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Architecture and Design Q&A

by Patti Martin BartscheAFD May BOOK

American Funeral Director • November 2013

When was the last time you looked – really looked – at your funeral home? An up close-and-personal look may reveal some hard truths – outdated furniture, peeling wallpaper, a space that screams, “I’m a funeral home!” In other words, everything a family doesn’t want.

There’s a reason for the saying, “You don’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.” Appearances matter – and that includes your funeral home. We assembled a panel of experts to talk about funeral home architecture and design: John Gary, vice president/owner, JST Architects in Dallas; Bob Killingsworth, president/owner of JST Architects; Duncan Todd, president, Duncan Stuart Todd in Boulder, Colo.; David TeBrake, executive vice president, Miller Architects & Builders, St. Cloud, Minn.; and Russ Karasch, vice president/owner, Keystone Design Build, Waite Park, Minn.

From the biggest design mistakes to current trends to “must-haves” for any renovation project, these professionals share their expertise to help you create an environment that helps families feel at home.

Q What is your definition of good funeral home design?

TeBrake: Good funeral home design can be accomplished in several different areas. First is function. Many funeral homes do not have an abundance of staff. The design, first and foremost, needs to be functional. A functional design maximizes the efficiencies in operating the facility with minimal staff and is also user friendly for the families they serve. Second is a design that produces a warm and inviting environment. An abundance of natural light, soothing colors and an open floor plan are just a few items that help create a welcoming environment. Third is developing designs that are relevant to the wants and needs of today’s families. Designing for the changing needs of today is more important to consider than what has always worked in the past.

Karasch: Good funeral home design is one that is welcoming, efficient, functional and current with up-to-date ideas on new trends. It provides ample parking and an adequate drop-off area. It provides a perceived value for today’s family.

Todd: First of all, any good design must meet the client’s needs and budget. That said, real success stems from the architect’s leadership and knowledge base within the industry. A good facility has clear and complete separation between the public and private functions of the home, accommodating family and visitors as well as flower delivery, music and clergy. Firstcall load in to the care center and chapel exiting to processional parking must both be carefully addressed.

Killingsworth: We think of good design as a facility that meets the needs of the business today and in the future; is energy efficient and mindful of the environment; and is a timeless architectural style that is compatible with the surroundings.

John Gary: Floor plan efficiency and flow are critical in a future with higher energy costs and fewer natural resources.

Q What trends are you seeing in funeral home architecture and design?

TeBrake: One of the most prevalent trends in funeral home design is incorporating food service. Most new facilities today are including substantially larger lounge facilities, and in many cases, a full-sized luncheon or banquet room. These rooms facilitate the growing trend to have “life celebrations” compared to the traditional funeral service. Another trend is the reduction or removal of the casket selection room. Many funeral homes today are incorporating digital displays for their families to make the merchandise selections. This can be completed within the arrangement room itself and therefore does not require the expensive outlay of additional building or merchandise needed for the traditional selection room. One of the most popular renovations we are seeing is the combination of the above two trends. Many are converting their existing casket selection room into a luncheon/banquet room. This can be completed cost effectively and provides a great start to addressing the needs of today’s families.

Karasch: Emphasis on community rooms, cremation and providing today’s families with the one-stop shop where their needs are met and don’t go elsewhere.

Todd: Funeral home design today is focusing more on making the experience of the family and visitors memorable. The key is to create spaces where visitors feel at ease and comfortable through the use of volume, light, materials and furnishings. Think of a space that can be used for either funerals or weddings. This is what I mean by a space to feel comfortable and familiar in – meaning the architectural experience is not loaded with “funeral home” connotations.

Killingsworth: Just as the term “trend” implies, there are a few design ideas that are popular now. For example, we have a number of clients converting their formal chapel with pews into multipurpose spaces with nice banquet style chairs. Gary: The “home” in funeral home is as important as ever, emphasizing the need for spaces that are warm and comforting to those that visit.

Q What is topping a funeral home’s “must-have” list if it is planning a major renovation or build from the ground up?

TeBrake: Some of the “must-haves” would be: a room to offer some level of food service; a spacious, inviting lobby; ample off-street parking; current audio/video technology; and on-site cremation services. While there are many other items we would suggest in a new design, these are just a few of the critical features we feel funeral homes should have to stay relevant in their industry.

