Circle of life: designing sustainability after death

Chris Lo 26 February 2020 (Last Updated February 26th, 2020 16:24)

Plans are underway to build the US’s first facility for human composting in Seattle. Is the country ready for a new paradigm in death care, and how is architecture and design supporting this new vision? Senior partners from design studio Olson Kundig discuss the Recompose project and the development of its flagship site in Seattle’s SoDo neighbourhood.

Circle of life: designing sustainability after death
Vegetation and the natural cycle forms the overarching visual theme for the Recompose project. Credit: Olson Kundig

How do we want our remains to be treated after we die? It’s a complex question, and the answer might vary dramatically between individuals, depending on their spiritual beliefs, cultural roots and social attitudes. But while the human rituals might vary widely, in many places the choice of disposal methods is a binary one – either a traditional burial in a casket or cremation.

In recent decades, alternatives to this stark choice have been gradually emerging – or re-emerging in some cases. Natural burial – without the use of a permanent casket or embalming chemicals – was obviously the method of necessity for thousands of years in the pre-modern world, but it has made something of a comeback since the 1990s, catering to those who would prefer to be laid to rest closer to nature in a biodegradable casket.

In the US state of Washington, lawmakers have laid the foundation for the next step in sustainable funeral practices. In May 2019, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed into law a bill legalising the practice of human composting – using natural processes to break the body down into nutrient-rich soil, which can then be distributed by loved ones to feed the environment.

While human composting isn’t an entirely new concept – it has been legal in Sweden since 2005 – Washington has become the first state in the US to make legislative room for the practice. Central to push for legalisation was Katrina Spade, who founded her company Recompose in 2017 to develop a human composting method and advocate for the concept as a beneficial alternative to traditional burials and cremation.

Setting the stage for Recompose in Seattle

Alan Maskin, principal and owner of Seattle-based architecture firm Olson Kundig, met Spade for the first time in 2016, when she visited the studio to discuss the ideas that would go on to form the basis for Recompose. The process she envisioned – placing the body in a containment capsule surrounded by wood chips and alfalfa, then heating and aerating the vessel to recompose the body into clean, usable soil in around 30 days – immediately caught Maskin’s attention.

“It was such an interesting and compelling idea, but I also kind of went into shock,” Maskin says. “That’s the first reaction in some ways. But honestly, the more I heard her talk about it in that very first conversation, my feelings were transformed. I actually thought, ‘No, this would be a great alternative for me, and something that I would want.’ Then moving outside my own ego-centric view, I thought this would be good for the world.”

The environmental benefits of recomposing human bodies as soil are obvious – rather than emitting carbon and other particulates into the atmosphere through cremation, or taking up valuable space with a coffin that could eventually allow toxic embalming chemicals to leach into surrounding soil, composting is space-efficient and presents healthy soil as its only major byproduct.

Shortly after that first conversation, Maskin accepted a position on Recompose’s advisory panel, and offered Spade a two-week residency at the studio, during which she honed her ideas for the Recompose vessel and had help from the firm’s staff to visualise the process.

“It was a fantastic two weeks,” says Olson Kundig principal and project manager for the Recompose scheme Blair Payson. “We helped generate imagery of her concept that really helped her push the project forward. Early on, Katrina’s concept was that the bodies would be recomposed together in one large unit, maybe upwards of 40-50 bodies could be recomposed at one time. What she really needed to do was have a prototype developed.”

Finding the first site

In the months and years that followed the residency, the concept evolved into individual containers, prototypes of which were successfully tested in a pilot project at Washington State University with the bodies of six donors who had volunteered for the study. The tests proved the concept was viable in practice, but that wasn’t much of a surprise for a process that is extensively used to dispose of livestock bodies on farms around the world. It was Washington’s green light to use the process on humans that finally saw the project break away from the drawing board and into reality.

“Suddenly Katrina said, ‘It’s time and we need to start moving,’” Maskin remembers. “At that point she began to look for real estate. We accompanied her a bit on looking for different places and how we could imagine it, and we did some prototype mock-ups on what we thought the spaces might require.”

Payson notes that it would have been simpler to acquire a greenfield site in a rural location, but Recompose was imagined as a solution particularly suited to an urban setting. Finding a site within the borders of Seattle was no easy feat, not only because of the unique use but also because city planning codes were still catching up with the newly-legalised practice.

