Design briefing

The generation of an architectural design begins long before the first sketch is made, and involves many people other than the architect. These pre-design activities are critical for a successful design and should not be overlooked. They are captured in the design brief.

The design brief is a message between the clients or users and the designers. It is equally important for both parties. A brief written wholly from the viewpoint of either party may leave gaps or make false assumptions. Brief writing is a skill requiring an understanding of both users and designers – a skill which fits ideally with CAR’s range of expertise.

In order to build up the information for a brief, CAR uses a variety of techniques including interviews, user surveys and activity simulation.

There is no standard format for a design brief. In practice it can vary from a single, vague conversation to a document with hundreds of pages of detailed data – but neither extreme is likely to be successful. CAR’s practice is to organise the material into a manageable number of ‘modules’ dealing with distinct issues. Each module makes the connection between client/user requirements and design considerations, establishing a shared understanding about design objectives.

The modules in a CAR brief vary from project to project, but typically include the following:

  • Functional requirements
  • Privacy and social interaction
  • Projected growth
  • Environmental targets
  • Security
  • Entrances
  • Disabled access
  • Car and cycle parking
  • Planning, conservation and other site constraints

A good brief must be backed up by a good design team. CAR can help with design team selection. This starts with a long list of designers with relevant experience, followed by shortlisting in consultation with the client. The shortlist can be interviewed or invited to submit design ideas. CAR acts as technical advisor for the client’s final selection.

With a good brief and a good design team, the design stage of a project sets off in a positive and constructive way from day one.

Design briefing provides exceptionally good value for money. The cost is a fraction of 1% of the construction budget, and is repaid many times over by an efficient design process and a building that matches the client’s and users’ needs and aspirations.

W. Fawcett. ‘Staff satisfaction in new offices: findings of an interactive computer questionnaire’, Property Management vol.10, no.4, 1992, pp.338-346.
W. Fawcett. ‘Architecture: functional approach; or, the case for user research’, Architectural Research Quarterly vol.1, no.3, 1996, pp.8-15.
W. Fawcett, I. Ellingham & S. Platt . ‘Reconciling the architectural preferences of architects and the public: the Ordered Preference Model’, Environment & Behavior, vol.40, no.5, 2008, pp.599-618.


William Fawcett
01223 460475

Although a design is not generated by the brief but by the architect's own design knowledge, the form of the brief plays a vital role in focusing effort towards solutions that are relevant to the client's requirements.
CAR wrote the brief for the successful new Faculty of English building at the University of Cambridge (Allies and Morrison, Architects).