Last edited 06 Sep 2021

Main author

Oliverlatimer Student

Dynamic briefing for building design

Delay analysis.jpg


The client briefing problem

The process of identifying and clarifying the client’s requirements is often described as ‘briefing’ and is of critical importance to the successful delivery of a construction project (Shen et al. 2004; Bowen et al. 1999).

Poor understanding of the requirements of the client and the need for improvement has been emphasised in industry reports such as the ‘Banwell Report’ (Banwell 1964), and ‘Constructing the Team’ (Latham 1994), however ineffective briefing remains an enduring problem (Barrett & Stanley 1999). This was described by Smith et al. (1998) as the ‘Client briefing problem’ (J M Smith et al. 1998, p.4).

Weaknesses in current briefing practice in the UK include:

  • Inadequate involvement of all the relevant parties to a project.
  • Inadequate communication between those who are involved.
  • Inadequate handling of changes in requirements (John Kamara et al. 2002).

Research has found that there is little formal education for professionals in briefing and there are no generally accepted procedures (Barrett & Stanley 1999; Svetoft 2005). Not only can poor briefing lead to increased cost and delays, but also long-term inefficiencies for the client. Poor briefing is therefore a problem that concerns all parties to a construction project.

Many different approaches are taken to briefing. Below is a list in which Kamara (1999) specified the objectives, or information, commonly included in a completed brief:

NB: for a more detailed list, see the articles: Strategic Brief and Project Brief.

Static briefing

The traditional approach to briefing views it as a separate activity that takes place before design starts (Jensen 2011), resulting in the production of a document, set of documents or collection of correspondence material containing the client's requirements (Barrett & Stanley 1999). This approach is driven by an emphasis on the importance of the early stages of development to a project's success (J M Smith et al. 1998; Shen et al. 2004) and the widely acknowledged impact that late changes can have on cost, time and quality, mainly due to the reworking of construction documents and the implementation of additional work. Changes made after the early stages of a construction project are a major source of dispute and litigation worldwide. This has led to a culture that generally views a 'change order' as the failure of a party to fulfil its function in the construction process (Othman et al. 2004).

The static briefing approach emphasises the need to freeze the brief. A commonly used process map for construction, the ‘plan of work’ developed by the Royal Institute of British Architects, takes this approach, pushing for the development of an explicit and detailed brief as early as possible in the project. The brief is then frozen at the end of the design development stage (2008 edition).

Another popular map, the ‘Process Protocol’, developed from a manufacturing industry perspective, encourages fixing the brief before the construction phase (Kagioglou et al. 1998). Although it allows development of the brief until a later stage in the process, it can still be considered as leaning towards a static approach.

Dynamic briefing

The limitations of the static briefing approach are based upon the inevitability of changes occurring throughout the project, most significantly when the design has been 'frozen', after the static briefing stage. This is well described by Nutt (1993) who suggested that the traditional (static) briefing process is challenged by the nature and pace of change, that future needs cannot be predicted with confidence and that there is a need for a dynamic process. Extensive research by Othman (2004) supports this theory, identifying 30 unique drivers for development of the brief during later stages, using an extensive sample of case-study data. He suggests that this should be embraced using an approach called ‘dynamic briefing’.

The dynamic briefing approach has been defined in various ways. Jensen suggested that briefing should be ‘a process of feedback to, and dialogue with, all stakeholders’ (Jensen 2011, p.2). It has also been defined as ‘the process running through the construction project by which means the client's requirements are progressively captured and translated into effect’ (Barrett & Stanley 1999, pp.4–5).

‘Exposing client values’ involves identifying the needs and requirements of the client, from the level of their mission statement or business outlook, down to their specific needs from the construction project. Green (2010) offers insight into the use of dynamic briefing to expose client values, drawing from the observation by various sources (Bennett 1985; Goodacre et al.1982) that extensive collaboration over time is required between the designer and the client, as clients are often incapable of describing their own needs and objectives without being probed in depth.

Other research also suggests that designers need to conduct a facilitated and guided learning process with clients and users of a project (Jensen 2011). It is also noted by Barrett & Stanley (1999) that designers can easily misinterpret requirements expressed by a client, however this can be resolved through continuous follow-up and re-visiting of the issues through prolonged client-designer collaboration. The interpretation of the client's requirements and how they correspond to their real requirements greatly influences the efficiency of the design (Chatzi 2012). Much of this research supports a dynamic approach, suggesting that a continual process of interaction and collaboration is required for effective briefing.