“There’s just nothing in the land use code that says, ‘This is an appropriate zoning for human composting,’” says Payson. “So there’s been quite a lot of back-and-forth with the city, trying to figure out whether this is okay to put in this particular zone in the city. We’ve finally arrived at an agreement on that, and now we’re with the city permitting department, and it’s the same thing. It’s not a project that clearly fits anywhere.”

Eventually a suitable site was selected in Seattle’s SoDo (South of Downtown) neighbourhood, an 18,500ft² disused industrial space with a massive bow truss ceiling made from local Douglas fir timber. The building is expected to open to the public in spring 2021, a target that Payson says the team is on track with.

“The bow truss is about 100ft wide and there are no columns, so it’s this wide span, which means you can manoeuvre functionally beneath it quite easily,” Maskin says. “But it’s also almost like a cathedral or another kind of spiritual architecture. It’s really warm and it’s made of Douglas fir, which is the wood from this area. It’s a reminder wood is a part of nature, and it could also be a part of where your loved ones eventually [rest].”

Designing natural ceremonies

Far from an impersonal facility used only for the recomposition process, Spade always imagined this flagship space as an equally important gathering point for memorial services. For this purpose, Olson Kundig has designed a central ceremonial area where mourners can say a final farewell. This space, which is flanked by two walls that host the Recompose vessels, is dominated by nature, featuring skylights to admit bursts of natural light, green walls and a reconfigurable array of potted trees, all of which emphasise the project’s theme of gently committing remains to the natural cycle.

“The first thing you encounter is nature,” says Maskin. “What you’re seeing is the end process. But then we’re beginning to imagine the spaces where families will gather, where you will see the body for the first time, where you would be able to add organic matter to surround the body of the person. You can add flowers, and there can be rituals. Some of the spaces are really quite intimate for those kinds of practices.”

Transparency is another key theme for the project, with Spade’s vision prioritising clean, open spaces to avoid the traditional stigma that surrounds funeral homes and crematoriums.

“[Katrina’s] perspective of many funeral homes and other places is that they are opaque, you can’t see inside them, you don’t go in them unless you have to, they are mysterious and there’s a lot of fear associated with them,” Maskin says.

“You can’t ever really see into funeral homes, but at the same time you don’t want people who are mourning to feel like they’re being observed or that they’re in a glass bowl. There are these fine lines where we’re using filtering of daylight, and nature, and materials, to try to create a unique space that feels more transparent, more open. But I think the audience is going to teach us a lot, so it’s been incumbent on us to make this a really flexible space that can be easily transformed.”

Is the world ready for Recompose?

There’s no doubt that the Recompose system for death care is workable, and offers an exciting opportunity to transform funerals’ impact on the environment from a drain to a net positive, while also supporting mourning rituals that celebrate humanity’s place in the natural cycle. “For some this will be a spiritual idea,” Maskin believes.

The Recompose vessels that form the core of the new facility are modular in design and will be prefabricated and assembled off-site in eastern Washington, opening the door to a more extensive roll-out of the concept across the country as other states follow Washington’s lead in legalising human composting.

So the million-dollar question remains: is the world ready for Recompose?

“This is a process that’s been done agriculturally for a long time, just not with human bodies,” says Payson. “Part of the educational aspect – we’ve been through this and now it’s for the public – is to learn about this process and how safe it is.”

The team is clearly prepared to assuage anxieties around the nuts and bolts of the process – the vessel heating process kills dangerous pathogens; there is no ‘uncomfortable smell’ – but the true question may be whether people are willing to give up the idea of having a specific space or object to call their own after they die.

“You have to be really self-content and content with the idea that there won’t be one spot where people come back to visit you after you’ve passed,” Payson says. “I think it’s almost easier to think about going into one spot and having a tombstone that your loved ones could come and visit. It’s a leap of faith to think about just being mixed into the forest floor in a much more nebulous end-of-life location.”

It’s a question that every individual will ask themselves when first exposed to the Recompose concept, and which cuts to the core of our diverse feelings on mortality, legacy and family. Will the new Seattle facility kick off a nationwide conversation that brings human composting into the mainstream? Only time will tell, but the integrated vision proposed by Katrina Spade, Olson and Kundig, and the other partners on the Recompose project offers as good an introduction as one could imagine.