Why proper briefs are key to successful projects

With completed construction and refurbishments often differing wildly from initial requirements, how can building surveyors add value in preparing good briefs and holding stakeholders to account?


  • Jonathan Conway MRICS

23 January 2024

City view

From its name, you would expect a brief to be succinct and to the point. However, as a profession, we need to ensure that the briefs we take are proportionate to the scale of the projects we are leading while being detailed and comprehensive.

In many cases, a brief represents only a snapshot of the project requirements as understood by the client-side representative who is in contact with the surveyor.

There is, therefore, a risk that the brief does not reflect the full extent of the project criteria and the aspirations of all stakeholders and future users of a space will not be met.

In many cases this could result in a significant capital commitment while staff remain dissatisfied, future costs are incurred to adapt the space, or dispute arises. The surveyor has a duty of care to ensure that these outcomes are avoided.

Establishing the client-side project team

When taking a brief, one of the first things the surveyor and their client contact should do is establish a client-side project team.

This could include end users, operations managers, facilities managers, IT departments, health and safety representatives, environmental, social and governance (ESG) representatives, and procurement leads.

This core client team will vary depending on the nature and size of the client organisation.

By establishing and empowering such a team, the surveyor should be able to draw on the knowledge and experience of its members to ensure that the project remains faithful to its original intent and vision, while the brief is established and then fulfilled.

In developing the brief, the surveyor should take responsibly for interrogating the outcomes expected by each of the stakeholders and ensure that these are recorded and passed on to the design team members.

Related article

How to design projects for net-zero carbon

Read more

Aligning brief and budget

Where possible, a consultant team – or design team – should be appointed early and the brief developed before the budget is set. 

Despite this, there are many cases of a budget being assigned to a project before a surveyor or even a project team has been engaged.

Any surveyor working with clients who have prospective projects should make them aware of the pitfalls of setting a budget too early, and instructing a surveyor or consultant team too late.

Failure to appoint a consultant team early enough runs the risk of a project operating with a restricted budget from the outset.

In projects where budget has been artificially constrained because costs have been reported before consultant appointment, that budget can become a disproportionate focus and distract from other critical elements as the project progresses.

My experience is that clients rarely enjoy being told that their project is going to cost more than they have budgeted. 

However, a competent surveyor should possess the expertise to discuss openly the exposure to risk that comes with authorising a potentially underestimated budget too early in a project.

Before committing to designing a scheme, you might want to approach your client to assess whether they have taken all associated project costs into account, such as those for professional fees, meeting ESG criteria, sustainability aspirations, infrastructure upgrades, furniture, fit-out, temporary storage and accommodation, specialist installations and statutory electricity, water and gas connections.

Expert experience can assess feasibility

To safeguard against mismanagement of budget expectations, there can also be significant value in a client instructing an early feasibility exercise.

This will ensure that the brief fits, allow for early identification of project risks, and establish an early budget cost plan based on an established brief – as opposed to an outline.

A cost plan is distinct from a budget as it is prepared by a quantity surveyor rather than being a client-led estimate. It generally relates to construction works, but can feed into an overall project budget tracker.

Of course, there may be reluctance to commit to the consultant fees necessary for this exercise; but this should be weighed against the potential for abortive costs if a scheme is designed and then found to be unfeasible.

This exercise is one of the critical stages where the expertise and experience of a building surveyor or project manager can add significant value to a project.

By carrying out due diligence at an early stage, they can give the client the confidence to make the decision to proceed or not.

It is then the surveyor's responsibility to progress a project in a manner commensurate with the project risks and cost profile; and when reporting on project costs it may be prudent to demonstrate a reduction in risk and associated cost as a design matures.

This will require close liaison with the rest of the consultant team.

A contingency amount is often allowed in construction budgets, too, but it seems less common to find such provision for other project costs including sundry items and professional fees. 

Where possible, the surveyor should build this into a project budget as early as possible.

A proportionate and well-considered contingency allowance for professional fees, for instance, means that change can be accommodated without straying outside a ringfenced budget.

It also makes for easier management of the consultant team, particularly in the event of significant scope change.

Depending on the scope of the project, it is possible that what are perceived as key project outcomes are given undue attention at this stage.

It is easy for clients to focus on final appearance, for instance; but they may not have considered the spatial implications, consequential alterations required to the building fabric and the impact that these have on the budget, or what mechanical, electrical or structural works might be required to support their aspirations.

The building surveyor can add further value here, by having the technical knowledge to interrogate concept designs and providing feedback on risk at an early stage.

