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Sweet Good-bye

Better Places Forests offers a sustainable alternative to cemeteries, the concept has simple poetry—merging ritual, memorial, and forest conservation.

Photo credit: Hewitt Photography

Located on the crest of a wooded rise, framing a view towards the meadow below, the visitor center for Better Place Forests in Point Arena, California marks the threshold of the visitors’ journey into the forest’s memorial groves.

Better Places Forests offers a sustainable alternative to cemeteries. Within these protected forests, families choose trees to mark the place where they’ll spread their loved one’s ashes over generations. The concept has simple poetry—merging ritual, memorial, and forest conservation—yet its realization involved a large team of design and technical specialists, led by Fletcher Studio, landscape architects. Located on a 40-acre stretch of the Mendocino Coast, Better Place Forests’ Point Arena location establishes a framework for future sites, each with its own unique qualities.

OPENSCOPE STUDIO is a California-based architectural practice specializing in smart solutions to complex design problems. Our passion for creating better experiences for people and communities through architecture is matched by our expertise in the practices, regulations, and economics of development and construction. From urban infill development and special needs residences, to park pavilions, commercial interiors, and custom homes—design, craft, functionality, and feasibility are the guiding measures of our work.

They are advocates for livable cities, contributing to the creation of much-needed housing—at a range of affordability—while adding value for property owners. In 2014, they partnered with the San Francisco Planning Department to develop the city’s Accessory Dwelling Unit Handbook and were subsequently involved in shaping citywide ADU legislation with elected officials. They have special expertise in designing ADUs for urban, multi-family properties and have hundreds of these units in development.

Across projects of every scale and typology, our approach remains the same—by first understanding the technical challenges of a site or program, they uncover opportunities and possibilities.

The design of the experience centers to a greater extent around the surrounding land than its constructed elements. The site and architecture gently frame a sequence of events—arrival, orientation, memory, threshold, and release. An entry road descends into the site and arrives at the visitor center. Sited at the crest of a hill, this singular building is a place of orientation on the threshold between public and private.

The visitor center—the only building on the 20-acre site—contains two small meeting rooms, a restroom, and a staff room. The covered deck provides opportunities for small groups to gather for informal ceremonies while the overlook offers visitors a panoramic view of the forest and the meadow beyond.

The goal of the design is to create a definitive threshold—to make explicit the transition, literal and figurative, at the edge of the forest. The building is set above the hillside on piers, and the pathway that divides the structure brings the visitor from the ground directly up into the tree canopy. The folded roof pulls past the floor plate, providing deep overhangs to shade and protect the deck while the redwood fins provide privacy in the meeting rooms.

Within the ever-changing forest, the materiality of the visitors center conveys a reassuring sense of permanence — that it always has and always will sit on this site. The decking, exterior siding, and ceiling at the ‘interior’ surfaces are redwood that was harvested, dried, and milled locally. A deep, folded Corten steel roof shades and protects the building. The Corten will weather naturally, along with the locally harvested and milled redwood decking and siding. Carefully oriented redwood fins screen the glass-enclosed meeting rooms while capturing views outward.

A pathway of concrete pavers leads to and through the visitors center, culminating at a covered deck overlooking a meadow and the forest beyond. This portal frames nature, literally; as one approaches the forest comes into view. Nested into the meadow is a memorial created by design studio Matsys, a series of cast-concrete benches, inscribed with the names of family members and placed to recall the rings of a tree.

Moving through the threshold, visitors enter the memorial forests. The old ‘skid’ roads, originally established for logging, define the main routes through the forest, while tributary trails branch off into more secluded spaces. This network of trails and openings flows with the land, guided by the knowledge of conservators and local trail builders, and eventually rises to a knoll with views to the sea and horizon.

Every detail from the landscape and architecture to the signage and memorial markers works to establish a quiet and reverent human presence. While each Better Place Forest will have a unique character, the underpinning vision will remain: to honor the transcendent beauty of the landscape and ultimately the people who choose this forest as their final resting place.

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