Karasch: The community room is very popular, also audio/visual equipment that allows for broadcasting throughout the funeral home as well as on the Internet. On-site cremation equipment that gives families peace of mind that the body remains in control of the funeral director is also important. Also, they need to provide a warm decor, well-lit and welcoming atmosphere.

Todd: Audiovisual and Internet broadcast capabilities. Community use spaces. The ability to address a wide range of religious practices. A modern, functional, well designed and OSHA compliant care center.

Killingsworth: The number one request on nearly every client’s wish list is either a dedicated reception center or a multipurpose space that can be used for receptions, visitations and services.

Q How can good design and architecture help a funeral home stand out?

TeBrake: The best design in the world means nothing if the funeral home doesn’t offer exceptional customer service. If the high level of service is there, then the design can be a great asset in setting the facility in a positive light in their community. The design first needs to be welcoming. Curb appeal, natural light, a clear and inviting entrance, and ample parking are just some of the features to incorporate to help a facility stand apart and to say to the public, “You are welcome here.” To set yourself apart from the competition, a design should incorporate these items, in addition to the current trends we mentioned such as food service facilities, a spacious, inviting lobby, audio/video technology and on-site cremation facilities.

Karasch: New funeral homes typically attract more business. Families want to see value for their money, and even though they may not spend as much, they’ll spend even less if the building is dated. They want to feel welcomed when they walk in. The funeral home needs to be all-inclusive with its services. I’ve seen funeral home business grow as much as 230 percent in five years with a new facility, with most growing 25 to 50 percent.

Todd: A well-designed facility respects its building site and surroundings. Both the outside and inside aspects of the well-designed funeral home foster a positive experience with the public. When people in the community respond positively to the impact of the architecture and interior design, funeral home owners will profit from the best medium there is to stand out among the competition – referrals.

Killingsworth: In most cases good design stands out esthetically and functionally – giving the owner a handsome facility that can meet the needs and wants of its clientele, whether it is a funeral home, a restaurant or an office building.

Gary: Quality design will hold its value for many years and bring the clientele into the facility versus a poor and ill-feeling facility. This gives the funeral director the opportunity to enhance the experience by providing the service quality to complete the experience.

Q How does a funeral home owner know it’s time for a renovation or redesign?

TeBrake: There are two things to consider when deciding to renovate or redesign. First is simply to stay in touch with the needs of the families you serve, and adapt and change your facility to meet those needs. This could be either annually or over many years depending on what your customers want and how you can address those needs. Second is to continually update your facility as the needs of your families evolve. It is a good business practice to consider the following general guidelines for physically updating your building. Every five years do something to freshen up the look of your facility. This does not have to be expensive but items such as updating paint colors, some new or refinished furniture, or updating decorations can help give your facility a fresh look without major expense. Every 20 years I would suggest a major updating of all finishes and furnishings. Constant maintenance and updating of the building should be a normal business practice as well. A well maintained and kept building is crucial to showing families your attention to detail in all matters. Showing your families that you are continually investing in your building is just one important way to show that you care about them.

Karasch: When business declines, and you see your competition doing more than you are. When you see your families wanting direct cremation; services held are off-site at places such as churches, golf clubs and banquet halls.

Todd: Tired, run-down facilities are usually known factors in business. However, even the best kept facilities eventually show their age through outdated spatial organization and interior finishes of the building. Among the biggest culprits: bathrooms, family kitchens/coffee rooms and the care center, consisting of the prep, dressing and embalming staff support areas.

Killingsworth: When the owner is continually making excuses for the building functionality and appearance. And if the owner does not know, ask him to call us.

Gary: At times the funeral home owner does not know because he or she is too close to it and has become blind to the situation. We all need a fresh view of our surroundings to stay relevant in a rapidly changing world.

Q What are the biggest mistakes funeral home owners make when it comes to funeral home design?

TeBrake: The biggest mistake made in funeral home design is not having a spacious, inviting lobby as the centerpiece to a new facility. The right lobby does many things – it makes a statement for the type of facility you in funeral home design is not having a spacious, inviting lobby as the centerpiece to a new facility. The right lobby does many things – it makes a statement for the type of facility you offer; it relieves the pressure off of your chapel for large visitations or services; it allows for a sense of community and fellowship within the building; and it serves as the facilitator of people as they navigate your facility. The second mistake is that owners design for what they want in a facility, instead of finding out what their families want. An example is the food service component so prevalent in today’s market. Because they may not want the hassle in providing the food service component, many keep it out of their design and as a result miss out on a key component of providing a service that so many families want. Getting out of your comfort zone and adapting to the changing needs of your families assures your facility of staying relevant in the market.

