When developing the brief, you should be very careful about stopping the discussions too soon. (manager )

In situations where a building project is being used to support radical organisational and/or educational change, those involved may find they are unable to articulate their needs from the outset. It is not until the design process is underway that they find themselves becoming clearer about the kinds of facilities best suited to meet their needs. One of our case studies is looking at how a new building can be used to support a new model for teaching law. This law school is organised to support a problem-based, student-centered approach to teaching and learning, where learning is driven by students working collaboratively on open-ended problems, and reflecting on their experience of dealing these problems. Facilities will consist of collaborative group study space, comfortable seating and desks, a moot court and flexible teaching space. The law students will be divided into simulated law firms at the start of their degree, and throughout their course they will be presented with legal based problems to solve in collaboration with other students. The project challenge is to manage the process in such a way that both briefing programme and building programme can move forward at the pace required for each, with decisions being made neither too early (risky for users) nor too late (risky for project).

Considering the client brief as a layered decision-making process can help institutions focus effort on providing the right information at the right time. The key layers to consider are:

  • visionary: statement of intent
  • strategic: zoning and operational principles
  • descriptive: settings and activities
  • prescriptive: detailed requirements.

The objective is to balance the client’s desire to keep options open to the last responsible moment against the project team’s concern to freeze requirements as early as possible to control costs and meet deadlines. Note, the last responsible moment is not the same as the last possible moment! It is the moment when to delay further is likely to incur costs and/or delays.

Statement of intent

Largely visionary, this level of information focuses on establishing a clear vision for project and ensuring none of the big questions is left unanswered, providing a clear statement of intent, explaining rationale behind intent, highlighting opportunities for supporting educational and business initiatives and demonstrating project viability. Topics include college vision, portfolio profile, learner profile, other stake-holders, image and identity, amount of space required, principal spatial components, site/location issues, funding characteristics, anticipated timescale, phasing strategy, decision-making processes, potential risks.

Zoning and operational principles

Largely strategic, this level of information sets an overall philosophy for how campus will operate, confirming high-level schedule of accommodation, illustrating distribution of required functions via zoning plans and outlining operational briefs for range of activities, such as access arrangements for different user groups, strategies for managing space, security, ict, bms, deliveries, waste and so on.

Settings and activities

Largely descriptive, this level of information offers a clear sense of the activities, character and quality of each zoning type, suggesting ways in which spaces within each zone might be configured, identifying generic and particular requirements, providing design guidelines for all key parameters including ict provision, degree of enclosure, acoustic management, environmental conditions and management of settings.

Detailed requirements

Largely prescriptive, this level of information provides detailed information on all space types, including equipment and furniture requirements, indicative drawings of spaces with specific requirements, room data sheets and so on.