Design-led Architects based in Gravesend, Kent delivering highly workable contemporary and innovative design solutions to challenging briefs and tight budgets

Medway Crematorium Complete

Medway Crematorium Completed

Photo: Quintin Lake 

A crematorium is a building of two halves; each half deals with a different aspect of the way we deal with our recently departed, our dead. The half the public seldom sees (the half that the project team euphemistically refer to as ‘the back of house’) is essentially an industrial process— apart from the cremated remains, by-products of the cremation process are classed by DEFRA as trade effluent or waste. 

DEFRA’s introduction of the requirement for crematoriums to abate or filter the environmental pollutant mercury (from tooth fillings) from at least 50% of all cremations carried out was the initial driver for this project. The specialist equipment required to abate mercury is costly and the process of installing the equipment onto existing plant is complex and challenging; in seeking to meet DEFRA’s deadline and requirements Medway Council made a decision to upgrade and replace all existing cremators with fuel efficient plant to prolong the useful life of the crematorium. The council also decided that, if sufficient capital were raised, the ‘front of house’ should be extended as well. 

Photo: Quintin Lake 

Designed by Sir Dawber, Fox and Robinson, Medway Crematorium was completed in 1959 during the boom in crematorium building that followed the Cremation Act of 1952. Sir Edward Dawber was a respected and scholarly architect in the Cotswold vernacular tradition, president of the RIBA from1925 to 27, a recipient of the RIBA gold medal in 1928. Partner Christopher Robinson authored and presented a paper entitled ‘Economy in Crematorium Design’ to the Crematorium Society (based in nearby Maidstone) at their annual conference in 1977— and the experience shows. What impresses about the design of this crematorium is the elegance and efficiency of the symmetrical cross plan, with the porte-cochere, chapels and covered walkways laid out to ensure the smooth flow of visitor arrival, attendance at service, and departure through the building. The symmetrically mirrored functions between east and west chapels enable consecutive services to be alternated and managed with a minimum of fuss. Unlike many other crematoriums, this building can be viewed in the round; the back of house is not tucked away from sight.. 

Local demographic and cultural changes since the original building was completed have led to larger numbers of mourners attending cremation services and therefore a need for larger chapels (although the number of services have remained constant over the years). The chapels are dedicated, not consecrated; Medway Crematorium is a non-denominational facility. The ethnic population of North Kent has grown significantly since the ‘50s and there is a large Indian population in the area for whom funeral rites are closely bound with cremation (and for whom what happens at the back of house matters, culturally). 

The facility is much used, much loved. The brief was to keep the chapel extensions subservient to the original building and tucked away from sight, barely visible from the approach to the existing front elevation. 

Photo: Quintin Lake  

Image: Clay Architecture Ltd

This, and the location of mature trees and cremated remains on the site led to a decision to remove the outer flank walls and extend the side of each chapel. The tapered polygonal plan of the extensions are determined by the sight lines to the catafalque positioned in the apse or focal point of each chapel. But removing a wall and part of the roof down the entire length of each chapel breaks the chapels’ symmetry and leaves a lopsided plan. 

To ‘rebalance’ the asymmetrical plan a second axis or centre-line is introduced, radiating from the same focal point (apse) as the centre-line of the original chapel. A large steel beam replaces the removed wall of the chapel; a steel Vierendeel truss springs from this beam, forming the axis of the new extension. Glulam half-portal frames spring from the top and bottom cord on either side of the truss, forming the skeletal frame of the new extension. Due to the peculiarities of the tapered sight-line plan, the glulam frame on one side of the truss rises as one approaches the focal point of the chapel, while the glulam frame on the opposite side of the truss falls. Between the top and bottom cord of the central Virendeel truss north-facing clerestory windows are inserted to light the line of sight towards the apse.

Photo: Clay Architecture Ltd

Photo: Quintin Lake

Photo: Quintin Lake

The user client had concerns that the contemporary extension would be ‘too industrial’ looking— we had settled on a bronze-coloured standing-seam zinc cladding (VM Zinc pigmento rouge) to blend in with the arts and crafts brick-and-tile palette of the existing building; there were regrets about the loss of the mirrored box-diamond patterned leaded glass windows on the demolished walls, and concerns about the large picture windows framing the park— that visitors could look into the chapels and disturb or distract a private service. There was concern about the possibility of glare from early morning and late afternoon sun.

Photo: Quintin Lake

Partly inspired by 19th C marble window screens made in Agra (in the V&A), our response was to design a 150mm deep metal screen (not quite a brise soleil) using a scaled up version of the mirrored box-diamond pattern, set 300mm in front of the large gable-end windows. Side windows are sand-blasted with a similar (scaled down) pattern in negative.

Photos: Quintin Lake

 Getting the large, 2 tonne metal screens fabricated was not easy— a succession of steel fabricators backed out before Hellings Fabrications of Margate took on the job. Originally designed to be fabricated in aluminium, these were eventually completed in steel— it is not possible to butt-weld aluminium plates in the desired ‘6 leg star’ pattern without distortion. Each screen was designed to be assembled out of 6 separate panels— based on the maximum fit into a galvanising bath— and a secondary frame, coined the ferramata (based on the ferramata struts used to hold the leaded stained glass windows in St Pauls in place), introduced to bolt the 6 panels together. The delayed installation of the screens (compounded by having to refabricate a whole screen when one was run over by a truck in the galvanising yard) meant that the screens were installed out of the architect’s preferred sequence— we’d intended to install the screens before zinc-cladding was completed so that the screens (now bolted in front of the windows) could have been partially built into the head of the windows with a short zinc canopy to conceal the fixing brackets. 

Once the screens were finally installed, they had a huge impact on the quality of light within the chapels. 

Photo: Quintin Lake