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Feature Article - July 2011

Design For All Times

Trends in Sports Facility Design

By Dawn Klingensmith


Upon completion of an intramural sports building at the University of Michigan, Elmer Mitchell, the man whose vision drove the facility's design, said it would be a place "where a thousand students can enter daily to congregate, and to mix their exercise with sociability."

Hundreds of miles away in New York, the Wellness Center at the College of New Rochelle features not only athletic facilities but also a meditation garden, a chapel and classrooms, bringing together competition, contemplation and conviviality. Built on the same principle, the two facilities are separated not just by miles but by decades: The Wellness Center was completed in 2008 while the University of Michigan building was completed 80 years earlier in 1928, and it was way back then when Mitchell expressed a vision embraced by so many sports facility designers today as though it were a new concept.

"Particularly on campuses, there's been a trend toward including social spaces" in sports facility design, said Colleen McKenna, associate principal, Cannon Design, Boston.

For example, instead of corridors connecting spaces designed for programmed activities, you might find a series of lounge areas with Wi-Fi where students can do homework or chat with friends. "It's not just about the pool and the gym but spaces that connect and enhance the overall experience," McKenna said.

Three years ago, Cannon Design renovated a fieldhouse into a fitness center at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., in keeping with the institution's "Whole Man" educational philosophy that physical, spiritual and intellectual improvement are all intertwined. Besides accommodating varsity athletics and physical recreation, the goals of the $7.6 million renovation, completed in 2008, were to "create an inviting center for thoughtful activity" and to "provide active and passive socialization and learning opportunities."

Though not new, the idea that sports facilities should be multiuse and inviting with some architectural flair has lately taken hold in a way that Elmer Mitchell perhaps would have appreciated. Facility design today is also shaped by the green movement, compliance issues, safety and liability concerns, and economic realities.

Sunny Days Ahead

"There have been trends and changes in sports facility and gymnasium design and renovation of late. A lot of them are obviously cost-driven," said Grant Warner, CEO, Sports Facilities Group, Riverside, Calif. "One thing that comes to mind is changes in lighting, which has been going on for a while."

Gyms in the 1960s relied on inefficient fluorescent lamps that produced poor lighting along with a buzzing sound. Then came other types of lighting (metal halide, high-pressure sodium, halogen), which are brighter but have other drawbacks. Some have cool-down and warm-up times, for example, so if the power goes out in the middle of a sporting event, no matter how briefly, all action comes to a halt for as long as 15 minutes.

New products on the market offer superior lighting, as well as energy and cost savings. High-intensity fluorescent lights are "extremely bright," Warner said, yet have compact fixtures. They are the norm for new facilities and offer a relatively quick return on investment as a retrofit to existing buildings.

Whereas gyms of a certain era tended to be windowless, newly constructed facilities make use of natural lighting for purposes of energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Standard windows can produce unwanted glare, and where there are bodies and balls in motion, there's the potential for breakage. A safer option is a translucent fiberglass wall panel, which allows diffuse natural lighting into the gym. Skylights are another option.

With the advancement of fluorescent lighting technology come other energy-saving innovations, such as Solatube, a solar light tube that passively harvests sunlight from a rooftop to illuminate a facility, without the heat gain associated with traditional skylights.

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