Their breadth of knowledge is critical in building up a picture of whole-project implications.

They can work with the appropriate subject matter experts in the consultant team to develop a cost or programme implication associated with particular risks.

They should also partner with the project quantity surveyor to ensure that the client receives supported cost estimates for the risks associated with realising their ambitions.

Context and communication are crucial

It is one thing to understand what the client wants from their project; but to develop an effective brief you should get to grips with the wider objectives of their business.

You might, for example, want to establish whether they aspire for a net-zero carbon portfolio, what energy saving measures they expect, any accessibility criteria that exceed basic compliance, or whether they have any established maintenance contracts that could limit the equipment that can be specified.

You might find that the client looks to you for advice, and, in this instance, you will need to draw on your knowledge of current or prospective legislation, local and national markets, industry patterns, and your understanding of buildings and construction.

Be careful in such instances not to stray outside your areas of knowledge, and know when to bring in other expertise.

The surveyor receiving a brief should also take the opportunity to make sure it aligns with any other estate-wide projects or initiatives.

A holistic review can help to identify clashes with other projects, as well as potential savings from aligning them.

Although the surveyor is employed for their technical knowledge, the importance of clear, consistent and accurate communication should not be underestimated either.

This becomes particularly important around brief and scope setting, and introducing client accountability.

Each project stakeholder needs to understand the implications of their input for the project, including the accuracy of information provided, its timeliness and, in particular, the consequences of providing it after specific stages of a project, such as beyond the contract.

This is where the surveyor needs exceptional communication skills to ensure that experts from outside construction understand concepts and phrases that are generally only used within the industry.

Where appropriate it may be prudent to outline the RIBA Plan of Work stages, or specific stage gateways among a project team.

If you have the opportunity to build time into your programme for client review at specific points, then take time to explain the importance of getting detailed feedback at this stage.

Do also make the client aware of the risks and implications of changing the scope after tender or signing contracts.

'The importance of clear, consistent, and accurate communication should not be underestimated'

Ten top tips for taking a brief

  1. Interrogate the initial brief as soon as you receive it.
  2. Ensure that all project stakeholders have been identified.
  3. Consult all stakeholders at relevant stages of the project, ideally as early as possible.
  4. Ensure that project stakeholders understand the value they are adding with their input.
  5. Encourage your client to invest in the development of a brief and associated budget before they commit fully to a project.
  6. Check that your brief aligns with other initiatives or strategies your client may have.
  7. Establish communication channels as early as possible.
  8. Introduce reviews and sign-off at critical points in the project.
  9. As the project develops, build a clear picture of risks. Check these against the initial brief as often as possible.
  10. Introduce and enforce change control measures.

Clarifying impact of changes can reduce risk

In my experience, clients rarely understand the full implications of change on a project.

By establishing a clear change control process, they will be made aware that deviations from the brief beyond certain stages can have a significant impact on programme and cost.

If a client understands these, then they should be motivated to make sure they get the brief right first time.

There are many reasons that so many projects are perceived to have overrun or exceeded the budget. 

Many will be related – directly or indirectly – either to an uncomprehensive brief, or to a lack of accountability by the client team for scope creep.

A surveyor who understands the importance of preparing an accurate and comprehensive project brief can exceed the expectations of clients.

They will take time at the start of a project to build a team to develop the brief, keep clients and consultants accountable throughout the development of a project, and ensure that any changes are checked, validated and approved by the clients.

This approach avoids conflict, manages risk, and results in excellent buildings.


Jonathan Conway MRICS is an associate at Bidwells
Contact Jonathan: Email

Related competencies include: Client care, Communication and negotiation, Development/project briefs

Enabling RICS SME members to thrive

At RICS, we want our SME members to flourish. Our SME Business Support Hub is a great place to start finding out more.

Whether an experienced or start-up SME, you'll find tailored support and resources, such as: 

  • guidance on business models
  • statutory requirements
  • insurance
  • financial management
  • marketing and promotion
  • practical advice on aspects of buying, selling or leasing property.

We also send a monthly SME newsletter, sharing relevant support, insight and knowledge. You can sign up for this by emailing RICS directly.

Our quarterly UK Economy and property market update is also designed with SMEs in mind, providing the kind of detailed analysis and insight that may otherwise be out of reach. We conduct regular webinars as well, to take members through the latest updates and provide a forum for their questions.

Related Articles


go to article What effect will Tate Modern overlooking judgment have?


go to article Experience pays off in becoming valuation professional


go to article Why you should not conflate assignment and novation