The Bartlett School of Architecture


Emma Gribble

Emma Gribble



Thinking with space: Construction briefing as a collaborative design process

Primary and secondary supervisors 

Prof Alan Penn and Peter McLennan


Construction briefing has been defined as the process by which a client informs others of his or her needs, aspirations and desires…’ (CIB 1997). Briefing has been the subject of research for the last 40 years but it is still regarded as problematic and a series of government reports on the construction industry have called for improvements in the briefing process.

Alexander (Blyth & Worthington 2010:258) argues that a new approach to briefing may be necessary which is characterised by ‘an emphasis on briefing being a process of creative exploration rather than requirements capture’. MacCormac, interviewed by Lawson (1994:62) suggests that ‘… the design process defines objectives in a way which the brief could never do’.

The initial premise of my research is that briefing can be understood as a collaborative design process in which the client and architect explore options for a new entity which incorporates both the physical form of the building and the social institution that it will accommodate.

My research questions are - how does manipulating the virtual building during briefing/design affect the way clients think about options for institutional change? What types of knowledge do clients and architects use to predict behaviour and inform decisions? And if, as Hanson (2001:06.12) describes, the organisation of buildings appears to ‘encode different modes of institutionalisation’ such as autonomy and control, then how are these and other politically sensitive issues such as identity, security, hierarchy, change, and the allocation of resources managed within the design/briefing process?

My proposed research is a series of real-life case studies on medium scale institutional projects. The research methods will include ethnographic observation of design meetings, semi-structured interviews with clients and architects, and analysis of project documentation.

Analysis of the data collected will use constructivist grounded theory and space syntax methodologies. I will focus on two interrelated themes, 1) the social affordances of institutional buildings and 2) the strategies and tactics that clients and architects use to communicate, negotiate and make design decisions.


As a student I was more interested in the anthropology of buildings than pure aesthetics or technology – it always struck me as odd that so many architectural photographs and drawings were empty. What really fascinated me was the role of architecture in human society – how buildings are experienced and the influence they have on how we relate to each other and make sense of the world.

Since qualifying in 1998, I have worked on a range of social projects including schools, direct access hostels, community centres and supported housing.

In 2006 I took a sabbatical to attend the Advanced Architectural Studies (AAS) MSc course at UCL. This gave me the opportunity to reflect on my experience of working with different types of client and develop my understanding of the social agency of buildings.

My dissertation project, Brief as virtual building: how configurational is a construction brief? used a variety of research methods to explore the briefing process but the main focus was on standard briefing documents prepared by Government Departments to define the required characteristics of specific building types.

Following completion of the AAS course I returned to practise but I continued to be curious about how decisions are made, the role of clients in the design process, and the communication strategies and tactics used by different members of the design team.

In Autumn 2013 I started a part-time PhD at the Space Syntax Laboratory. In my MSc project I studied standard briefs, now I propose to research the opposite end of the briefing spectrum – case studies where individual clients are using a construction project to affect some kind of institutional change.

Publications and other work

Negotiating with space: institutions, power and the briefing process 12th AHRA Research Student Symposium Abstract

MSc dissertation 2007

Brief as virtual building: How configurational is a construction brief?