Briefing against risk (Part 1)

In this two-part guest blog, Simon Foxell discusses the challenges of briefing in the context of risk and uncertainty and the need to address concurrent issues of managing demographic change and reversing environmental damage.

Image source: Birdman photos

We live in a risky and increasingly, riskier, world, or at least a world where we are much more aware of risk than ever before and tend to employ avoidance strategies of numerous sorts. That such strategies rarely address real risks and prefer to focus on perceived ones with their, now familiar – but apparently almost impossible to contain, cognitive biases shouldn’t obscure the need to factor in real future risks. Briefing is, amongst other things, a matter of effectively, and with the right tools, projecting rationally into the future, describing its needs and dangers and flagging up possible ways of dealing with them. It is a means of coping with uncertainty by gathering and interpreting information that reduces that uncertainty. It attempts to mitigate risk: to the project, but also to the wider context – social and environmental – and much else beyond.

Some of these risks are just minor inconveniences while others include serious threats to wellbeing, but there are a number of existential issues that represent risks, if not quite to life on earth, then at least to the economic and social systems that underpin it. In particular the breach of several of the planetary boundaries described by the Stockholm Resilience Centre means we have reached a point at which considering risk as a briefing issue has become critical. There is an obligation to face up to them both as a simple matter of long-term survival but also because there is a need to deliver solutions now to prevent the whole system of design and delivery of projects becoming gridlocked in the near future.

The nature of the risks before us and how to brief in the face of them means that it is essential to address the linked issues of who we are briefing for, what we are briefing to achieve and what should be prioritised. Long gone is the perception that the commissioning client should be the sole beneficiary and consideration in the process. A hierarchy of attention might instead be described as follows, with a concern for the planet and the wider world at its base and personal concerns only to be fulfilled at the last.

Alongside the need to refocus our approach there is also a professional duty to discover whether the briefing we deliver is effective and results in the intended outcomes in countering risk, or if not, what actually occurred. This requires post-project investigation, evaluation, reflection and feedback to inform future rounds of briefing, ideally in a form, communicated through education and professional dissemination, that helps others to brief better as well. Beyond this, there may be a need to put measures in place at the briefing stage to help ensure that certain outcomes are definitively achieved and, if not, then pre-agreed actions are available to carry out course correction and remediation. Post-occupancy evaluation (POE) has become an important, if still often much honoured in the breech, component of design. It also needs to become a key element of briefing practice, if that practice is to be made sufficiently effective.


It seems likely that the twin issues of managing demographic change and reversing damage to the environment will dominate professional practice into the foreseeable future. As a result while there will still be a core need to provide appropriate levels of accommodation in the right locations this will have to be achieved while meeting very high biodiversity, energy efficiency and net-zero carbon standards, not only in new construction, but across the entire building stock. The urgency of this is only going to ramp up, with little time or patience available for taking wrong turns.

Assisting in this task will be the deployment of increasingly complex and capable levels of automation and data utilisation to inform decision-making. This will demand substantial change in the industry and inevitably cause disruption and its own major challenges. The sector may struggle to cope.

Briefing sits at the conflux of these changes and will have to adapt radically to keep up. Above all it will need to show that it can deliver real change in short order, if it is not to be side-lined by other more simplistic and communicable measures.

In Briefing against risk: Part 2, Simon will discuss how we need to respond to the challenges we face in professional practice.

Simon Foxell is Principal of The Architects Practice. He is a core member and co-ordinator of the Edge, the built environment think tank, and is on the Green Construction Board’s Routemap group. He was lead design adviser to Birmingham City Council’s Transforming Education programme from 2007 to 2010, a former member of the RIBA Council and Board and was Chair of both Policy and Strategy and RIBA London region.

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