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Design Roundtable

Design Roundtable

By: Steve Cronin
Funeral home owners want their facilities to look their best. But the idea of doing renovations and building projects can be intimidating. It need not be. For advice on simple steps to update funeral homes and how to best plan and execute a project, we turned to Russ Karasch, vice president/owner of Keystone Design Build Inc. in Waite Park, Minnesota; Bob Killingsworth, a principal with JST Architects in Dallas; and Duncan Todd, president of Duncan Stuart Todd Ltd., in Boulder, Colorado.

What are the first steps funeral home owners should take if they are considering renovations or an expansion?

Karasch: Initially create a ‘wish list’ of items you think you need to address, then research – probably through the internet – companies that are available to assist you through the process. Look for companies that focus on funeral homes and have a vision for the future of funeral service. Also, seek out other funeral homes that have done expansions to ask how their experience was through their project and what they liked or would do differently.

Killingsworth: It is really helpful if owners have a goal and budget in mind and have given some thought to how they can continue to do business while the renovation is being done. For example, we have done some major renovations where the client had made arrangements for funeral services to be at a nearby church while renovation work was going on.

Todd: A sound business model would be my primary recommendation. Beautiful, functional and affordable architecture can be tailored to any budget. However, an overly ambitious facility can be a drain on finances if the caseload cannot support the square footage and amenities.

Selecting a team with the specific experience you need is equally important. For instance, at DST we specialize solely in prep rooms and the greater care center region of the facility. With its own specialized issues, Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements, trends and needs, a care center requires highly specialized experience. A sound business model and a design team that addresses all your unique requirements will produce the greatest success.
How should these funeral home owners prepare to meet with a designer or architect?


Karasch: Develop a ‘wants and needs’ list to initially discuss with your designer. Create a list of questions to ask them and ask how using their services would benefit the funeral director.

Killingsworth: I always ask the client if they have drawings and surveys of the existing facility available for our use. It is always important for the client to designate a single contact person that receives and distributes all communication between the client and designer and contractor.

Todd: A sound business model is among my top recommendations. A designer or architect should never be set loose without a budget in mind, and the funeral director’s budget should be tied to a larger business model. In cases where the owner may not know how to establish a construction budget, the first service the designer or architect should provide is a project cost model. Once a cost model is on the table, the back and forth can begin about matching the project’s wish list to the realities of the available financing. Think expandable plans for future growth, and have the architect design in the expansion from the beginning.

Many funeral home owners are afraid to even consider renovations, fearing high costs and disruptions. Are there simple projects that can improve the look of the funeral home?

Karasch: Some of the simple things that can be done, if they’re doing things to stay current, is get rid of the old drapes, and put in new light fixtures (LED), paint, flooring and furniture. Dark colors in rooms are out.

Killingsworth: There are some simple refresh projects that give a good result. Painting and new floor coverings can have a big impact for a fairly reasonable cost. If painting and re-carpeting are not in the budget, take a serious look at the furniture, art, lamps, etc., and replace any that are dated and worn. Also, consider replacing the chapel pews with chairs to make the space more flexible.

Todd: The fear of a renovation should not halt a business in its tracks. Modernization is often essential to keep up with the changing face of the industry. Bathroom and kitchen renovations, paint, carpet and furnishings are all projects that can add a lot of ‘instant newness’ to the spaces families frequent. But don’t forget the work environment of your employees when considering physical plant improvements. A modern, efficient and code-compliant care center can quickly contribute to the bottom line through ease of workflow and employee satisfaction.

Anyone who watches home renovation shows on TV has seen horror stories about how unforeseen problems can turn a minor renovation into a major, costly project. Is there any way to guard against this or at least prepare for it?

Karasch: By working with an experienced funeral home design/build company, most, if not all, horror stories are eliminated in the planning stages. A good game plan upfront helps provide for a smooth path. There will probably be a few minor glitches, but preparing well will eliminate the stress.

Killingsworth: I am always amused at how surprised the television designer is when he or she encounters a problem, regardless how many times they have experienced the same issue on other episodes. The more information known about the existing structural, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, the fewer surprises. But, it is always necessary to have a contingency budget.

Todd: The best way to prepare against the worst is to be the best prepared. For that, retain a professional uniquely qualified in the death-care field. Saving a dollar early is not always the avenue to success whereas many dollars are saved in the course of a project that was well- thought- out and well- designed. While construction- related unforeseen conditions do occur in remodels (no one can see through walls to determine exactly what is back there), many problems can be headed off with good professional services to begin with. It is always good to carry a contingency for a remodel project, consider 10 percent.

On the other hand, unforeseen problems can often be attributed to a lack of expertise somewhere along the way. How many funeral homes has your architect designed? How many preparation rooms? Retaining professionals who know and under- stand the operational flow of a funeral home and a properly designed care center are priceless additions to any project.

