Briefing against risk (Part 2)

In Part 1, Simon Foxell discussed the need to refocus our approach to projects and our professional duty to discover whether the briefing we deliver is effective and results in the intended outcomes in countering risk. Here, he addresses how we need to respond to the challenges of concurrently managing demographic change and reversing damage to the environment in a joined-up way.

Image source: David Eccles

The temptation on the part of governments faced with major challenges could well be a regulatory move to a rigid system with a limited number of solutions intended to deliver certainty. This represents the very antithesis of briefing, with its explorative and open-ended approach, configured to encourage innovation and bespoke solutions to individual problems. Voices may warn policymakers that rigid systems rarely succeed and, with a horse that has already bolted, a far more responsive approach is required; but the temptation to enact strict dirigiste measures may be overwhelming. Briefing urgently needs to develop an alternative to this that combines certainty on a range of outcomes, a relaxed approach to others; possibly including matters of zoning, style or privacy; with flexibility on how they can and should be delivered. Outcome-based briefing and specification is, of course, not new, but the imperative to make it work is that much greater.

The challenge of developing briefs that combine rigorous performance standards encompassing issues including energy use, biodiversity gains and social outcomes alongside other functional and economic criteria, while offering freedom of manoeuvre in how they are delivered and, importantly, avoiding unwelcome and unplanned consequences, will put everyone on a steep learning curve, involving rapidly discovering what works and integrating it into practice, but also learning how to integrate the work of the many disciplines – many outside design – that need to be employed to achieve the required outcomes.

The tools available for achieving successful outcomes are clearly not restricted to briefing, even if it has a fundamental role, and include procurement practice, project management, design, commissioning and facilities maintenance as well as POE. What matters is that all tools may need to be used simultaneously to achieve the scale of outcomes envisaged and that they will need to work together as an integrated and connected system acting to support each contributing element. Briefing will have to describe how this can be made to work.

Many of the components for a positive solution to this are already in place, if rarely implemented in a joined-up way, at scale or as a routine mode of practice. They include:

  • Stakeholder involvement: It is now recognised that many voices need to contribute to effective briefing and subsequent decision-making and a individual taking sole charge is rarely tenable any longer.
  • Integrated supply teams working to shared goals: An established model for many years now even if they have been shown very difficult to maintain in an era fixated on short-term cost saving.
  • Transdisciplinarity: While silo-based thinking is still the norm across the industry, many built environment professionals have shown a real willingness to transfer between disciplines and several training courses have emerged in recent years in support.
  • Preparation and planning time: One of the side effects of digitisation has been an intolerance of uncertainty in design, this in turn has led to greater efforts being made to fully comprehend projects early on and before they start on site; efforts that take time. Such time can also be spent usefully ensuring that the design and delivery fully meet briefing objectives.
  • Procurement: This has, in recent years, explored many different forms, often in a misguided attempt at relocating risk away from the project initiator and ultimate paymaster. Success has been patchy, but best practice has fostered effective means of joint working amongst multiple parties interested in real and long-term outcomes.
  • Facilities Management: Commissioning and FM have a vital role to play in ensuring the briefed outcomes are monitored, optimised and achieved
  • Golden threads linking briefing to commissioning and beyond: Schemes such as Soft Landings run throughout projects encouraging checking and compliance with initial objectives set by the team. The notion of the golden thread has had a resurgence following Judith Hackitt’s work following the Grenfell Tower fire.
  • Whole life thinking: the capacity for assessing the whole life impact of projects is still a work in progress, but is developing into a very powerful tool for making decisions. At the very least it should enable the exchange of resources between capital and revenue budgets to extend durability or avoid short-term waste.
  • Shared stretch targets: Several professional bodies and other industry organisations have begun setting performance targets that go beyond minimum legal (Building Regulation) levels, e.g. the RIBA’s 2030 Climate Challenge and LETI benchmarks. These are being used in briefs and specifications to define demonstrable outcomes to be achieved.
  • Post Occupancy Evaluation: POE has expanded hugely in recent years as its importance has been more widely understood. The analysis and interpretation of the data from the breadth of practice is still in its relative infancy however.
  • Feedback and research: information flows, enabling comparisons of project outcomes happen, in the best practices and companies but inadequately outside these ‘secret gardens’, despite the best endeavours of many academic researchers.

Briefing needs to negotiate and encompass all of these features, the delivery of projects as well as their operation and use, to achieve some very difficult targets in the years and decades ahead.


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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