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Feature Article - May 2014

Fit by Design

Getting More From Fitness Facility Design

By Kelli Ra Anderson


More is more.

We've all heard the saying, "less is more," but for many of today's fitness facility designs, "more is more." More flexibility. More integration. More sophistication. More community. More specialization. More partnerships.

Of course, some things have hardly changed. "The core features for fitness and wellness facilities are basically the same—gymnasiums, running tracks and so on," said Brian Beckler, senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative (OLC) from Denver. "You may have those core spaces, but how those spaces are used and integrated with each other and the users in those spaces—that's what's changing."

It's all about motivation. People are motivated to do what they really want to do. Something they like. Beyond the obvious desire for better fitness, some users are eager for community experience, some are looking for intergenerational connection, some want exclusive, high-service specialization and everyone wants an environment that is energizing and enjoyable.

Depending on the needs and wants of the community, facilities serve a variety of functions, ranging from jack-of-all-trade behemoths, to exclusive high-service specialty boutiques for the urban sophisticate. The key to getting it right involves thorough planning, experienced designers and, for many, whose budgets are still stinging from the smack of a punishing economy, smart funding.

Through the Looking Glass

When Chelsea Piers Connecticut opened their doors in 2012, the 400,000-square-foot facility in Stamford couldn't have been more about classic sport. Regulation ice rinks, massive gymnastics center, tennis courts, squash courts and an Olympic-sized pool are just a sample of the many sporting venues from which their members can choose.

"We will do the latest in aerobics and equipment, too, but basics like gymnastics, ice skating, running and lacrosse haven't changed much over the years," said David Tewksbury, co-founder and executive vice president of Chelsea Piers Management. "But, it was important to come up with a proper design for overall use of the space and flow of people within the space and into the athletic facilities."

In years past, such buildings were a virtual labyrinth of corridors and hallways to connect one segment of activity to the next. But, for today's more sophisticated users, who want a more integrated experience and more fluid, seamless transition from space to space, interiors are opening up in a big way. In Chelsea Piers, glass walls throughout the column-free interior allow users to view multiple areas at once, such as from the pool into the gymnasium or from the pool to the ice rinks. And while all the athletic areas are separate and distinct, the viewing areas and mezzanines are designed to be shared.

Transparency from space to space also allows natural light to penetrate into the deepest interiors, a key element in the successful design of the Choice Health & Fitness facility in Grand Forks, N.D. "Winter in North Dakota can be pretty harsh, so it's a great opportunity to bring in some natural light, warmth and color," Beckler explained.

Jim Rogers, founder and lead principal of JGR Architects in Norwalk, Conn., who are responsible for the Chelsea Piers project, agrees, saying that they like to introduce enormous amounts of natural light in many of their projects to create vibrant spaces.

Creating views from within interior spaces creates a sense of energy and anticipation, as do views from the outside in. "We had a lot of social spaces and overlooks so that from virtually any vantage point you can see from the wonderful lounge spaces, retail shop, juice bar café, views into the gymnasium, indoor pools and access to outdoor patios. Having everything consolidated like that, there's a real synergy," Beckler said, adding that anticipation, energy and even salability at Choice Health & Fitness also was created by large-windowed views from the outside in, giving pedestrians and passers by a round-the-clock glimpse of inviting activity within the building.

The designer's challenge is to take such large square footage, like the 164,000 square feet at Choice Health & Fitness, and make it both accessible and intimate at the same time. "It's a huge building with big volumes, so as part of the design team, it was about breaking those volumes down so it didn't feel like a big box."

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