New and Different

A primer on innovation for people with building projects.

The conventional design process for a new building should establish a project vision and objectives as well as documenting the functional brief. When the project is an upgrade or replacement of an existing facility, then the existing building is essentially a proxy for the new development. This approach suits conventional projects in stable times, but most organisations are now demanding more from property. New building projects are increasingly key inflection points for change:

How might the design process deliver new buildings and spaces that shape different ways of working and learning?
How can the design and documentation process be a scaffold for organisational change?

Global consultancy DEGW developed a framework for supporting innovation over its thirty-year history that combined evidence-based design research and user engagement. This approach means that change is built into the process from the outset and not seen as a communications overlay. This is the core of The Soft Build philosophy.

There are two additional briefing phases that provide the basis for innovation: Aspirational and Strategic Briefing. Together they deliver structured processes for involving the end users in the definition of the problem and building commitment to the solution. They define the organisational problem that the building needs to solve. The Aspirational Brief builds awareness and harnesses ambition. The Strategic Brief broadens the conversation to develop a roadmap for the journey.(1)

Aspirational Briefing

The Aspirational Brief sets out the organisation’s vision and over-arching objectives for new buildings and spaces. It articulates the vision, guides design, and identifies related programs needed to support the effective transition to the future way of living, working and learning.

It’s based on focused, strategic engagement with the organisation to understand drivers, objectives, priorities, the aspired way of working, and the role that accommodation can play in achieving the organisational and operational vision. This process of engagement stimulates discussion, raises awareness of the opportunities, and opens possibilities for the workplace. It synthesises and distils the organisation’s vision into a set of design principles or guidelines that can guide decision making.

The Aspirational Brief becomes the leadership team’s manifesto or statement of intent for the new building or workplace, broadcasting an agreed position that drives all aspects of design. The kinds of consultation processes used to develop an Aspirational Brief can include:

  • Initial review of organisational structure & strategies
  • Walkthrough of current facilities
  • Leadership interviews and workshops
  • Involving a cross-section of staff in Envisioning Workshops
  • Measurement and Benchmarking


Key questions to answer in this consultation process are:

  • How are we doing now?
  • What is changing in our environment?
  • How are we responding to these shifts?
  • Who can we learn from to understand what’s possible?
  • How does this new environment need to be different?
  • What are our priorities for this opportunity?

Strategic Briefing

The Strategic Brief builds upon the vision and objectives articulated in the Aspirational Brief to develop more detailed strategies for achieving spatial objectives. This phase of work draws upon more detailed consultation and analysis to explore issues and opportunities, and outline recommendations for implementing the principles agreed in the Aspirational Brief.

In addition to a developed explanation of organisational needs, the Strategic Brief proposes concepts to be incorporated in the physical characteristics of the workplace, and documents the new user experience in order to orchestrate both physical and digital platforms into one holistic outcome.

The Strategic Brief usually contains a summary of spatial requirements and required adjacencies/ relationships, and provides sufficient detail to form a platform for schematic design. The kinds of consultation processes used to develop a Strategic Brief can include:

  • Detailed analysis of current workplace facilities
  • Workstyle workshops to understand diverse tasks and work patterns
  • Web-based Workplace Performance Survey open to all stakeholders
  • Space Utilisation Survey to analyse patterns of use over time
  • Targeted Observations – ethnographic mapping to qualitatively observe patterns of work and behaviours in the existing workplace
  • Impact Mapping Workshops to identify key workplace factors on productivity and establish a hypothesis for improving productivity via workplace design factors

The final Strategic Brief should build on the vision and guidelines established in the Aspirational brief and cover:

  • Development of key principles
  • Design strategies to support key principles
  • User experience mapping
  • Summary of workstyles within the organisation
  • Spatial configuration of the building
  • Workplace strategy or zoning model
  • Rationale for allocating spaces
  • Summary of spaces to be provided across individual, team and organisationally shared spaces
  • Detailed space budget
  • Risks and implications for process, organisational and behavioural changes

While the actual documents are important guides for the design process that follows, the most important outcome is agreement on what needs to change, why it needs to be done now and how that is going to happen.

Author note: Sue Wittenoom is the founder of The Soft Build, a consultancy that develops change frameworks for new buildings, places and spaces that need to work differently.
Originally published in May 17, 2016 on LinkedIn


  1. Shawn Callaghan, founder of the narrative consultancy anecdote, has written a white paper that picks up the theme of successful organisational change as a series of journeys that move from intent to strategy to implementation. It’s brilliantly and powerfully illustrated through the case study using the legendary narrative of discovery from the story of Lewis and Clark, the explorers who crossed the American continent.


The Soft Build is a strategy consultancy that helps people use buildings as a scaffold for organisational change.

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