Karasch: Not being efficient and functional in design and not providing all the services families want. Today’s families are more demanding than ever, and it’s imperative the funeral home meets their needs. The funeral director just needs to provide all possible services.

Todd: Failing to properly assess their needs relative to their budget. Better to plan for future expansion than to build too large (or too small) out of the gate.

Killingsworth: Perhaps the most common mistake is for an owner to build a facility that meets their very specific design aesthetic and does not take into account what their clients really want and need.

Gary: Sometimes funeral home owners expand their wish list to include everything they have ever seen in every new funeral home they have looked at over the years. The goal becomes very difficult to achieve, overly complicated and typically too expensive. Try to keep the eye on the target, and the rest will follow.

Q How can you make a funeral home not look like a funeral home?

TeBrake: We often develop today’s funeral home designs very similarly to that of current high-end homes. We often incorporate many compatible features such as cultured stone, Hardie Board siding, paint accent colors, unique rooflines and details, and open floor plans, which makes the new buildings look less like your “typical” funeral home and more like a high quality custom home. The benefit of this is to remove the stereotype that your funeral home is the same thing they have seen many times before.

Karasch: Modernize with new finishes on the interior and exterior, provide warmth and plenty of light, and use windows. No one likes the basement feel.

Todd: Build a facility that inspires the visitor and results in a positive and memorable experience.

Killingsworth: Our firm works very hard to design buildings that are compatible with their surroundings and have a timeless style. We also want the facility to have a residential character; but if it does look like a funeral home, that’s not bad – after all – it is a funeral home.

Gary: Typically most people have a mental image of a “funeral home” and it is not a very flattering one. Our image of a funeral home is more of an event center, nice hotel or banquet/reception center. We would like to say the day of the dark and dingy funeral home building is over, but we know better.

Q Is there a trend toward funeral homes adding separate spaces for catering or other life celebration events?

TeBrake: Yes, this is one of the biggest trends in the industry. Many families are not seeking the traditional approach to a funeral, instead wanting a life celebration for their loved one. One of the biggest catalysts to bringing friends and family together is food. A funeral home that can offer some level of food service provides a key component many families are looking for in a funeral provider. However, most of the funeral home projects we have been involved with are not preparing the food. This is a very expensive undertaking and also comes with its fair share of hassles. It also competes with the local restaurants and catering establishments of your community. Instead, most are contracting with a local business to provide the food and utilize the room in the funeral home to host the event or celebration.

Karasch: Absolutely! I believe families will put more emphasis on life celebrations.

Todd: I would say most facilities today desire multi-use spaces while a lesser number are able to realize them due to property and budget constraints.

Killingsworth: To meet the needs of the changing funeral culture, a funeral home must have the ability to be more like an event center, serving food and having a feasible furniture arrangement and most important – state-of-the-art audiovisual.

Gary: This is definitely a trend that we are seeing in the majority of our new projects as well as remodels.

Q Are new construction/major renovation projects incorporating “green” in the materials and products that are being chosen?

TeBrake: We are definitely incorporating recycled products such as carpet, plastics, ceiling tiles, etc. We also are utilizing motion sensors on plumbing and light fixtures as well as installing energy saving appliances, equipment and light fixtures. On the exterior, we often incorporate rainwater retention systems and use natural and local product in the community in which we are building. What we have not seen much of with funeral home projects is more advanced green products typically seen in LEED accredited facilities. These products are costly to install and typically are only utilized by government projects, or facilities of much larger size and scale, in which the payment for the installation of such items can be justified within a reasonable timeframe.

Karasch: There are a number of ways we’ve incorporated the use of “green” ideas in both new construction and remodels. It could be the type of windows used and how they were placed, flooring, insulating factors, or efficient mechanical systems; but in a few cases it’s just not cost effective and would be a poor investment.

Todd: “Green” is a given in all construction today, at least in the projects I am involved with. The basics of green are not as mysterious as they may seem. Good insulation, quality windows and roof systems, intelligent and efficient lighting and mechanical systems all contribute to the green envelope of a building. One of the biggest energy hogs can be the 100 percent fresh air requirement for embalming rooms. Directors should install an OSHA compliant air system that utilizes significant (70 percent or more) energy recovery technology without cross contamination of the air streams.

