Architecture & Design Roundtable

By Patti Martin Bartsche

It’s not just the times that are a-changin’. Funeral home design is under- going a transformation of its own, led in large part by the demands and desires of families. To understand what is going on, we talked to three experts in the field: John Gary, vice president and co-owner of JST Architects in Dallas; David TeBrake, executive vice president at Miller Architects & Builders in St. Cloud, Minn.; and Duncan Todd, who heads the Boulder, Co.-based Duncan Stuart Todd, Ltd.

How has funeral home design changed in the past decade?

Gary: Funeral homes have continued to evolve into multi use/event center type facilities that convey a very comfortable and home-style feel.

The building types we have been designing for the past decade are reminiscent of a country club building. Our funeral home clients have been very cost conscious, but at the same time they desire facilities that their clientele feel comfortable in and that are relevant to other types of hospi- tality structures such as your medium priced hotel/motel chains, restaurants, professional buildings, etc. Families are accustomed to these facilities and the warm comfortable feelings they evoke.

TeBrake: In a general sense, the overall designs have become much more open and inviting. Lobbies are much larger, windows are more prevalent and colors are typically lighter or more vibrant.

More specifically, casket selection rooms have continued to shrink in size and over 50 percent of all new facilities are providing no selection room at all. Casket selections are made in the arrangement room from a computer program viewed on a flat screen TV. Funeral homes are also much more multipurpose in use with fixed seating chapels changed to a multipurpose space that can be used as a chapel, visitation room, and also a banquet or luncheon room.

Not only are the interiors of the buildings changing, but so are the exteriors. Many of the newer buildings today have gone away from the tradi- tional red brick and white trim look. Many of the new facilities have either gone to looks similar to that of a fancy home with a combination of materials such as stone, brick, stucco and Hardie board siding.

Todd: The past decade has produced some progressive approaches in funeral home design that bend toward ‘outside the box’ innovations when compared to society’s notion of traditional funeral home design. Indeed, the ideas put forth in a study recently commissioned by the Funeral Service Foundation can already be found in isolated instances across the country. We have seen facil- ities with coffee bars, more inviting repose rooms, innovative display rooms and family spaces with far more uplifting interior designs from in the past.

Preparation and dressing rooms have shaken off their dungeon images and become accessible to families. Outdoor gardens, water features and seating areas are becoming more common. The past decade has also seen an attempt at facility design to accommodate public meeting spaces and other uses, be they charitable or income generating.

What are the biggest design/construction challenges funeral homes are facing today, and what can be done to solve these issues?

Gary: I feel funeral homes still deal with the major issue of keeping facil- ities updated and competitive as compared with other contemporary business establishments that are service oriented. For a long time funeral facil- ities were locked in the past. I believe the days when funeral service facilities were accepted by the general public to be dark and uninviting have passed. Families now expect quality facilities matched with quality service just as they do when they conduct any business these days. Competition is extremely high in the funeral industry and the quality and updated appearance of the funeral home building (inside and out) is more important than ever.

The solution is not that complicated. Invest in quality design to upgrade facilities in order to keep them relevant to today’s clientele. In this day and age, funeral homes are not that different from other service businesses. Facilities operated by restaurant chains, overnight lodging facilities, grocery store chains, etc., all know the process well.

TeBrake: The biggest challenge funeral homes are facing is in how to make their building relevant to today’s consumer. As an example, more people are not affiliated with a church today. As a result, the thought of a traditional funeral does not appeal to those customers, both in the atmosphere and type of service typically offered in a traditional funeral home. Changing your building more in line with the hospitality industry is therefore necessary to reach those customers. Less religious connotation combined with spacious, warm, inviting lobbies are the foundation for these new designs.

The recent study conducted for the Funeral Service Foundation by Olson-Zaltman Associates encourages creative thinking in planning. What does that mean to you?

Gary: Today’s funeral directors should take the time to evaluate their facilities and then develop a master plan to address either upgrading their facilities or maintaining a specific level of quality. They should seek out creative and innovative solutions to their facility problems. Many times this means soliciting outside sources or professionals to help them see new ways to solve their problems. Sometimes we are all too close to the problem and can’t be as effective as others who see the problem differently.

TeBrake: Creative thinking in planning to me means to not get stuck in thinking in terms of what you have always done. Thinking outside the box of what you know can be difficult, but it is necessary to keep up with changing times. The funeral industry is changing not because funeral directors want it to but because of what their customers want. Creative thinking is getting in the mind of your potential customers and thinking of new and innovative ideas that will entice those customers to utilize your firm for their needs.

Todd: What the study reveals, and what many directors already know, is that society as a whole is undergoing a change regarding their experience in the passing of a loved one. Of signifi- cance are the physical surroundings in which remembrance takes place. In the new norm, there is ample evidence that the image of the funeral home, even the embalming and dressing rooms, is coming into greater focus as a part of the overall healing experience. Social media and comments shared on various media sites are having a greater impact in driving sales. We anticipate that the physical environment’s new place in the public consciousness will continue to expand, particularly given the projected rise in death rates associated with the aging baby boomer generation. Adult children are asking questions from a new and more informed perspective and are more likely to be influenced by the facility’s physical plant than were previous generations

The study also recommended minimizing the feelings of physical and psychological confinement. How can this be done?

Gary: Eliminating walls or reconfig- uring the shape can sometimes expand spaces. Rectangular spaces can feel more spacious versus long narrow spaces.

TeBrake: Having an abundance of windows combined with glazing in exterior doors help a customer to feel comfortable in knowing what he or she is entering when approaching the building, and also once inside, feeling comfortable about seeing outside.

Todd: The real issue is in achieving a balance between reverence for the loved one and spiritual, uplifting spaces in which remembrance can occur. As the study describes, opening up spaces to the out-of-doors, intro- ducing natural light and the use of colors and furnishings all contribute to perceived feelings of the special experience. We believe the key to implementing the findings of the study regarding spatial experiences is to place oneself in the position of the visiting prospect and try to live the experience from their viewpoint.

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