There has been a gradual erosion in the understanding of the briefing process within the construction sector over the last 30 years - a vital skillset when working with the complex nature of modern assets
Over the last few months I have alluded to the importance of understanding what clients and users really need from their assets and the potential offered by technology to get a deeper and deeper understanding of these needs.
Three and a half decades ago I was taught that there were three parts to the briefing process; the description of the need (from the client or operator), the listening and understanding process (from the design professionals) and the documentation process so that both sides could understand what had been agreed.
Over those three and a half decades I have seen many changes in construction, but possibly none so important as the gradual erosion of all three of these briefing skills.
Designers - especially architects - are struggling to keep up with the complex nature of modern assets. They are being “assisted” by engineers, data scientists and psychologists but we have not yet identified the skills and tools we should be providing to help this discipline really understand the problems they are solving.
Designers - especially architects - are struggling to keep up with the complex nature of modern assets
Clients and operators are faring little better. They are faced with many more supply side disciplines and interfaces while all the time their own businesses are becoming more complex in their own right. The needs they had at briefing time are unlikely to be the same once the shiny new asset arrives five years later.
Then there’s the third area of documentation. However good our understanding of what we really need, the way we document the brief - enable our emergent designs to be tested against it - is of vital importance. The use of a Word document, Excel data sheets, regulations, specifications and sketches just doesn’t cut it. Too much is left open to interpretation and the result is usually indigestible to the client. It is also very difficult to keep up to date and synchronised across many documents.
Technology gives us an opportunity to change all this. The emergence of sensors, phone data, ticketing systems gives us the ability to measure outcomes in an effective and useful way. If we could convert all our current briefing documents into a digital virtual world, we could use much richer simulation tools to understand scenarios and options. We could then present back to our clients using this virtual reality or gaming world - a medium they are more accustomed to.
The emergence of sensors, phone data, ticketing systems gives us the ability to measure outcomes in an effective and useful way
The concept of a system of systems has been long discussed by our utility and power colleagues. But to apply this to other public services we need first to understand far more about the education, healthcare and other key social services being provided. We need to use sensors to tell us what is really happening, such as the new social science measures - including outcomes and perception - to help us to understand the social impacts of design decisions.
This data fed back into an effective and clear brief would truly provide objective and useful insights on how well we understand our clients and how well we are delivering against these promises.
So, if this could solve the communication and client side issues, the question is how do we, as an industry, create a discipline that is a hybrid of all the disciplines that I mentioned above? How do we get capability, capacity and consistency of service so we can deliver functionally and aesthetically rich environments to our customers?
There is a massive opportunity here for us to collaborate both within and outside the construction sector. But it remains our biggest challenge. However fast and economically we deliver assets, the cheapest and best value asset is the right one first time.
Mark Bew leads the UK’s Digital Built Britain programme and is chairman of engineering consultancy PCSG