Are there projects you warn against? If so, why should funeral home owners avoid them?

Karasch: To continue to put money into a facility that hasn’t been maintained over the last 30-40 years or more. Preventative maintenance and annual upkeep will eliminate costly renovations.

Killingsworth: Many times a major renovation in an older building gets too expensive to be practical. All building codes will require that the existing building be brought up to current codes for energy, handicap accessibility and mechanical and electrical systems. We are working with a client in Missouri that had hoped to do a major renovation to a 100-year-old facility. The preliminary estimate is equal to the cost of a new facility, so now the client is looking for property to build new.

Todd: Of course, anything that is not allowed per planning and zoning. A ‘to heck with the building officials and OSHA’ approach seldom results in a good outcome. Here at DST, we warn against projects that seem overly ambitious (do you really want a three-station prep room with a caseload of 200?) as well as the polar opposite (I don’t need a separate dressing and cosmetics area or a place for the employees to change or use the toilet). Avoid problems, and seek help from the available pool of designers, architects and specialty consultants serving the funeral profession.

What are the future trends in design that funeral home owners should consider when doing work on their facilities today?

Karasch: One, a community room. It’s really a multipurpose room that should be used as a life celebration center, be available for other community events and still be available as a lounge or for luncheons. Try to provide natural light throughout the funeral home; it should feel more like a hospitality center.

Killingsworth: We always design with current and future requirements in mind but are very careful to avoid design trends that look like they are dated by the time the renovation is complete. What we are seeing are design solutions that are more casual and durable with more emphasis on comfort and practicality. There are a lot of carpets, flooring, furniture and fabrics that have a very natural and organic style that will be in style for a very long time.

Todd: Once again I look for a business model – have you identified a market need in your region? Many funeral homes are creating multi- purpose spaces that can generate revenue streams outside of the core death services or could be made available to the community for public gatherings. Digital services continue to grow and impact technology in the chapel and other areas of the funeral home. My personal favorite trend is toward less confined spaces that embrace the outdoors and integrate more natural elements, such as water flows, nature sounds and aromatherapies. Once unheard of, showing off a first-class care center is becoming increasingly popular as families wish to be more involved in the total process of remembering their loved ones.

Are there any renovations or additions funeral home owners should avoid?

Karasch: Major renovations are getting to the point they are cost prohibitive on funeral homes that are 30, 40, 50 years or older due to the energy and building codes. Today’s families not only expect good, trustworthy service, they also expect modern facilities.

Killingsworth: We always discourage an addition if it does not aesthetically work with the existing facility or if it is really going to be a departure from the original building and stand out like a sore thumb. Our goal is to do an addition/renovation that complements the overall structure.

Todd: Only those that cannot be justified as having a positive impact on the business while meeting some degree of budget control. And remember, just because you may have a budget in mind does not mean the project can be realized for that amount. Most owners are somewhat familiar with the cost of hearses, family cars and removal vehicles and regularly include purchases for the same in their operating budgets. However, the cost of building renovations and improvements are less well-known and may seem mysterious. Surprisingly, many construction projects can be realized for similar amounts as are earmarked for vehicles. The key is to consult a professional before getting too far along. A project you might be avoiding could be obtainable. A project you feel good about could be missing some key cost indicators. Don’t put off seeking expert advice, as a lot of preliminary information can often be discovered at little to no cost.
The national cremation rate continues to grow. What design changes should funeral home owners be considering in wake of this trend?

Karasch: The Casket selection room now should become a retail-merchandising center that could even be open during visitations. Also, with cremation increasing, it’s not only important to have your own crematory, if possible, but the addition of pet cremation has dramatically increased.

Killingsworth: As the cremation rate grows and families want less formal services, the funeral home needs to become very flexible. The facility should be able to accommodate a formal chapel service in the morning, a personalized memorial service in the afternoon, followed by a beautiful reception with wine, hors d’oeuvres and live music by the fireplace on the terrace at sunset. It’s no longer a place just for funerals but a facility for all of life’s events.

Todd: Direct cremation aside, the family that selects cremation deserves an experience no less enriching and fulfilling than those choosing a traditional burial. The preparation room and related spaces might reduce in area, but they remain critical just the same. Body coolers, racks and lifts take on greater importance and greater square footage. Facilitating family viewing (of the retort) in comforting surroundings should be carefully considered. And without a doubt, a funeral home intended to serve a larger cremation market needs to have its own well- studied and resolved public/ private spatial relationships. One measure of a well- designed facility is one in which the public sector (families) does not come into unintended contact with the private sector (back of house employee functions). In the end, a facility’s design should help by doing its part to make the cremation process be as humanized as possible. Upon departing the building, the family should feel comfort knowing they selected the best – and good design and architecture will go a long way toward supporting such an outcome. •

Published on Feb 28, 2017

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