Opinion: Have we lost the art of developing a brief?

Jane Hill, Central Regional Committee Member and Director and Architect at Chow:Hill shares her views on the art of developing a project brief.


“Have we lost the art of developing a brief?” I recently had the enviable opportunity to visit the Auckland region’s top architectural projects as a Jury Member for the NZIA Branch Awards. During one particular project visit, the architect expressed concern over the lost art of brief development. This comment stuck with me throughout our tour, resulting in a number of probing questions on the briefing process and its impact on the success of these stand out architectural projects.

Further research (aka “GPTChatting’”) on my return pointed to some less than inspiring results, suggesting that between 60 and 70% of construction projects fail to meet their objectives. My ‘research’ also noted that projects with poorly defined objectives i.e., a poorly defined brief, are 50% more likely to fail.

As an industry we’re acutely aware of how challenging design and construction projects can be. The odds are certainly stacked against us, with poor briefing and brief development processes stacking them even higher.

It appears that three out of three famous architects agree, noting a weak project brief as recipe for failure.

“A weak project brief can result in a design that doesn’t meet the needs of the client or the end-users, leading to project failure.” – Richard Rogers

“A poorly defined project brief can lead to design solutions that are not viable or sustainable, resulting in wasted time and resources.” – Norman Foster

“A poor project brief is a recipe for failure, and it’s crucial to invest time and effort in getting it right from the start.” – Daniel Libeskind

So, what’s the issue? Given its critical role in a project, where do we become unstuck with our brief development processes? Reflecting on discussions with colleagues, clients, and fellow consultants over the years, common roadblocks have included:

• Rushing the brief development process in the haste to hit project milestones. This was particularly evident over the recent frantic years of the pandemic.

• The Brief Development Stage absent from project programmes due to the perceived indulgence and added cost of this phase of work.

• Project teams jumping into designing the answer before they’ve really listened and understood the question.

• The Design Brief viewed as a purely functional document neglecting less tangible KPIs of project vision, core values and human experience.

• And the most common …change. Developing a design brief in the face of on-going change and unknowns. This seems almost BAU for any project.

Invariably these roadblocks lead to re-design, duplication of the status quo, client and occupant dissatisfaction and cost overruns. Ironically the rush through Brief Development often increasing the overall project duration.

While a short op-ed is not the forum to solve these multi-layered challenges it does present an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we navigate the critical front end of our projects – improving the odds for success through a focus on robust brief development.

Starting strategies for our consideration might include:

• Instigating early and open conversations between Client, Project Manager and Architect on the time and inputs required for effective brief development. These inputs often include wider consultants and key project stakeholders to engage wider perspectives and expertise.

• Commencing brief development by developing a clear understanding of ‘the now’. Seeking to understand a client’s current context, challenges, and opportunities before designing answers.

• Building a brief on authentic project principles, rather than a schedule of accommodation. Principles that provide a solid foundation for the project in the face of evolving functional requirements and costs.

• Investing in the preparation of a compiled Reverse Briefing Document as a key deliverable prior to, or at, early Concept Design. A document that is clear, engaging, and provides the team with an effective communication tool and roadmap for the project.

While such strategies won’t come for free, given the ever-increasing pressures on time, costs, and our environment, investing in the art of a well-developed brief has never been more valuable.

“The project brief is a roadmap for success, and it should be treated as such.” – Frank Gehry

Jane Hill

Director and Architect, Chow:Hill

As a director and architect at Chow:Hill my key areas of expertise include the design of agile, human-centred learning and workplace environments, collaborating with clients to help future proof the places in which they live, work and play.

I joined Chow:Hill in 2003, working in the Auckland Studio until my registration in 2007. The next phase of my career involved three years overseas working in London on a mixture of multi-unit residential and educational architectural projects. I returned to Chow:Hill’s Hamilton Studio in 2010 and became a practice Director in 2016.

I’m passionate about working alongside diverse stakeholder groups to transform a blank sheet of paper into a design brief, learning from research and hands-on design experience and collaborating with project teams to help shape learning and working communities across Aotearoa.


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