architecture student and professor look at laptop screen

Students weave empathy into designs for a mausoleum 

Graduate architecture students at Texas A&M who are designing a 30,000 square-foot mausoleum for a class project are learning not only to create designs that meet structure accreditation and accessibility requirements, they’re weaving empathy into their designs.

Architects can design better spaces if they put themselves in the shoes of people who they’ll likely never meet — people who will be inside the building, said Michael O’Brien, professor of architecture, who is leading the studio. 

“This is especially important in spaces and places where grace, care, and dignity are paramount,” he said. “When designing a mausoleum, designers ask themselves, ‘Are there places where visitors can step aside and have the building hold them as they allow grief to break through? Can a strategically placed window lift their eyes and spirit from the floor? Will a wall let them leave a flower or a candle?’”

These are the kinds of questions, said O’Brien, that also apply to a wide range of structures.

“We can choose to design with empathy for people who are in the building,” said O’Brien. “Too often, they’re simply called a building’s ‘users,’ or members of a certain demographic, when, in reality, they are fellow humans. In this case, they’re in a mausoleum, reflecting on a loved one’s life. Designers can look after them, for example, by not creating spaces where visitors might be triggered by backlit strangers approaching them in a narrow hall.”

There’s plenty of additional opportunities, said O’Brien, for design to “look after” the needs of people the building serves.

“Are the doors wide enough to fit pallbearers carrying a casket?” O’Brien said. “Can a caterer park close enough to not get soaked if it’s raining and they’re unloading their truck?”

“The students are learning, through design, how to extend care to people. Whoever they are,” said O’Brien.

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