The Empathy Effect

Jessie Carroll on inspiration, intuition, and intention.

“As an architect practicing residential architecture, my theory on design is to approach it from a position of empathy,” says Jessie Carroll of Whitten Architects in Portland. “When I refer to empathy, I am referring to a relational stance not just with our clients, but also with the design process and context itself. A position that emphasizes hearing rather than being heard, where humility promotes collaboration, and a genuine curiosity inspires exploration.” MH+D asks Carroll to tell us more.

Q. Why is it important to develop an understanding of your clients?

A. Fostering a relationship with clients early in the process is critical to the success of a project. Often clients may not have the language to describe their needs, wants, likes, and dislikes. By approaching a project from a position of empathy as well as expertise, an architect can give words to the client’s thoughts and, ultimately, bring a shared vision to reality. For this reason my design meetings take the form of curated workshops where inclusion in the process is the intent and where dislikes are as important as likes. Mutual trust is critical and only achieved through a fine-tuned ear.

Q. How does a site reveal the design solution?

A. Good design further demands deliberate attention to the contextual cues provided by the site. At Whitten Architects, we begin with a comprehensive analysis of essential details: sun path, wind patterns, view, vegetation, and topography. Beyond the readily tangible, there is also a visceral response I listen for. For example, in a renovation project, does the house already know what it wants to be? Was there a purer form that once existed that wants to be honored? Most often, the structure wants to be simplified and wants to make stronger connections to the landscape. It takes boots on the ground and a trust in intuition to feel this out.

Q. How do you reconcile your research and observations with the budget?

A. In these early phases of design, we must then take our knowledge of the client and our knowledge of the space and consider the context of budget constraints. For better or for worse, costs will play an important role within design. Luckily, here in Maine, one does not have to look far for cost-conscious inspiration. There are many homes that have withstood the test of time, that work with our environment, and that have done so simply and within limited means.

Q. How does empathy lead to better solutions during the design process?

A. Once all is considered, then it is about allowing the design to take shape authentically. There is still some art to this. For me, it is about trusting my instincts, giving value to design thinking, and fleshing out various ideas fully. Dead ends are part of it, and sometimes the next best move is stepping away from the drawing board. Such a shift in focus can bring clarity to the challenge at hand. There is always the temptation to overwork a problem, which, perhaps surprisingly, can be the easiest path to take. But real beauty comes from simplifying the moves, making it look effortless. Ultimately it’s finding that nugget of an idea that informs the remainder of the project. If the design has taken shape organically, and if the intent is clear, then the design begins to take on its own life. It simply takes a humble ear to listen to the design cues along the way. My job is not to force the square peg into a round hole, but instead to understand the challenge thoroughly, and then thoughtfully shape its solution.



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