AIA Design Theory – Carol Morrissette

Carol Morriessette

Edited by Rebecca Falzano | Photography Ezra Wolfinger

Carol Morrissette’s initial design sessions with clients go a little something like this: She asks numerous, detailed, and—in her own words—“sometimes seemingly odd” questions. Her clients respond with “I never thought of it that way,” or “I don’t know, let me think about that a bit.” There are no simple, yes-or-no answers here. That’s because these are not yes-or-no questions. “This is my way of establishing an understanding of my clients’ priorities. More than likely, their responses have never before been articulated nor even considered relevant to the design process,” says Morrissette. It is this ruminative and authentic dialogue that helps her, and all architects, form an understanding of clients’ priorities, which will eventually be expressed through their building’s design. MH+D asked Morrissette to tell us more. 

Q.What’s a typical conversation about programmatic priorities look like?

A. Of course, there are the obvious spatial priorities: for example, the main entrance should be easily accessible from the public sidewalk, or the kitchen should be bathed in morning light. This 10,000-foot level of priorities helps form the “parti”— the organizing principles of the building—giving priority to one space over another via adjacencies. Simply stated: space planning. But it is the deeper, more intimate level of priorities that are articulated in the nuances of the spaces, and their relationship to each other, that become the building’s architecture. 

Q.What are some of these nuances of space in a design?

A.These articulations of priorities are often expressed through seemingly small details that have a very large and dramatic impact. Framing a singular view of the ocean with a window above a lavatory, where a mirror is typically hung, requires a person to look outward and feel the water from the faucet as they’re looking at the water of the ocean. That tactile experience is one example of how the established priority of experiencing the beauty of the coast is achieved. And sometimes the success of these details is measured by their lack of conscious impact. 

Q.What’s an example of this in your work?

A.One of my clients required a clandestine man cave, complete with NHL and NFL autographed jerseys, a urinal, and a built-in kegerator—and it was to be located near the garden-level entry. But it had to be absolutely undetectable to his guests, who would be passing by its door as they entered his family’s home. The end result was a stone wall that pivots to reveal the secret man cave; you have to know where to wave your hand to activate the sensor that magically opens the stone wall behind you! This family’s entire home embodies their priorities of interactive time with their children while also providing intimate, private spaces to retreat to—whether it is the soaking tub, the reading alcove under the stairs that’s only large enough for a small child and a dog (but not a child, a sibling, and a dog, per the request of the Big Sister), or the secretive man cave. It takes insight to ask the difficult questions about the way people live and how they want to live. It takes patience to parse their complicated answers. And most of all, it takes creativity to meld their sometimes conflicting priorities together, seamlessly. 

Q. In a way, architects are translators, correct?


A. Every decision an architect makes informs the design of the building and the experience a person in the space will have. Architects delve into subjects much deeper than space planning, budget, and curb appeal. I believe it is our responsibility to listen to what our clients are saying and to discern what they mean, in order to truly understand how they’re prioritizing everything. It is a privilege to be granted such intimacy and a huge responsibility to transform clients’ priorities into a useable form, a space that will last decades and has the potential to affect its inhabitants for generations to come. That legacy, the built environment, is a reflection of our clients’ priorities.

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