A Guide to Dissecting Architecture Briefs

Architecture briefs may seem complex and overwhelming but there is a masterful process in learning how to dissect and explore them in a way that supports the upcoming design project. Students either face weeks of designer’s block, not being able to connect to the brief or they try and explore every single avenue resulting in an awkward and overflowing design which ultimately doesn’t work out.

In this guide, we’ll explore 3 simple processes that can take place as soon as you receive your design brief. Do note that this is aimed specifically at university project briefs and not ones of those for competitions or commercial work. These are often structured in a different way and have much shorter timescales which do not allow for the full exploration and extraction of ideas.

A university brief is often set by the unit or studio tutors and will often reflect the creative interests of the tutors involved, whether it is from their own academic or professional work or related to something they have previously explored in previous years. Understanding and researching unit ethos is a great way to figure out which studio may be better for you. Research is key here. Don’t just limit yourself to the overall theme or topic as a connection node, but think carefully about the process of the project throughout the year.

Sometimes, architecture briefs can be split into 2 or sometimes 3 different stages. The first stage is often a smaller task – often in a different media – to help you ease into the context and build your skills in a new area. Previously, I’ve worked on furniture design, animation and model-making for initial projects. These may also heavily rely on external media such as paintings or film as a starting point. The architecture briefs will then be closely linked to this initial project.

BArch vs MArch

In the UK, the jump from undergraduate to postgraduate is quite noticeable, more so in the recognisation that postgraduate is far more independent. Think about it. You’ve had 3 years learning about architecture and quite possibly experiencing it in the real world.

Therefore, the architecture brief works in a similar way and is usually regarded as a starting point from which your project can deviate quite a bit. In this case, you do have a bit more leeway, especially if you’re in your final year of architecture school where it is recommended that you explore your own interests within the loose brief context.

💣 Explode

The first part of understanding architecture briefs is to, well, read it. Not just once or twice, but read it over and over till the words actually start to register in your mind. I know how easy it is to just skim read but once you do this multiple times there will be words and phrases that stick out at you the most.

These will make you pause and think and in those moments, you need to begin annotating. If you have an online version of your brief, I’d suggest pasting it into a Word doc, setting the line spacing as far as it can go – to leave room for annotation – and then printing it out and using a highlighter or red pen to comb through the text.

Pick out keywords that appear often or underline the ones you don’t really know the meaning of. This is important because sometimes architecture briefs can be filled with jargon so you need to make sure you get what things mean otherwise you could interpret it in the wrong way.

After you do your annotating and research, list out the bits that have caught your attention. Maybe it’s make you think of a building or project or even an idea that you are intrigued about. This is where your creativity will shine. Don’t be afraid to brain dump at this point. The more ideas you have, the better they will grow and formulate into initial concepts.

Once you have done this exercise, stop. Giving your mind a break and rest is equally important as the creative process. If you don’t, there will be a point where your ideas dissolve or you feel tired from the continuous ideation.

Coming back to the brief, maybe after a few hours or even a day will help you see those special ideas more clearly. You can start to rationalise between what could make for a good project and what might not. This is really where you have to lean into your designer’s gut as no one else can make these decisions for you.

Visual Sketchnoting

Something I’ve been really enjoying of late is sketchnoting. This is a little more complex than your regular mind-map, but it works in the same way. If you’re a visual thinker, sketchnoting is just like writing notes but using icons, diagrams and a sporadic layout to organise all this information.

I sketchnote whilst listening to podcasts because they allow me to pick out the concepts that may mean something to me rather than frantically trying to type out everything the hosts are saying. Using iconography, you can immedietly associate ideas with the content and make it like a visual story.

Research Past Architectural Briefs

Like I mentioned before, if your unit or studio has been around for a few years, chances are that the previous briefs may hit similar themes and ideas. Doing research is so important at this stage!

  • Talk to your tutors to gain a better understanding of what they are most interested in about the brief. (I asked this question at unit interviews and every tutor was impressed)
  • Look at works of previous students, particularly the connections between their project and their brief.
  • Read up on other unit briefs as well – even if they are not obviously related, it can still invoke ideas you may not have thought about.

So what does exploding the brief actually achieve? At this stage, it’s not about trying to come up with the perfect project on the spot. It’s really about setting the context of your project through the brief.

You’ll be naturally inclined to go with ideas that relate to things you are interested in, have experienced before or didn’t even know about. Stick to this gut feeling. If you don’t have a personal connection to the ideas that are coming about, chances are that your project won’t develop into something you are eventually happy with.

💧 Extract

Now that we’ve explored different avenues, it’s time to hone down and extract out those gems. By gems, I mean viable ideas that have potential but are still interesting and possibly even risky!

One piece of advice I was given when beginning my MArch is to take risks. I don’t mean leaving your building design to the last week of term. I mean creative risks.

Challenge yourself to go that extra mile that might seem impossible or to raise questions and dive deep into what could happen if it was possible.

If you’ve been following along the steps I’ve mentioned so far, you should have a list or a mind map of 4-5 ideas that have stuck out to you from the brief. These can be obvious or these can be totally out of the world crazy. Make sure you are keeping in contact with your tutors as well.

They are there to guide you, not take over your entire project so take what they say with a pinch of salt. Usually, they will steer you towards ideas that could turn into amazing projects and have a sliver of their own personality thrown in. Other times – and this is rare – they will tell you to stick to the first idea they give you. Before committing to an idea, remember that this is the point in your project where things aren’t set in stone yet.

But this is realistically the only time you have to play, change your mind, try other things. Leaving this till too late will eat into your design time and on top of other modules and deadlines, it will get quite tricky to conclude on the one idea. Don’t spend too long extracting that it becomes the only thing you do for the next few months.

Use other media to accompany your ideas. This could be a documentary, lecture or podcast you find on the topic. This doesn’t need to be a turning point, it’s more for exposing yourself to other aspects you might not have thought of.

Sometimes, studios may encourage watching or reading other media to find those connections to architecture. It is here where you will begin to apply your ideas to the extracted concepts.

🧪 Experiment

In most cases, architecture briefs don’t need to be restrictive or confine you to a short list of outcomes. Sure, there will be guidelines and possibly even requirements but these should be taken as a starting point rather than a cage.

One thing I found during my undergraduate was that students found it difficult to justify and relate back to their brief in the final stages of their projects. This often led to the projects deviating a little too much so as to not fit the vision of the studio. Doing this is risky, so it’s better to keep the brief in view throughout the project.

This can also be great for those moments where you go blank or don’t really know how to proceed. Using the architecture brief as a crutch later on in the project will let you experiement with smaller ideas without trying to make them up from thin air.

Stay Flexible

I know I mentioned not letting the initial stage drag on too long, but staying a little flexible will allow for those quesitons and thoughts to brew for a while, possibly even resulting in some standout concepts.

When experimenting with the brief, it doesn’t need to be anything grand, complicated or final. The whole point of the design project and the brief is to lead you towards the experimentative stage where you’re not necessarily designing anything, but searching for those foundations and building blocks. Plus, we all know a building is nothing without a foundation!

Final Thoughts

Dissecting architecture briefs don’t need to be complicated. Hopefully through this guide, you’re able to get a clearer understanding of how to approach briefs and what the early parts of a design project may look like. Don’t be scared of the brief. It’s there to help and guide you towards your ideal project.

Do you want to have a look at some design briefs to get your cogs going?

Below you can find an archive of unit briefs from the University of Greenwich.

BArch Unit Briefs

MArch Unit Briefs

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