My Dream Home

Like general contractors with a psych degree, the architectural firm called fathom plumbs the depths of your soul to design the house you want. Our writer gets the blueprints of his dreams.

“Are you ready?” a man in a jacket and tie asks. I nod, but not without trepidation. Over the next two hours, after all, this guy will sift through my subconscious, plumbing the depths of my innermost thoughts. Dozens of his colleagues are waiting to pore over the results, analyzing every word and image for weeks to come.


And together, all these folks are going to design me an apartment.

I’m in the Pittsburgh offices of fathom, a collaboration of Astorino, an architectural firm based here, and Olson Zaltman Associates, creators of the Zaltman Metaphor Elicitation Technique. ZMET has been used by companies such as Motorola, Coca-Cola, and DuPont to get inside customers’ heads. Now fathom is adapting it to design.

The result is the Deep Design process, created to tap people’s subconscious desires about the spaces in which they live and work. Fathom has applied Deep Design to its plans for a new $470 million Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, as well as a condominium complex, a residential home, and a city park. And now, to me: For purposes of illustration, fathom has agreed to treat me like any other client (except for the part about having $8,000 to spend).

“To really deliver good architecture, you have to have a very clear understanding of what your client is thinking, and you can’t get that from a surface conversation,” says Timothy Powers, Astorino’s senior vice president of architecture and a fathom consultant. “You have to get the client to say those things in order to act on them.”

How? In an interview, the client provides images that represent feelings about a particular space. Then fathom brainstorms to suss out what the subject really wants. For the hospital, fathom interviewed 30 patients, family members, and staff. The result: the plan for a colorful building with more windows, lower beds, a movie theater, and a healing garden. “The interviews were very emotional,” says fathom cofounder and CEO Christine Astorino Del Sole. “It’s not only about design objectives but human objectives as well.”

None of which makes me feel comfortable about hanging my inner design self out for all to inspect. But as Lindsay Zaltman, another fathom cofounder, starts the interview, I find myself opening up to questions such as “How does sunlight make you feel?” and “Why is that color important to you?” Afterward, I assemble a collage of my favorite art. A week later, my words and pictures cover the conference-room walls. A team of designers has developed a report all about me and my housing desires. This is fun! By week three, I’m chatting up fathom’s interior designers about paint swatches and carpet samples.


The result is spectacular: a two-story penthouse that would fit nicely in the brownstone I currently call home. Skylights and a glass floor pour light into the space, while rows of bookshelves double as walls. The place is perfect — the ideal realization of my desires. Perfect, that is, except now I’ve got to go home to my real apartment.