Architect takes innovative
approach to programming


Aiming to introduce some disorder into how Aggie architecture students think about design, architect Christopher Travis recently addressed Xuemei Zhu’s social and behavioral factors in design class.

“My goal,” said Travis, managing partner of Sentient Architecture and CEO of Truehome, Inc., “is to disrupt the way you think about design.” His firm, which takes a unique psychological approach to designing homes, is headquartered in Round Top, approximately 50 miles southwest of College Station.

He believes traditional architecture programming for private residences is based on a false premise — that people are rational when they’re asked what they want in a design for a new home.

“The truth is, people aren’t rational,” he said. “I’ve been doing this (designing residences) for 25 years,” he said, bringing his hands in front of him and holding them far apart. They forget the basic laws of economics. Here’s what they want (in a home) and here’s what they want to pay for it. They never, not one time, ever, match. What is sure is that if they don’t like the design, it’s your fault,” he said, citing his own early experience following clients’ instructions to the letter and producing drawings.

His first two clients came to him knowing exactly what they wanted.

“’That’s great,’ I said. I designed the house exactly, just exactly how they told me they wanted it,” he said. In neither case, said Travis, did the clients like the drawings and both clients considered it his fault.

He drew a comparison between traditional programming for residences and the financial system. “Traditional programming and economics are based on the same thing, which is that they work because people are rational,” he said.

The thinking, he said, is that people will look at a variety of choices, they’ll use their minds and make a good decision, and that’s what makes free markets work.

“Are you observing that currently, free markets aren’t working?” he asked. “The reason is because people are very emotional, they have anxieties and fears.”

Travis brings a novel approach to programming.

“What people are really after is, predominantly, emotional,” he said. “How it feels in a home, how it fits into their lifestyle, but they don’t know how to get there.”

Travis’ method of programming involves clients addressing more than 100 pages of questions and exercises asking about everything from what their values and goals are, to things they remembered from their childhood homes.

When he first began his questionnaire approach, he knew he was on the right track.

“For two years, every single first-round presentation I made got accepted, which was not the normal track record. We lost no clients; everybody loved us.”

“The conversation with human factors and behavioral factors in design is actually the central requirement of having a successful design practice,” he told the students.  “How you relate to people, how you understand people, how much you’re able to get inside their heads and predict what portion of the things people tell you about themselves is accurate relative to the space you’re designing is crucial.”

Travis wonders why architects don’t have a similar role in designing residences that designers have on, for example, the iPhone.

“The iPhone is about design not based on something cool, but about how people use something in a way that is effective. That’s what ergonomics is too. When you get into your Toyota and everything’s in the right place and makes sense that’s because somebody did a whole lot of user experience work.

“Where is that in architecture?” he asked. “Right now, less than five percent of houses built in this nation involve an architect.”

There’s never been more of a need for home design, he said.

“People are smart, well educated, they have become used to well-designed offices and things in their lives,” he said.” It’s very intuitive to expect that from your home. The reason that we don’t is because we don’t see the possibility of something different.”

Travis sees architecture teetering on the precipice of irrelevance.

“Architecture has become something that is a luxury item for the wealthy,” he said. “I say there’s a new wave coming, and it has to do with how you tailor a living space to human beings. This is an entirely different point of view, a development that should occur over the next 20 years,” he continued, “because if it doesn’t, our future is going to become irrelevant. Frankly, more irrelevant than it is now, because it already is for most of us who can’t afford it.”

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