Killingsworth: As our cities and states become more environmentally conscious, so do the requirements for construction. Many building codes have minimum requirements for green construction. We have a number of clients that want to go beyond the minimum requirements and incorporate “green” products as much as possible.

Q What are the three biggest mistakes funeral directors make when it comes to funeral home interior design?

TeBrake: The first mistake is not incorporating local pictures, artifacts or memorabilia into the design of the building. These items do a variety of things such as, show your pride in the community, personalize your design for the community with which you are conducting business, and create conversation pieces for those attending the services. The second mistake typically made is trying to do too much with the interior design. Simple and subtle is a better practice that still keeps the focus on why people are there. The third mistake made is the habit of only making interior design selections based on what you have always been comfortable with. There are so many wood species, color combinations, and other decorating options available today to make your interiors unique and creative. However, with all those options, choosing the finishes yourself can be overwhelming and hard to do. Hiring a trained interior designer is a wise investment to assure your interior design is being well thought out, and is attractive and relevant in today’s culture.

Karasch: Mainly an efficient, functional floor plan. Ease of maneuvering throughout the building; rooms needs to be multifunctional such as with dividable walls, community rooms, first viewing rooms and arrangement rooms.

Todd: The three biggest mistakes are: (1) Not creating a uniform message throughout the entire facility but instead having a huge mix of materials and finishes from space to space. (2) Creating spaces that “look like funeral homes” as opposed to spaces visitors are naturally comfortable in. (3) Focusing too much on serenity via drab finishes versus creating uplifting spaces that foster enlightenment.

Killingsworth: (1) Waiting too long to update. (2) Designing for their specific tastes. (3) Using poor quality furniture and finishes.

Gary: (1) Not recognizing the need for quality interior design. (2) Balancing cost and durability. (3) Updating on a regular basis (typically every six years), and evaluating constantly.

Q Describe a project that really got your creative juices flowing.

TeBrake: Several recent projects have created excitement within our organization for different reasons. First, we recently completed the Lawn Funeral Home in Tinley Park, Ill., which is a new facility incorporating many traditional features within a modern, “Prairie School” design. I think most designers would agree, developing a building under the influence of the legendary architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, is always exciting. Having an owner that also shares this excitement, and that is willing to invest in the design to make it authentic, was an added bonus. The end result is an absolutely beautiful new facility that we are very proud to have played a part in creating. The second type of project that we are excited about is adapting designs to meet the changing dynamics in the industry with the continuing rise of cremation. We recently completed the Care Cremation Center in Romeoville, Ill., and the Prairie View Crematory in Marshalltown, Iowa. Both of these projects were smaller, stand-alone buildings designed to service cremation families. We feel there is a niche for this type of facility, and we are excited to be a pioneer in the development of creative solutions to address this rapidly changing sector of the industry.

Karasch: I feel we’ve done a number of projects lately that have been fun. The Eernisse Funeral Home in Cedarburg, Wis., incorporated a 146- year-old stone house into its new funeral home, using it as the lobby with a 14-foot high ceiling with exposed beams. We provided a community room with a kitchenette, cremation equipment with viewing area, and a unique merchandising room. Funeral homes are putting up additional buildings that truly create the multifunctional setting as well as creating the celebration of life setting.

Todd: Through our company’s preparation room specialty consulting, I’ve had the pleasure of working with an exciting vision for a new funeral home in a cemetery. I can’t say what it is just yet, but I can tell you the industry will take notice. Stay tuned!

Killingsworth: Most recently we completed the total renovation of a 1960s-era funeral home that the Cress Funeral Home of Madison, Wis., had purchased. The facility has a great location and the potential to be the gold standard for all of their locations. The renovation included a complete exterior renovation with the addition of a signature tower. The interior was taken to the studs so that new mechanical, electrical, audiovisual capabilities, and energy efficient insulation and windows could be added. The end result is a high profile building with event center style and capability that can serve the needs and desires of their clients.

Gary: It was satisfying taking a 25-year-old building that was formerly a children’s day-care center in Southern California, and reinventing it as a state-of-the-art funeral and reception center. This project put a building that had good structural bones back into service with a beautiful exterior and interior, all new systems and lighting, and a great new floor plan. Think of taking an old car and upgrading everything about it where it performed as a new showroom model but with unique character. This is also a great example of “green” since it recycles many reusable elements – thus saving natural resources and the environment.

Published on Nov 01, 2013

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