214AUGUST 2024_BUILDING_GIES FAMILY CENTRE_BY JENS LANGEN
photo by jens langen

From Homestead to Hospice

The Gies Family Centre is Waterloo Region’s fresh answer to end-of-life care
ALEX CYR

July 3, 2024

The Gies Family Centre occupies a rustic building on five acres of once-empty farmland. There’s an in-house hair salon, a spiritual room for visitors and an information centre. The most surprising thing about it? It’s a hospice facility, with 11 beds for those needing end-of-life care.

215AUGUST 2024_BUILDING_GIES FAMILY CENTRE_BY BRIAN DOUGLAS
Focus groups said they wanted a palliative care centre that felt warm and welcoming, so the architects built a modern hospice inspired by the property’s original, century-old barn.Photo by Brian Douglas

In the mid-2010s, as the population continued to age and demand for hospice beds grew, Hospice Waterloo Region, a palliative care centre in Kitchener, Ontario, wanted to introduce beds for full-time residents and invited architects to pitch their designs. Laird Robertson and Doug McIntosh, partners at NEO Architecture, had never worked on a hospice facility before. So they visited care homes, many of which reminded them of airport hangars, lacking serenity and warmth. In response, the pair designed a cozy, barn-inspired hospice and won the bid. They went to work in 2019, ditching the Hospice’s downtown location for an old homestead in northern Waterloo. The pair demolished the farmhouse and built a large new structure, bolstering it with limestone and hardwood. They built trellises outside the future patient residences, layering wood onto the wall in horizontal slats to allow cracks of sunlight, like in old-time barns. Construction took three years and $13 million, but the end result was worth it: a three-wing, 27,000-square-foot modern facility wrapped in retro charm.

AUGUST 2024_BUILDING_GIES FAMILY CENTRE_BY RILEY SNELLING
Robertson and McIntosh ditched sterile glass panels and cramped spaces for an airy wood-and-stone facility. The hospice offers therapeutic touch, reflexology, reiki and massage-therapy services, too.Photo by Riley Snelling

The Gies Family Centre, named after its chief donors, Gert and Bill Gies, welcomed its first 10 residents in 2021. The north block contains meeting spaces for therapeutic programs like reflexology and reiki, while the south wing holds a training facility for caregivers and a medical clinic. The residences are in the east wing, each with its own private patio, a hospital bed, a double pull-out for visitors, a TV that supports video calls, a small fridge, a bathroom and a closet. The building wraps around an open-air courtyard, which contains a 30-foot silo and a room that doubles as a non-denominational spiritual space. The silo has an Indigenous medicine wheel on the ground level.

213AUGUST 2024_BUILDING_GIES FAMILY CENTRE_BY RILEY SNELLING
Robertson and McIntosh ditched sterile glass panels and cramped spaces for an airy wood-and-stone facility. The hospice offers therapeutic touch, reflexology, reiki and massage-therapy services, too.Photo by Riley Snelling

The centre makes its residents’ final days as peaceful and comfortable as possible. For example, one resident had her bed rolled through her back door and onto her private patio so she could take her last breath outside. Another watched her granddaughter get married in the spiritual room before she died. “The stories are tear-jerkers,” said McIntosh. “It makes us feel like we succeeded in building a place that facilitates end-of-life experiences: a place with a soul.”