Barrett & Stanley (1999) offer further insights into how a dynamic briefing approach can be effective in exposing client values. Firstly, they describe how, as the client’s confidence, knowledge and feel for the issues increase throughout a project, their requirements may change from those first given during the early briefing. If these changes are not picked up, the client may become dissatisfied with the project. They describe how the identification of these changes in requirements is dependant on continued interaction with the client throughout the process. ‘The briefing process must support the client through this journey from uncertainty to certainty in such a way that aspiration is turned to delight’ (Barrett & Stanley 1999, p.15). Sustained interaction is likely to ensure the client’s continued satisfaction with the developing scheme and enables them to highlight any potential problem areas before they develop further.

As well as the gradually-developing exposure of client values, there are a number of other internal and external influences that can cause late development of the brief. Some of these drivers, which were identified as being highly influential by Othman (2004) included:

Othman et al. (2004) describe how the dynamic approach to briefing can enable innovative response to these drivers for the benefit of the project.

Although dynamic briefing offers the potential to capture client value, techniques are then required to guide this approach as a design-management strategy. Thyssen et al. (2011) described this process as an on-going value conversation or interpretation and suggested that one way of capturing client value is through the use of Value Management (VM). This involves maximising the value of the solution from the concept stage through to building use by auditing decisions against value systems based on the client’s exposedvalues’.

A system developed by Othman (2004) was developed based on the idea that development of the brief not only offers the opportunity to capture value, but also presents a degree of risk. The Value and Risk Management Protocol (VRMP) integrates value and risk management approaches in order to control the development of the brief. The protocol provides a system that tackles brief development in four stages:

  • Firstly the problem is identified, then structured and pitted against the client’s objectives or values.
  • A process of generating, evaluating and selecting the best alternative is then pursued, whereby the value that could be gained is identified, followed by the risks.
  • Continuous revision and auditing of these values and risks is carried out in order to select the best course of action.
  • Finally the alternative is implemented and its execution is monitored and feedback provided to the client, design and construction teams.

The approaches to dynamic briefing described offer a counter-argument to the view that development of the brief after the early stages of the process is negative. Drawing from a wide variety of research methods and expert insight, the sources present a case that could be seen to support a view given in one working paper that ‘...conflict is most likely to be productive if handled well; confrontation of ideas can lead to creative solutions’ (Ness 2007, p.1).

There are however limitations to the use of dynamic briefing which must be taken into consideration. Feedback from the research by Othman (2004) suggested that if top management lacks desire or willingness to use a dynamic briefing management strategy such as the Value and Risk Management Protocol, then its adoption will be limited. Therefore the benefits must be clearly presented to the top management of all parties to gain support. It is also noted that a dynamic brief approach such as this is time consuming and requires large volumes of information. It is suggested that although this is a disadvantage in an industry where a squeeze on the briefing period already exists, computer software could be used to facilitate input, organising, retrieving, sharing and updating brief development information.

More general limitations are cited by Barrett & Stanley (1999), with regards to the barriers to change. They suggest that in reality, firms are very tentative in taking up change, and that although this may seem irrational at a whole-industry level, it must be accepted that they have to judge decisions at a local level. In order to bring about widespread change of briefing practise, consensus must be achieved throughout the system of organisations; otherwise change will be limited to satisfying existing relationships while making slow progress towards improvement.


A key concept to be drawn from this review of literature is the reliance of value capture upon the initial exposure of client values, reflected in the initial theory proposed by Thomson et al. (2003) which identifies how the value assessment framework is based upon the initial client values. This is exemplified by Barrett & Stanley (1999) who claimed that an ‘efficient’ project may be delivered in the presence of ineffective exposure of client values, however the client will remain dissatisfied with the end product.

It is also evident that dynamic briefing offers an opportunity far greater than traditional approaches to effectively expose client values and capture client value. However the recommendation that appropriate techniques and systems must be used to ensure the effectiveness of the approach is particularly important. There are also clear limitations in the form of social and practical barriers to change, which must be addressed.

Some promising new concepts being explored which relate to the dynamic briefing approach include research by Green (2010) which views clients as ‘social systems’, describing construction professionals as researchers who can use metaphors as a method for understanding clients and their needs. Research based on organisational theory such as this provides an interesting angle from which to approach the use of dynamic briefing, potentially offering a means by which the limitations mentioned could be counteracted. Other concepts offer the opportunity to extend the scope of the dynamic briefing approach, such as the feedback frameworksoft-landings’ (BSRIA & Usable Building Trust 2012) which encourages extended involvement of construction and design teams to enable continuous feedback and improvement.

This article was written by --Oliver Latimer. It was runner up in our 2013 CIOB-backed article competition.

Related articles on Designing Buildings Wiki

External references

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again