Whether it's distinctly marketable or not, designing for good feng shui is a logical approach in culturally rich urban areas. David Baker, FAIA, of David Baker + Partners, Architects, San Francisco, has taken an AIA Web course on the subject. As a result, he tries to invoke some basic siting principles—such as including a courtyard with green space and running water that's visible from the street—in his multifamily projects. On a recent project located across the street from a cemetery, for example, Baker consulted a feng shui master on the site plan. “It's a diverse community with a lot of Asian folks, so we wanted to address it,” he says. One of the elevations was facing the cemetery, but after consulting with the feng shui guru, Baker says he turned it away as much as he could.

When single-family clients request the input of a feng shui expert, many architects happily widen the consultant circle to include them. James Brew, AIA, a Duluth, Minn.-based architect with LHB, met Stark while doing LEED consulting on a $60 million cancer center. When a client in Japan insisted on having an American feng shui master help to site a ski villa in Nagano, Japan, Brew turned to Stark.

Because he was unable to come to Japan, Stark did his analysis using video footage of the site, a plat sketch, and a high-altitude aerial photo. Meanwhile, Brew spent two days surveying the wooded site, marking the location of twisted trees and boulders half the size of a car. Then he sketched the land to scale, locating the footprint of the house. “I'm pushing for solar orientation and doing traditional wind and terrain analysis, trying to see if I can make everything work with Alex,” Brew recalls. When he laid Stark's final to-scale sketch over his own survey, he was surprised to see that the consultant had drawn a 3/4-inch-wide geopathic stress zone slashing through the site along the line of the boulders and had detected a ditch that fills with seasonal snow melt. “Japan has three seismic occurrences every day,” Brew says, “so we avoided the geopathic stress zone and pushed the house higher on the hill.”

By way of explanation, Stark says that this site was atypical in that stress zones usually aren't reflected on the surface. In this case, he used a remote dousing technique in which the site plan is cut up into a grid and individual blocks are “doused” using a pendulum to pinpoint the location of water, mineral deposits, and rock formations. “It's a standard check we do on all properties to see what's underground,” he says.

While Brew wouldn't suggest that every client go this route, he doesn't mind educating those who are interested in learning more. “Feng shui is a practice that's a little bit spiritual and takes a little faith,” he explains. “In some respects, we've lost a bit of our connection to the earth. If you believe that there's energy in all materials—and I think science has proven that there are protons and electrons in constant movement and that water is a strong element on Earth—then it's not a big stretch to believe that the orientation and placement of materials can have an effect. I don't think it's super-mysterious.”

asian fusion

Without necessarily subscribing to the whole philosophical framework, many architects have come to believe in its benefits. And when clients request feng shui, they view it as just another design constraint.

“The terminology is different, but there's a qualitative similarity between what I think makes people feel comfortable in a house and what feng shui is aiming to secure for a resident,” says Sarah Susanka, FAIA, Raleigh, N.C. A Vietnamese family once asked her to design a house based on good feng shui. Since Susanka was familiar with the principles, she had no trouble communicating with them. But when they began working with a consultant who was using the family members' birth dates to determine the most favorable direction for the front door and other elements, she says she told them, “You be the governors of that, because I don't know it.”

Although the project never progressed beyond schematics, Susanka envisioned some potential conflicts. “I'm sure there would be situations where I might take issue with where a kitchen was being placed if they were missing the boat on an opportunity for views,” she says. “We use a kitchen very differently than in the houses that were defined by feng shui in the days of yore.” One feng shui no-no in the kitchen, for example, is to place fire (the range) and water (the sink) on the same wall. Susanka says she would design around this idea, just like she accommodates clients with extensive art collections. However, she adds, “I'd ask how important this is to the client. Often architects don't realize that what the client is really looking for is someone who will steer the project in the right direction. People will believe things hook, line, and sinker because they want the right answer. I'm trying to satisfy the client: that's the point.”

Greg Watts, a project designer at Steven Conger Architects, Carbondale, Colo., has worked with feng shui consultants twice. Each time he says he learned things that made a lot of sense. And ultimately, it made for happy clients. On one project—a house oriented toward Mount Sopris, a sacred mountain in western Colorado—the feng shui master “clarified a lot of things in the clients' minds about how they think and made them feel that they were doing the right thing,” Watts says. They were just as happy having a spiritual consultant, he adds, as they were having a mechanical engineer.

For architects like St. Paul, Minn.-based Margot Fehrenbacher, AIA, who began experimenting with feng shui 15 years ago, the discipline has had surprisingly powerful results. In fact, she uses it in every interior design she does—whether clients ask for it or not. “We're awfully practical here; that's why I don't always say I'm using it,” she says.

Still, fundamentally, she views it as a good organizing element. “If you interpret feng shui's principles correctly, the results are much more interesting than straight functionality,” she says. “It adds an element you can't quite describe—comfortable, serene, nurturing—and as a residential architect, that's what I'm after.”