Stay off the drawing board as long as possible”.
Joern Utzon


New buildings start as organisational performance problems. Left unresolved, the discomfort between what existing space offers and what people need becomes acute. The first questions need to assess and document the current state in terms that let people also understand the magnitude of how much better life might become:

  • How well are we doing?
  • What should we be thinking about?
  • How do we make the case for change?
  • How much space do we need?
  • How might we measure success?

This first assessment can incorporate both the user’s perspective and industry benchmarks to open up debate on the way forward. Clients must be ready to fully test a business case with a clear-eyed assessment of current issues, and the criteria for future success.

“In 2021 AECOM brought Sue into the team that delivered a strategic review of the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ infrastructure and assets. DAF operates in 115 remote, regional and coastal locations ranging from office accommodation to biosecurity stations, to marine based storage and research and high-tech research facilities. DAF wanted to understand how the portfolio performed now, and how to optimise the footprint over the coming decade.

Sue directed team members to develop a detailed analytical tool to show the current state of play, recording data that had never previously been captured, and framing new insights that underpinned DAF’s strategic priorities. Our recommendations were well received – the Director General’s assessment was “a brilliant piece of work”. Sue played a key role with the depth of her understanding of workplace models and the need for agility, change and resilience in the asset performance.” Dr Mike Gillen, Industry Director, Buildings & Places, AECOM


“A building is ten people thick”
Jane Drew

Briefing spans many disciplines and should be a continuous cycle of performance evaluation undertaken at every scale from the chair to the city.  Whatever the context, the common concern must be to frame the problem, communicate expectations, evaluate performance and manage the process of change.

Conventional industry practice sees a brief as a finite document that specifies user requirements. Unconventional buildings with complex procurement pathways need to go beyond these propositions. The briefing process for innovative buildings needs to be an iterative cycle of exploration and testing that challenges assumptions, shifts cultures and invents new operating models.

Incredibly fortunate, I joined briefing meetings for a new build led by Sue Wittenoom/The Soft Build.  Each future-thinking session was tailored to our group’s plans and idiosyncrasies. The result is loved by our teams and visitors, with people collaborating, creating, and connecting.  Fabulous!”

Professor Kate Stevens, Director MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour & Development, University of Western Sydney’s flagship research institute at the new Westmead Innovation Quarter

Key documents serve different purposes through the life of a project.

Aspirational brief: Agreeing the big picture – the vision and objectives and scope to assess the feasibility of new building. A destination.

Strategic brief: The roadmap for reaching the destination. A proposition around new ways of working or learning. A program of design research that underpins a new operating model and sets up the initial scope for the design team: the why, how and what of the space brief and the risks of making it work that the organisation must address;

Functional design brief: The criteria for how the detailed spatial components should perform.

Design review: The continual testing of how design propositions realise the client’s requirements.

Post occupancy evaluation: The assessment of the final building’s performance – not only a technical review of the building fabric, but understanding the impact of the new spaces on the users and the organisation’s objectives in a way that supports ongoing learning.



A building is not something you finish. A building is something you start”. Stewart Brand, How Buildings Learn.

The key objective at the commencement of any accommodation project must be to manage the design process as a way of achieving the higher order goal of using  space to best effect for organisational outcomes. When the project represents a step change for stakeholders, then a framework that integrates engagement, training and communications must be included in the property project.

How do we link all the different components of organisational life to the project deliverables? Solutions built in the different project workstreams must be linked to ongoing performance systems. And while the design and construction team is developing the accommodation, the organisation must be preparing people for the building. A new building is just the start.

Change management embedded into a property project is a powerful means of shaping new ways of working and learning. It binds the users to the new environment and makes new expectations explicit:

  • How people at all levels are respected and expected to contribute;
  • How to rationalise operations and leverage new technologies; and
  • How to support people through disruption and transition.

Every stage of a building project can be part of a change process – but not every building project makes space for that work. To understand how much change you “need” consider the differences in risk in this model of workplace change.

The change scope builds on each tier from communication to consultation, re-engineering and ultimately transformation. The most complex project, where the building is both new and different, demands the integration of all of these approaches. And this applies to all kinds of building interventions – from interior fitouts through to more sustainable base building refurbishment options.

The theory behind increasing levels of engagement and involvement for the users draws on AGSM lecturer Philip Yetton’s research on situational leadership and decision-making models. To equate a building to a decision is a valid reservation, but even with this qualification, the logic test is at the heart of change. Does it matter if people are involved? Can you rely on their compliance – let alone goodwill and enthusiasm – if they are not involved?

We can’t not communicate. People need to understand what the future has in store for them. But if the success of the new building depends on their participation, then communication needs to go beyond broadcasts. It needs to be a discussion.

And a building project that is new and different needs engagement to manage the risks of innovation. How can any design team incorporate all necessary wisdom to craft the solution? The planning and briefing phases of a project must be seen as an integral part of the organisational change – and the many work streams involved – as well as the shapers of the property project.