Feature Article - September 2003
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Listen and Lighten Up

From foot candles to acoustical sprays, learn the ins and outs of designing for sound and light

By Kyle Ryan

"The real challenge is getting light to the middle of the space," says William Doerr, director of architecture for Life Time Fitness. That's partly accomplished by the massive, two-plus story atrium in every club, which extends to the center of the building. During the day, light passes through the translucent skylight of the atrium and provides a diffused glow.

"The challenge has been keeping the intimacy of it," Doerr says. "What we've done is brought that skylight in further and made it a much more predominant piece. You can grow it without getting lost in it. It really gives customers a reference point to where they entered; they're always aware of the atrium."

The weight room area of Life Time Fitness has the same ceiling setup as the cardio area.

The "big box" is also wrapped with windows around its exterior and peppered inside with interior windows. When combined with the skylight, the natural light supercedes the power of the traditional fluorescent bulbs that are in the ceiling.

"At any point in the club, you can see a window and see light," Doerr says. "[For example,] in a casino, there isn't any daylight. The activities keep people there, but when you run out of money, you can't wait to get out of there. We're really taking the opposite approach."

Part of that plan entails giving people space vertically. The workout areas have a grid-like false ceiling that opens into the real ceiling above that has the lights. The effect makes the room feel more spacious than it is.

While many places don't share the size of a Life Time Fitness facility, they share many amenities: weight rooms, aerobics studios, locker rooms and so on. Each area requires something different when it comes to lighting.

But you can use a standard method for measuring luminance in a room: the foot candle (fc). This a standard unit that equals the total intensity of light that falls upon one square foot surface placed one foot away from a source of light that equals one candle power. Lux is a similar unit, only it measures meters.

For instance, the locker room is ground zero for personal discomfort in any facility. Harsh light only exacerbates that, so use soft, warm, possibly indirect, lighting (between 30 and 50 fc).

"You want enough but not harsh," says Hervey Lavoie, president of Ohlson-Lavoie Corporation, an architecture firm based in Denver. Lavoie has handled the company's sports/recreation/fitness designs for more than 20 years. "People are grooming, so skin color needs to be rendered correctly there. You don't want to look like you're dead."

Lavoie is a big proponent of indirect lighting, especially in locker rooms. One inexpensive way to accomplish that is to put fixtures on top of the lockers to cast light up, not down, and provide a certain diffused glow to the room. At the mirrors, light balance on the face is important, especially in women's locker rooms, for applying makeup. Luminance at the mirrors can be up to 100 fc.

In the weight room, chances are people will spend a healthy chunk of time on their backs using equipment. When they're down, they won't want to look directly into super-bright lights. There, Lavoie says, a light with a 30 to 40 fc rating would work fine.

The cardio room at Life Time Fitness uses a false ceiling to create the illusion of space vertically. Lights and speakers are housed in the actual ceiling, which is treated with a spray to reduce noise.

"Probably the fitness area is one of the easiest places to deal with lighting," Lavoie says. "A certain amount of ambient lighting is needed to safely move around the space. The primary purpose in the workout area is someone to see well enough so they're not sitting in somebody else's pool of sweat."

In a place like a natatorium, though, lighting gets more difficult. In the past, pools were traditionally placed in dark, windowless rooms because of safety concerns: Light reflected on the surface of the pool could prevent a lifeguard from seeing if someone was in trouble underwater. But if lifeguards are placed with their backs to the source of the light, underwater activity won't be obscured by surface reflections.

Essentially, lighting in a natatorium needs to be bright enough to penetrate the water, which usually isn't very deep. Lavoie cautions against using expensive underwater pool lights for that purpose, as they create surface reflections that draw attention to every little piece of debris that might be floating there.