The Architectural Design Brief

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An architecture design brief plays a vital role in documenting a projects required outcomes and deliverables, and so here we discuss what the document is, why it is important, and how to use and write one yourself…

What is an architectural design brief / programme 

An architecture design brief and / or programme is no different to any other form of design brief or even just a brief, as they all essentially aim to provide the recipient (in this case the architect and/ or student) with a list of instructions, requirements and directions to fulfil the authors needs.

A design brief can also be referred to and more commonly known in the United States as a programme, however they have and consist of the same purpose and information.

With regards to the document containing the design brief, this can be as detailed or as limiting as the author decides, and can be anything from a single piece paper or a fully-fledged bound document. 

Generally speaking the more detailed the design brief is, the clearer the instruction and direction will be, however too much information can sometimes hinder the design process by being too directive and limiting.

Equally a short brief or programme, may initially appear to offer a lot more creative freedom but later can hinder a projects development, when the design direction presented is not to the clients requirements due to the failed communication of the brief.

Why is a design brief / programme important 

Design briefs and programmes are the very beginning of a project, and without one it is incredibly hard for a project to exist.

They provide a vital tool for communication, that enables the client or clients to describe the desired outcomes of the end product (the building) to the architect or designer, helping them to understand what is exactly required of them to meet their needs.

Without a design brief, there is no clear direction and more importantly no record of the projects components.

The design brief also plays a very important role and point of reference for both the client and architect during the projects development. Where particular emphasis is put onto it during the conceptual and design stages, that often see’s the brief developing alongside the architect and past the client’s initial submission.

The brief or programme document also essentially provides an informal contract between the client and architect. By specifying the desired end product, it enables the architect to design within the client’s limitations and expectations, that will hopefully procure a building that both parties will be happy with.

This is exactly the same for a project given to a student in architecture school, except the client is often fictional. However the brief still outlines what is required and failure to meet it will result in an unsuccessful project followed by a low result or mark.

Where does the design brief come from?

Design briefs can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and at the beginning you may only have notes taken from a meeting or a jumbled email from the client, and so if this is the case then these should be formalised.

Some practices will a have their own briefing document that they provide to their clients at the beginning of a project to ensure that the correct information is provided from the outset, that would then be formulated into a briefing document.

For architecture students, it is common for the design brief to have been prepared by the year group tutors, and this will provide all the necessary information required to meet the projects required outcomes.

Final year students may be required to produce their own brief, in which case they will be responsible for creating their own client and finding a site relative to their chosen building type. This must all be researched and analysed prior to formalising.

How to use a design brief /programme 

In short, once issued with a design brief the document should be used as a check list and point reference throughout the whole design and construction process to ensure that the end product (the building) meets the clients requirements.

However to do this, the briefing document firstly needs to be broken down and analysed to ensure that you fully understand what is being asked of you. 

So go through paragraph by paragraph and create subcategories for the site, programme, client, and building typology, highlighting the areas that can be used to help develop the project, areas of importance, areas that need clarity, and the general deliverables for the project.

As architecture students, there will also be a list of what the project outcomes should be, and what you will be required to present in order to demonstrate you have grasped the project and successfully passed.

Special attention should be made to the number and type of drawings and documents required … the design brief is there to help and guide you through the project, and should always be by your side.

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How to write a design brief / programme 

Much like the analysis of a design brief, when writing one it must consist of a narrative, a site, a building typology and a programme.

Before any physical writing can take place however, the site must first be selected and this may involve visiting a number of potential locations before one can be chosen. 

The building typology may have an influence on this if it has already been selected prior to the site, as you will need to select a site relevant to the building type. There is little point in selecting a site for say a theatre building, if there is already one within close proximity.

But assuming that the building typology is yet to be selected, then following a successfully selected site, you must then research into what the close and surrounding area needs and will benefit from. i.e more housing, a school or maybe a visitors centre.

The narrative should then follow and provide the background information to the project, it is here that the client and the buildings end users are created, and you must provide information on who they are and why they require such a building. 

Lastly, the buildings accommodation and programme should be researched to identify the spaces required and the sizes they need to be. You need to put yourself into the clients shoes, and for this exercise become the client.

Design brief / programme checklist

Each section should include:

The site

Location, access, reasons for choosing, health and safety aspects, key elements or features that want retaining and any particular siting.

The building typology 

The type of building, size, use and demographic

Narrative

Who the client is and why they want to procure the project

The programme

Accommodation, sizes/areas, specialist items