You have to be there

In our July Sounding Panel session on Transformative Design, Adrian Leaman reiterated the five most important things to think about in architectural briefing…

The next time you see Sam Cassels – and it ideally it should be in person – get him to tell you the story of the nervous presenter confronted with an overhead projector, and baffled by the way it worked, so that every time he tried to say something he stood in front of the projected light image, thereby blocking the projection, thus preventing the audience from having any clue of what he was talking about. Which made him even more jittery and incomprehensible. The presenter should have followed Michael Caine’s advice to young actors: don’t blink, it makes you look weak.  

Roll on 35 years and you are giving a talk on Zoom. You and other 12 invitees have been given three minutes to say something useful and interesting about their work. The snag is that Zoom, although a modern miracle of technology, is not very self-aware. It does not transmit context. You know perfectly well that if you cannot follow what is being said or why, then most others won’t follow you either. You need an attention grabber.

But there’s a problem. I get bored with myself. I can find myself sending up my own slides because I don’t want to say the same thing over and over again. If you do, the repetition becomes the context, and meaning evaporates. But if you extemporise it’s dangerous because if you don’t know what’s coming next nor does the audience. But the danger makes it interesting because of the uncertainty. So you find yourself blurting out as an attention grabber “These are my conclusions, if there are any rappers out there who can put them to music, then please go ahead.” Guess what?! There are and they do.  

Which is why I tried to summarise my three-minute Zoom talk on briefing with five words. We had practiced something similar in the office on wet Friday afternoons, when there was no work. You spend months on a research report. The client has given you a slot of one hour to present it. But their previous meeting overruns and you are left with five minutes, so you have to concentrate the essence into a few words. How about something like a quote from one of their staff: “In this building, we wipe our feet on the way out” or “We have defrosting breaks” or, in the unforgettable sentiments of a controls supplier, “We sell dreams and install nightmares”.  

But what do I know? I freely admit to not being able to predict that in 2021 people would be sitting in the middle of the London orbital M25 motorway protesting about the lack of insulation in British houses. That’s how to make insulation interesting! That’s how desperate they are to get politicians to pay attention to what seems to be obvious. Which leads me to the five most important things to worry about in architectural briefing which are … no,  better, go to the clickbait…

Video by Jack Kelly

Adrian Leaman runs Building Use Studies and is co-founder of Useable Buildings. He specialises in building performance studies from the building users’ point of view.

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