February 16, 2011 by: Ben Heimsath

Collaborative Building Design - Emmaus Forum

Congregation Forum Participants at Emmaus Catholic Church in Lakeway, Texas


I've written before about what happens when a group collaboratively participates in designing and programming new facilities.  But many community or congregation leaders have shared with me their hesitation in "opening up" the process. They tell me their group has too many opposing ideas or priorities.  They worry that confusion or chaos will result when too many people are part of the decision-making.  

How can groups be trusted with complex decisions?  In his book, The Wisdom of Crowds, author James Surowiecki cites the latest research that shows even very large groups can and do make significantly better decisions than any one individual.  In example after example, he notes the ways this understanding of group wisdom has become a matter of faith in our society.  The odds-makers in Las Vegas rely on this just as much as scientists working to prevent the spread of the newest epidemic.

The recent news from Egypt has been a thrilling to watch.  While the end results are still unfolding, a groundswell of crowds accomplished an amazing feat.  They successfully navigated through dangerous and confounding issues to force a peaceful regime change.  What could possibly be more complicated?  How many times have leaders of all sorts, with all kinds of initiatives, failed miserably in this most volatile region?  Yet in 18 days, the unthinkable was realized.  In yesterday's Washington Post op-ed, Anne Applebaum describes the euphoria felt by tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of participants.  She also cautions new leaders to be mindful of these people in whatever comes next.


Jubilant crowds peacefully celebrate after they accomplish the impossible - regime change in Egypt.

Though a lot easier than regime change in the Middle East, the challenges for any meaningful building program can be pretty complicated.  But again and again, we've seen fabulous designs come from groups of people with diverse backgrounds and differing priorities.  Of course, there has to be a good process to get results from a diverse group.  That will be the focus of future posts.


Even when some group members are fully capable of developing the entire program on their own, the group effort is always better.  We find that groups have an uncanny ability to be creative on many levels.  Collectively, members find ways to express a vision unique to their group, and at the same time, meet fundamental and often challenging constraints.  Having lots of participants actually improves ability to find a balance between creative, out-of-the-box thinking and pragmatic, day-to-day concerns.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but time and again, I'm reminded of why an engaged and focused group is the ideal way to develop a complex building program.  The quote attributed to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales sums it up pretty well - "It works in practice, if not in theory."  

Church Design & Construction/ Design Process