Landscape Architect with O'Boyle, Cowell, Blalock & Associates, Inc. in Kalamazoo, Mich. The landscape architecture firm has been in business since 1964. She can be reached via email at sbliesener@ocba.com.