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Brief and to the point

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As minds concentrate on how to improve construction-industry performance, more attention is being paid to the briefing process and what constitutes good briefing practice. However, 'there is little evidence that good practice per se actually has the expected effect when used in practice,' says Peter Barrett, professor of management systems in property and construction at the University of Salford. This was the rather unexpected outcome of a research project led by Barrett which aimed to identify best briefing practice. The researchers had hoped that they could identify what best practice really was, set it out and disseminate it. What the researchers actually found was a large number of examples where good practice did not work and examples of 'bad practice' working quite well. The book 'Better Construction Briefing' by Peter Barrett and Catherine Stanley, one of the researchers on the project, is based on this research and identifies five key areas where briefing can be improved.

The problem is that 'best practice' does not take into account different contexts or the non-rational side of briefing. Barrett and Stanley argue that much of the previous work on briefing has assumed a model of rational decision-making, beginning with the client setting a brief and then the whole lot is handed over to the designer to make a series of rational choices about the form of the building to meet the client's goals. But reality is a lot more confusing. Briefing can be a messy process with conflicting aims, insufficient information and a lack of clear responsibilities producing passable or excellent conclusions. 'The best you can do is to create a range of contextualised alternatives that seem to work for people who use them,' said Barrett. The human dimension is the crux of the issue here. Process guides are useful for providing a top-level framework but should be a given. Whether or not the process goes well depends more on human relationships and politics. For example received wisdom on good practice suggests that a project team should establish an overall project programme with critical dates and priorities. This tends to fail because it does not have everybody's support and so they do not adhere to it.

Barrett and Stanley have identified five key 'solution areas' and offer practical advice for them. There are two major areas: 'empowering the client' has to do with helping the client become effective in the project process; 'managing the project dynamics' relates to taking the brief through construction projects as a pervasive issue. That is key. Briefing encroaches on all as-pects of a project, from the moment before it is identified as the appropriate solution to a set of problems through to the feedback at the end when the building is in use.

There are also three supporting issues: 'appropriate user involvement' highlights the importance of talking to the user, an often misunderstood constituent; 'appropriate team building' looks at effective teams; and 'appropriate visualisation techniques' highlights the importance of communication, and that too often client and construction teams end up talking to each other in totally different languages.

The book is well structured and lucid, and illustrated with a wealth of anecdotes from the 16 projects used in the research. It's slim at 168 pages - but perfect for hectic lives.

Peter Barrett and Catherine Stanley, Better Construction Briefing, Blackwell Science, 168pp, £29.50

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