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Archives > March 2014 > What's Mine is Ours: Designing a Modern Fitness Center

What's Mine is Ours: Designing a Modern Fitness Center

Designing a modern fitness center means configuring space so that it is both communal and personal. There's nothing more public than working out in a college recreation center, even when the college in question is private.

By: James Braum

That's the consequence of specifying the standard large, warehouse-style fitness floor. Not that there aren't some very good reasons for doing so-these are cost-effective spaces that are easy to supervise and allow users to fully experience the energy of exercise. Plus, such a setup is likely to match the expectations of students, many of whom come to college familiar with big-box clubs such as Gold's Gym, 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness and the like. These types of facilities often serve as the yardstick against which students measure their school's recreation center.

Having said that, we're noticing that the college students with whom we work during the early design phase of recreation centers are asking for something very different than what they would get from their local health club franchise. Some of the students (typically women) are uncomfortable exercising in full view of everyone. Some (typically the hardcore lifters) would prefer to be seen-but at the same time, to control access to "their" space. Some want to disappear into their iPods, while others see the center as representing the larger collegiate experience: the ultimate space for socializing.

Divergent needs among users aren't new, and sensitivity to these needs is far from universal-in fact, it's still taking root. For years, the prevailing attitude in college rec departments fell under the heading of "If we build it." People did come, but the vast collections of fitness equipment housed in vast equipment rooms almost certainly kept a lot of students away. Increasingly, we see ourselves charged with finding ways to create a built environment that is welcoming to a wider swath of the student population, while still offering users space that they can call their own.

Small Town vs. Big City
At some of the larger public universities where we've designed recreation and wellness centers, a common refrain among administrators and students has been that their exercise spaces should feel less impersonal-small town rather than big city. At smaller universities, you might expect the opposite to be true, that these institutions might want to pump up their fitness centers to rival those at big schools. In fact, for every small private college wanting to keep up with the Joneses, there are half a dozen whose limited funds preclude such grandiose talk.

A good example of the latter is the University of Portland, an independent four-year Catholic institution located in Portland, Oregon. Having long made do with Howard Hall-well past its prime as it has neared 90 years of service to the school's 3,900 students-the university will break ground in May on the Beauchamp Recreation & Wellness Center. While wanting a state-of-the- art, modern building, administrators made clear from the start that, in keeping with its tight budget, their objective could best be summed up with the phrase, "more for less." The building plan thus necessitated spaces that could accommodate both "owners," the athletics department and the recreation department, and multiple functions.

Located within the urban grid, the Beauchamp center naturally fits in with one of our signature design goals for fitness centers: to create "neighborhoods" within the larger fabric of the building streetscape. Ideally, one should be able to design a fitness center that is both economical and breaks up what could be a cavernous room into friendlier spaces, in which people do not get "lost" and the transfer of sound is controlled. There are many ways of going about this, and different iterations of the Beauchamp center plans (the building was still in the design phase as this was written) have included many of the following:

The long and winding road.
Urban planners often create neighborhoods within a large city grid by strategically deviating from the grid through the addition of winding roads, parks and cul-de-sacs. Though we have sometimes pushed the envelope with jogging tracks that meander through recreation centers and even move people up, down, over and under (see crossover "corkscrew" at Auburn University), Portland's is a more conventional suspended track.

However, for roughly a third of its length, it is part of the mezzanine devoted to cardiovascular exercise, and it functions to both divide this space visually and unify the one-story fitness and two-story court spaces through which it runs. The track breaks out of one neighborhood into another, as it is suspended over two separate gyms, and walkers and joggers are thus usually given a choice of two routes (around one two-court gym, or around all three courts in two separate building volumes). The athletics department, meanwhile, can utilize the performance gym for private practices without shutting out recreational joggers.

Vertical integration.
A common method of unifying (and dividing) multilevel facilities is to provide cutouts that offer views from floor to floor. As with the track, the result is physical separation but visual unification, with the key being deft use of a fitness atrium's communal space. Exercisers experience the space as airy and connected, but can disappear into smaller workout neighborhoods on each floor.

Divide and conquer.
The biggest difference between circa-1927 athletics halls and circa-2014 recreation centers is the opening up of buildings to provide more views out and bring more natural light in. As the specification of more windows can cost exercisers their desired mirrored walls, we've designed mirrored dividers within fitness areas that are user scaled, 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide, and incorporate built-in storage for cleaning supplies and towel drops. Because the dividers don't go all the way to the ceiling, resulting spaces read as continuous, and the dividers are turned perpendicular to primary circulation paths, maintaining fitness centers' open feel. At the same time, exercisers working out between the dividers experience space that feels more "personal."

Defining elements.
Many different elements can be used to similarly suggest separations between spaces-for example, changes in flooring materials or colors, graphics on floor or wall surfaces, strategic use of ceiling soffits, and even pendulous light fixtures hanging at different heights. The object is for these disparate elements to provide definition but, at the same time, to use a common architectural language that helps knit these different areas into a common user experience.

Bringing People Together
Creating neighborhoods requires a different mindset for designers, particularly when budget is a factor. One no longer thinks of circulation as a distinct concept, for example, but rather as seamless expansion space that can sometimes serve dual purposes. Utilizing one of the above techniques, rubber performance flooring can be specified to extend from cardio areas into circulation paths (as we are doing in the Beauchamp center) so that they can serve as impromptu core training or stretching spaces, with the circulation zone defined by different flooring colors and textures.

This type of approach requires extra sensitivity to the way spaces are actually used, as opposed to how they're conceived. In our tours of fitness centers, ours and others', we often find students who have eschewed the beautiful, grand spaces for a distant corner where they can do jump squats or talk with their friends. A simple, unexpected design move-the insertion of seating into what was purely workout space, or of mat storage near lounge space-can help accommodate the mixing of uses and of people.

Collective spaces that feel somewhat individualized and individual spaces that nonetheless provide a sense of openness- that's the way college fitness centers are evolving. If exercise for many remains a solitary pursuit (symbolized these days by long white earbud cords bouncing around on every treadmill), college administrators have a particular interest in helping students become more connected to the community, not less so. Architects can help break the iPod syndrome by providing students, whether they're focused on working out or on socializing, with spaces that are comfortable enough for them to unplug. 



About The Author
James Braum senior project designer at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture.




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