Design Brief 

From the first client contact to project completion and occupancy, the development of a project is a continuing and evolving process.  It has its genesis however, during the Program of Requirement and Pre-design stages. It is also during these important phases of the project that the basic capital and life cycle costs of the project are established.   The program of requirement stage consists of the actual identification of the client’s program.  It is during this stage that all potential requirements are explored and validated, eventually resulting in the establishment of a Design Brief. Simply stated, the design brief must encompass the marriage of function and aesthetic with the end result being an optimal space allocation. From the client’s point of view, the purpose of establishing the design brief is to identify the intent of the project, to define the parameters for its realization and to confirm the feasibility of proceeding into schematic studies and design development.


For discussion purposes, it is necessary to define what is meant by the terms ‘Program of Requirements’ and ‘Pre-design’. The Program of Requirement Stage is where the client identifies the project and determines, with assistance if necessary, all the governing factors that establish the general program of requirements. 

The following items should be considered in this evaluation:

  • Intent and objectives. 
  • Origin and historical background. 
  • Need and market analyses. 
  • Client priorities and image. 
  • Location requirements. 
  • Physical and functional requirements. 
  • Legal considerations (zoning, deed restrictions). 
  • Quality and performance standards. 
  • Economic requirements (funding).
  • Personnel requirements. 
  • Method of accomplishment. 
  • Completion (occupancy) requirements. 
  • Environmental factors.

 The primary purpose of the program of requirement stage is to clearly state the project problems in philosophical as well as physical terms, leaving no doubt or ambiguity as to the client’s intentions and objectives. 

It is usually mandatory that the project manager participate in the formulation of the program of requirements for several reasons. One is to assume control of the proper accumulation and interpretation of the necessary data, so that it documents the usable information in the following stages of project development, including the financial implications for project budgeting. Another is to inject sufficient flexibility in the set of requirements to permit a creative approach to problem solving in the design process.

The Pre-design Stage is considered as the phase where the Client and the Project Manager review and finalize the program of requirements. The Project Manager in turn evaluates the parameters of the problem, advises whether or not these are feasible and whether additional data or decisions are required to proceed into schematic design. 

In other words; the specific aim of the pre-design stage is to determine the adequacy of the program of requirements, to identify any necessary information/input required to supplement the program and to certify the credibility of the project for the purpose of commencing schematic design.

Normally, it is at the pre-design stage that the architect is first involved in the project, under his fee for basic services.

Generally speaking, better planning processes or programming techniques will result in environmental spaces that are better suited to future needs and less prone to functional obsolescence. The process for doing this is commonly referred to as Architectural and Engineering Programming, the outcome of which is the Design Brief.

In its generic sense, programming refers to the planning of procedures. Architectural and Engineering programming has been defined as the process by which criteria are developed for the design of a space, building, facility, physical environment, and/or any unit of the environment. It is the means through which data about the needs of the ultimate building user are determined and expressed for the instruction of the architect in the development of a design solution.


 The preparation of a design brief can be done in a multitude of ways. However, its basic purposes are to:

  • Establish client philosophy and objectives.
  • Establish functional relationships between administration, departments, services, equipment, processes, community, patrons, etc.
  • Develop facility space requirements, based on activity programs, equipment needs, traffic movement, personnel projections, etc.
  • Summarize study results undertaken to determine community characteristics, economic base, population distribution, growth projections, industry trends etc.
  • Organize, analyze and synthesize all data collected.
  • Disseminate information.
  • Provide a base document for reference and review.

Preparation of the Design Brief

The Design Brief has two main functions. Firstly, the act of preparing a program forces the client to carefully assess all implications of the intended project. Secondly, in its final form, the design brief is a means of communicating information from the client to the architect and the consultant team. 

The preparation of the Brief usually extends past the program of requirements and pre-design stages. The brief must be written with the knowledge and understanding that it is a document prepared for a specific type of project in a particular location with a certain market in mind. At the same time, a design brief should not restrict the design team’s freedom. In fact, a well-organized brief should improve the design team’s capabilities and allow their workload to be concentrated on design.

