Design Psychology: A Town Topics Column

by Lasley Brahaney Architects

QI'd like to renovate my house to make it feel more appealing, but I can't put my finger on what's wrong. Where do I begin?

AWhy is it that when you walk into some houses, you feel immediately that you belong? In others, you scratch your head and wonder how anyone could possibly live there. The answer may lie in your own history. Memories from your childhood could be the key to revealing your environmental preferences today. By bringing back those memories, you could gain valuable information to use when remodeling your home.

Last week, I talked with environmental psychologist Toby Israel about her work in the field of Design Psychology. In her lectures, workshops and book Some Place Like Home: Using Psychology to Create Ideal Places, Israel describes how she uses psychology as a design tool. She begins by asking people to create "an environmental autobiography" or a personal history of place. Israel then finds ways to link memories from the past to design solutions in the present.

We often are swayed by messages in shelter magazines, advertisements, home improvement TV shows and neighbors about how our houses "should" look. Through a series of exercises, Israel helps homeowners to appreciate their own design preferences rather than letting themselves be strongarmed into using someone else's stylized or homogenized design.

In one exercise, Israel advises participants to make a timeline of all the places they have lived. She then asks them to circle their favorite place and describe what they liked about it. Was it a covered porch, a window seat, a book-lined study? Perhaps it was a private hide-out where they could seek refuge from an annoying little brother. Having made this list, they can start to identify design elements—qualities of light, color, texture, material and space layout—or what Israel calls "highest positive" associations that made them feel good. Once these qualities are identified, it is possible to incorporate them into a current house design to make it more appealing.

In another exercise, Israel takes clients on an "environmental guided fantasy" by asking them to close their eyes, imagine a place from the past and describe it using all their senses. By evoking not just visual memories, but smells, sounds, tastes, and touch, a person often can recall in great detail a meaningful place from long ago.

One of Israel's clients remembered fondly his grandparents' house in the mountains. He recalled feeling a strong family connection and a great sense of outdoor freedom when he was there. He described smells of pine trees and views of rocky ledges. He had memories of lively dinners where the extended family sat close together at a long wooden table. When he was planning an addition to his house in Princeton, he realized that it wasn't necessary to recreate his grandparents' home in detail to capture those positive feelings. Rather, by using fieldstone for the hearth, adding windows and glass doors that opened directly to the yard, and having a long, rustic table with wooden benches instead of chairs, he could recapture the essence of those positive associations from his childhood.