Designer Michael Anschel used scale, material, and colors to provide visual separation in this open, loft-like space so his client would feel cozy and comfortable.
Designer Michael Anschel used scale, material, and colors to provide visual separation in this open, loft-like space so his client would feel cozy and comfortable.

Remodelers like to joke that after 10 or 20 years in the business, it would be easy to trade a toolbelt for a steno pad and set up shop as a psychiatrist, says Michael Anschel, a partner in the Minneapolis firm Otogawa-Anschel. A new consultancy in Washington, D.C., has taken that notion of remodeler as psychology expert and turned it inside out. Rather than using psychology to support the process, Psychology of Setting Associates begins with it, offering psychological assessments of commercial and residential spaces that aren't meeting their occupants' needs. “I look at how the space affects people consciously and unconsciously,” says founder Katherine Morris, who holds a doctorate in psychology. Sometimes Morris' suggestions for reshaping space are similar to those a remodeler might offer. An uncomfortable living room, for example, might require a redirection of foot-traffic.

STORY TO TELL Other findings are produced by delving into what Morris refers to as “the story of the space.” A piece of furniture, for example, might need to be removed because it was a gift from an in-law with whom one of the clients has a strained relationship. Such unconscious negative associations, Morris says, can affect the degree to which people enjoy or find comfort in a space.

Though it might sound fuzzy at first, remodelers who specialize in design say that Morris is on the right track: Client psychology involves more than just keeping homeowners sane through a project.

“Psychology of space is essential to any design,” Anschel says. “If you're not considering how an individual thinks or feels or acts in a space, or how that person is hoping to think or feel or act in the space, you've missed the mark. That's exactly what we do as remodelers.”

The challenge for remodelers is to determine what a client really wants without making the client uncomfortable. Marlene Buckner, a designer at MasterPlan Remodeling in Portland, Ore., says that in addition to listening to the client's complaints, she makes mental notes as she observes a space. “I'm always looking at how people live,” she says.

Small details, such as how cooking utensils are stored in the kitchen, can be revealing, she says. Is everything put away and out of sight, or are there spatulas and whisks in a can on the counter? These kinds of details can guide designers to the best aesthetic for the client.

DEFINING CLIENT NEEDS Though not all jobs demand psychoanalysis, Anschel says, most require a deeper look because clients find it difficult to articulate what they really want out of the remodel. “Most people have a pretty poor sense of what's actually wrong with the space and what they want to accomplish,” he says. They may think they know, but the reality is often different from a client's perception of it.

Part of the problem, Buckner adds, is that clients adapt to their homes, rather than shaping the space to suit their needs and tastes. Their understanding of the space becomes entrenched, and they can't imagine its true potential. Frequently, she says, a room that the client wrote off and only remodeled at the company's urging becomes the most important room in the house. “It's the subconscious experience they're having with the space that creates the problem,” Buckner points out.

“Every remodeler, every designer, every architect tries to get inside the client's head,” Anschel says. “The better they are at understanding how this person moves around, the better job they're going to do in meeting expectations both perceived and real.”