Tanya Ross - A clear, well-written brief, gleaned from asking a host of pertinent questions, is the surest way the design team can protect and satisfy the client
"what I want is a building on this site," the client says.

"What else?" queries the architect.

"What I want is a building on this site … please?" Hmmm. I suspect that what the architect was really after was more information, rather than a politer way of giving it. It's great to have a confident client, ready to build, but a considerable amount of decision-making has to be done before the team can really start work on formulating a design.

For a start, is a new building really the solution to the client's problem? It's all too easy to spot an empty field and seize on the possibility of a shiny and ego-satisfying addition to the building stock, but simple lack of space can be overcome in more imaginative ways: an addition to an existing building; internal replanning; or decentralisation of the business itself, perhaps.

A more sustainable solution may be to establish how resources can be better harnessed, rather than indulging in expenditure on new ones. That's not to say that construction advice is inappropriate – far from it – but experienced professionals should be able to explore alternatives and to advise clients of their costs and business options. Once the client is sure that a new building is the best solution, then it can confidently move on to the next stage.

"OK, now I know why I want a new building. I can't fit all my people in the existing one and there's no economic alternative to something new. I want it here. Pretty please." Not so fast – there's still some more work to be done before we start designing. The next stage is to establish a brief. How big does the building need to be? What purpose will it serve? How will it be used? What are the budget limitations? When does it have to be finished? Without unequivocal answers to all of these questions, the design team doesn't have a hope of delivering an appropriate solution.

There is a temptation to give an inexperienced client the building you think it ought to have

Take the first question: how big? The client may be able to tell you 4500 m2, but then again it may not. It may only be able to say how many people it wants the building to contain. Then it will need help to translate that number into a net and gross area. Getting it clear right at the start will save huge arguments and acrimony later.

Then there is how the building is to be used. The client may not have considered this yet, but the design team will need to think about whether it's used at night, what its occupants actually do for a living, how they get to work … The more clearly these things are defined, the better.

Of course, if the development is speculative, and its eventual use is unknown, then the design team has a different problem: the main driver will be maximum flexibility. But it's imperative that the whole team understands what's really important to the client. Is it money? Is it noise? Is it time? Is it eco-friendliness? Is it corporate aesthetics? There is a temptation to give an inexperienced client the building you think it ought to have, rather than one it wants. Exploiting its inexperience may result in a beautifully sculptured edifice, much-photographed and applauded, but it may not necessarily result in a functional space where the kitchen is next door to the dining-room. It's my belief that most clients would prefer to have a hot supper than a design award.

Contractors, too, are guilty of exploiting woolly briefs. If the client doesn't quite know what it wants, any reasonably switched-on contractor is going to suggest the bath with a bigger mark-up. And although this may do wonders for the contractor's profit margin, it may not necessarily give the best product for the job. A tighter brief could help limit such abuses.

So it's up to designers to be responsible for educating clients and helping them to develop a clear, consolidated brief. It is this that's really going to get them the building they need. It may take time, but it's time well spent – and will save everyone a lot of bother in the long run.