The client’s design brief serves one prime purpose, that being to provide information. The client benefits as much from the information as does the design team, for in preparing the design brief he must ask himself some very important questions. In the process he will make major decisions which will affect the project for a number of years.

The brief also has other purposes. A well thought-out, well presented brief will obviate the need for changes during the later stages of the project. The properly prepared design brief should also lessen the chance for misinterpretations on the part of both the client and the architect, with the result that the designer will be able to make maximum use of space, equipment and people. There should be fewer chances of error in setting out the spatial relationships.

Format of the Design Brief

The design brief, as the development of the project itself, is usually assembled and issued in stages for the following reasons:

  • Not all projects develop through to completion. Therefore the brief should only be more fully developed as appropriate.
  • During the many months in the earliest stages of the evolution of the project, market conditions or concepts might change that would obviate the later stages of the design brief.
  • Many portions of the project may require further study to properly develop. For example, certain kitchen equipment requirements may not be formalized until the contract documents are being prepared because of the menu and operational input required.

Usual stages of the brief are:

Initial brief containing:


  • Philosophy of function and operations.
  • Space and occupancy definition and relationships.
  • Implementation program (phasing, if applicable).
  • Operating staff requirements (skills, number and schedule).
  • Site and climate determinants.
  • Land use and site development requirements.
  • Organization and management requirements for construction and operation.
  • Project objective.
  • General design requirements.
  • Summary of primary revenue producing facilities.
  • Operating philosophies of revenue producing facilities and other major functional requirements.


Space Requirements containing:
  • Functions. 
  • Capacities where applicable. 
  • Gross areas – Useable areas. 
  • Personnel count. 
  • Space relationships.
  • Project Schedule. 
  • Budget. 
  • Schematic diagrams showing functions and relationships. 
  • Pertinent site information. 
  • General description of project organization.
  • Final brief containing more detailed information and function requirements.

Collecting information is a fairly simple task. Collecting the right information, sorting, analyzing and synthesizing the information is the issue.  There are two basic methods of collecting data for the design brief. 

One is a session in which the owners, partners and senior managers contribute to and develop an outline brief. Alternatively, the client may opt to incorporate a customer survey or questionnaire. The questionnaire, though less intuitive than the first, is more systematic and likely avoids overlooking important items; forms and questionnaires can easily be reviewed and approved.

Each of the above methods has merit and both are often used in the preparation of the document. The first to prepare the initial drafts, the second to augment the information.


Based on the general requirements outlined earlier in this section, thorough research into the regional or neighborhood characteristics of the proposed project area should be undertaken to determine the influences on one another of both project and community. 

This assessment should encompass present and potential use(s) of the facility, commercial viability, local factors of indigenous character, regional funding sources (if applicable), the implications of local governing regulations, energy conservation factors and local environmental conditions.

This type of study can range from the implications of the Environmental Assessment Act on a potential development in a natural habitat, to the political participatory planning processes influencing urban proposals in a populated area.

Among the elements requiring investigation should be the following:


  • Use analysis and potential. 
  • Market availability. 
  • Scope of the project. 
  • Commercial viability. 
  • Comparison with similar facilities. 
  • Experienced operators’ recommendations. 
  • Local resources (constraints). 
  • Materials and services. 
  • Construction labor. 
  • Operating staff. 
  • Regional growth patterns. 
  • Population, industry, commerce (demand). 
  • Sources of funding. 
  • Mortgages, loans, grants, subscriptions. 
  • Governing regulations. 
  • Environmental/ecological. 
  • Zoning and building by-laws (national, provincial and municipal). 
  • Fire, health, labor, liquor. 
  • Insurance. 
  • Energy conservation.
  • Renewable resources. 
  • Reclamation. 
  • Specific environmental factors. 
  • Political (participatory planning). 
  • Economic – (market – target). 
  • Social (community relationship). 
  • Ecological balance.

