• Christine Astorino, Fathom. December 22, 2008. Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky)

    Credit: Jeff Zelevansky

    "The word 'fathom' is about depth," says Christine Astorino, referring to the name of her firm, which she launched after nearly a decade in landscape architecture. "Since our process is very fluid, it also relates to water, and to things bubbling to the surface."

When Christine Astorino takes on a design project, she dispenses with the typical designer–patron interview, which generally doesn’t get beyond a rote series of questions. Instead, Astorino sends clients to the proverbial couch to plumb their underlying and often inexpressible objectives, using a process that combines architecture, psychology, and art therapy. She does this through Fathom, the consultancy she founded in 2003 to help architects discover their clients’ unspoken needs.

About 95 percent of what people think and feel remains unspoken, says Astorino, and architects usually work only with the articulated 5 percent. “That’s just scratching the surface,” she says. Fathom aims to comprehend, and design for, the elusive 95 percent.

The firm’s typical approach involves assembling a multidisciplinary team for each project: psychologists, anthropologists, color experts, and designers from other disciplines. The team then works with clients in what Astorino calls a “sensory exploration,” establishing the clients’ needs beyond what they may say to an architect. “If I bring an ethnographer to an interview,” she says, “they notice things that an average designer wouldn’t.”

Fathom operates under the aegis of Astorino, the Pittsburgh architecture firm founded by Louis Astorino, Christine’s father. The practices have collaborated on several projects—including the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh and a library in Canonsburg, Pa.—but Fathom also works with other firms. It assisted HOK Sport with Consol Energy Center, the arena for Pittsburgh’s National Hockey League team that will open in 2010. Most recently, however, Fathom helped Astorino with the new Veterans Recovery Center for the H. John Heinz III Progressive Care Center, a Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) campus in Pittsburgh.

Tim Powers, the principal in charge of Astorino’s healthcare studio, worked with Fathom on the VA center, which opened last November. “I’m an architect,” he says. “I think like an architect, and when you ask an architect a question, you get an architectural answer. And if an architect is at a meeting, even clients start talking architecturally. At the beginning of the VA project, we were not ready to talk about an architectural solution. We were trying to get the big picture.”

The old recovery center, says Astorino, was basic dormitory-style living: “a series of small bedrooms and one community room with a blaring television.” The facility accommodates veterans for three to six months, rehabilitating them from chemical dependency, mental illness, or homelessness and moving them back to an independent life—a task made more challenging in a space that resembles college housing.

“For the VA project,” says Astorino, “we used our team to observe and understand the veterans in their environment.” The team conducted one-on-one interviews with specific users, followed by focus group meetings to discuss the results. “We found they wanted more connection to the outdoors, more connection to family, and an environment that seemed more residential.”

In response, the architects designed a campus that was more hamlet, less dormitory: seven houses, all with porches and balconies, clustered around an open space, plus abundant places for patients and visitors to meet. The result is a 98-bed campus with 61,000 square feet of living space that—with its pitched roofs and colorful siding—resembles a suburban side street instead of a medical facility.

“Fathom allows us to get to our clients and to understand who they are and what they want to happen,” says Powers, adding that the firm “prepare[s] a booklet for us that we refer to throughout the design process, so everyone feels connected to the project.”

For Astorino, Fathom is the result of a lifelong connection to architecture. But it is her time at Penn State, where she earned a B.S. in landscape architecture, that she calls a formative experience in the development of her consultancy. “Landscape architecture made me more humble,” says Astorino, who practiced for nearly a decade. “It teaches you to be integrated with the site and the user.

“As designers,” she continues, “we always think things have to be two things: functional and aesthetic. But we are beginning to understand that people need to resonate with things emotionally for a project to be successful.”