Vincent M. Smith came to feng shui by way of the theater. A graduate of Harvard College and the Yale Law School, he practiced real estate law for 25 years while spending nights and weekends perfecting his first loves: acting, directing plays, and designing stage sets. When he thought about it, he realized he was creating a home for the actors for two hours, designing sets that evoked the play's energy. “I was intrigued by the idea that you can create spaces that enhance the negative tension and anger to go with the plotline or do the opposite and create a positive space,” he says. “And that's how I got into feng shui.”

That's also how he came to publish a book, written with Barbara Lyons Stewart, AIA, called Feng Shui: A Practical Guide for Architects and Designers (Kaplan Publishing, 2006). It's significant that a book like this should be directed to architects, who traditionally have scorned feng shui as tilting toward the superstitious and new age. They've criticized it for the emphasis some practitioners place on decorative fixes such as wind chimes and Chinese firecrackers rather than on sound space planning. The language of feng shui can seem mystical and magical to serious professionals, with all of its talk about energy flow and the five elements (earth, fire, metal, water, and wood). But Smith says his intent is to de-Easternize those ideas, and that it's all about creating a harmonious environment that affects the way people feel and behave. “Things like hanging crystals and placing firecrackers over the front door are really the superficial aspects of feng shui and have nothing to do with its underlying philosophy,” Smith says. “As far as I'm concerned, feng shui is just a form of environmental psychology. It's about how space reflects who we are and how it's constantly affecting us.”

It's clear there's a connection between what makes people feel comfortable in a house and what feng shui, at various levels, is trying to achieve. Feng shui terms like chi—or life energy—and yin and yang are metaphors for the sense of orderliness, fluidity, and balance that architects are taught to design into their buildings. For example, Smith writes that porches and porticos are useful as a middle ground between outdoors and indoors because “the transition from the energy of the open sky to the closed-in space of the home is dramatic.”

Another example: When people enter a front door and are immediately confronted with a wall six feet away, it stops them in their tracks—Smith calls it blocking their energy—and creates stress by requiring them to decide which way to go. A solution for a wall that can't be moved is to hang a mirror that gives the space a feeling of depth or to hang a painting that reads in the direction visitors should go. Likewise, a staircase placed directly at the front door immediately pulls one's energy upstairs, where the private rooms are usually located. “For guests, having the private part of the home thrust upon their subconscious is generally not the optimum greeting,” he writes. All of these ideas seem fairly intuitive. Then there are the tenets that will surely lose a few architects: “Railings should be built on both sides of the stairs to create a feeling of support,” he writes, and “the risers should be closed so that energy does not ‘leak' through.”

Smith emphasizes that the principles in the book are meant to be reinterpreted, played with, and adapted. “At first blush architects think I'm trying to do their work—they know how to design a building and don't need a feng shui consultant,” Smith says. “On the other hand, many architects are like sponges. They want to absorb all of this because it makes sense.”

widening the circle

Well, much of it does. To the uninitiated Western mind, many feng shui fundamentals warrant skepticism. In her preface, co-author Stewart notes that while architects often apply feng shui instinctively, there's an integral mystical aspect to it that does change the design process. Feng shui means wind and water, and it's a way of interpreting how people can live in tune with nature. “It begins by understanding our human need for ‘nature' and ... creating the best environment for the mental and physical health of the person who will live and work in the space,” she writes. (Like Smith, Stewart is a principal at Panergetics, a feng shui consultancy with offices in New York City and San Francisco.)

Practitioners routinely use a complex, esoteric tool called the bagua—an octagonal overlay on a site or floor plan that corresponds to various aspects of the occupant's life such as relationships, career, health, and reputation. Geomancy, a form of divination, is also often used to read the energy currents in the land to determine propitious siting for a building. Brooklyn, N.Y., feng shui consultant Alex Stark, an architect, blends both the practical and transcendental aspects in his practice. He says that although feng shui was introduced to America as a Chinese practice, here and in Europe it's been transformed into something more holistic. Many of his clients aren't interested in feng shui's Eastern aspects, but they are looking to include some physical and spiritual components that aren't accessible through normal design channels.

“A lot of residential clients are interested in green building and want to provide the design process of their home with a greater understanding of how it should sit on the land,” Stark says. “Whether they're just being respectful to the environment or true to practices like a mystical path, they feel that the home is a container of that type of spirituality.”

For others on the spectrum, feng shui simply symbolizes an intangible sense of balance and well-being. Recognizing this consumer awareness, developers often use feng shui consultants to add value to their multifamily housing. Manhattan-based Tarragon Corp. recently hired Stark to feng shui a 15-story, 168-unit condominium project at One Hudson Park in Edgewater, N.J. “We realized we had the option of either doing or not doing his recommendations,” says Hilary Thomas, vice president of Tarragon Development Corp., a Tarragon Corp. subsidiary. “We wanted to see how it would enhance our design, and we believe that it did.” Stark came aboard during the design phase to advise on room relationships in the units and to provide input concerning the lobby layout and finishes. He also consulted on the design of an adjacent one-acre landscaped park, introducing water elements and suggesting optimal site lines. He even did a numerology assessment—an effort that resulted in his suggestion that the developer not use the number “4” (hence no 4th or 14th floors).

At Trio—a second condo project in Palisades Park, N.J., in which Stark was involved—Tarragon asked him to conduct a “ground-blessing” party to which public officials, consultants, and real estate brokers were invited. The developer also created a marketing piece describing the feng shui aspects of the building. “I'm not a designer, but I'd say there's a smoothness—a softness—to it,” Thomas says, adding that natural elements like water and stone lend a sense of calm in the lobby. “We hope it will bring a peacefulness to the residents when they come home.”