Location and Site(s) Analysis

It may be necessary to explore the merits of the site relative to market accessibility, transportation access, terrain, vegetation, water presence etc. and to evaluate it on a scale of priorities. All factors of topography, soils, services and zoning must be investigated to confirm suitability of the selected site. Many of the required services to establish this information are provided by the client directly, or at his expense, through the project manager’s assistance in obtaining the required expertise. These include realty services; boundary, contour and utility surveys; soils exploration (borings and tests); traffic analysis, and environmental/ecological services.  Most other services indicated can be provided by the project manager’s staff and resources.  Again, special site characteristics are important to recognize as potentially form-giving influences on the design process. The fitness of a project in its site relationship can be a powerful factor in determining the character of a design solution, which may also be a reflection of structural, functional and operational economics.  Those aspects of location and site analysis requiring evaluation are:
  • Realty factors 
    • Industrial commission 
    • Land assembly 
    • Purchase vs. lease 
  • Suitability of location, form and cost 
  • Investigation of alternatives 
  • Transportation and access 
    • Pedestrian 
    • Vehicle (private, service, shipping, receiving) 
    • Public transport 
    • Road, rail, water, air service 
  • Land uses and functions 
  • Utilities (services)
    • Water 
    • Sewer(s) 
    • Fuel (s)
    • Power 
    • Light 
  • Communications 
  • Septic disposal system (when required) 
  • Parking, landscape (existing and new), drainage 
  • Terrain (preliminary boundary and contour survey) 
  • Subsoils (preliminary soils exploration) 
  • Existing structures (remain or demolish) 
  • Future development (expansion, conversion) 
  • Neighborhood/community relationship 
  • Orientation 
  • Climate 
  • Legal (zoning, building by-laws, etc.) 
  • Corporate identity/image

Financial Analysis

At this stage, the client normally develops a complete financial analysis of the proposed undertaking. An assessment should be made of acquisition and initiation costs including the costs of land, funding, consultants’ fee, construction implementation, marketing, taxes and overhead. These should be countered with anticipated net revenues from projected income, less expenses. Of further importance is the proper calculation of ‘front-end’ money or that volume of cash necessary to offset current expenses until sources of conventional funding are established. Note:  The “cost” of that money is not necessarily included in the total sum allocated.   Factors that must be considered in this assessment include:
  • Land costs: acquisition, servicing, re-zoning 
  • Financing:
    • Operational 
    • Preliminary, interim and long range capitalization 
    • Interest (return on investment) 
    • Fees (appraisal, brokerage) 
  • Consultants:
    • Legal, architectural, engineering, etc.
  • Construction implementation:
    • Demolition, alteration or addition (existing) 
    • New building 
    • Equipment and furnishings 
    • Site development 
  • Supplemental to construction:
    • Permits and utility fees 
    • Surveys and testing
    • Soils exploration 
    • Municipal levies 
  • Marketing:
    • Furnishings (model) 
    • Staff 
    • Promotion and advertising
  • Taxes and insurance 
  • Overhead 
  • Operating income and expenses 
  • Potential profit.


At each of the decision points in this process, it could be considered that a “feasibility study” of varying depth has been completed. A feasibility study, by terms of reference, can range from early assessments of site suitability or preliminary evaluation of financial viability to a complete proposal including: fulfillment of the schematic design stage together with outline specifications and an accurate cost analysis. It is only at this latter stage that the full feasibility of a project can be determined prior to a commitment to construction. However, for the larger or the highly specialized project where there are often large elements of relative unknowns, interim test points are indicated in the form of phased or staged feasibility studies to ensure the continuing practicality of the proposal on a regularly monitored basis.

Final Program of Requirements (Design Brief) and Decision

This should consist of a composite collection of all data compiled in the operational and facility programs, together with an outline or manual of project procedures to confirm the following objectives, time and cost constraints, performance and quality parameters and goodwill considerations.