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

Traditionally, bright overhead lights were used, but they also create bright spots on the ground. These can make the room look darker overall because pupils in the eyes shrink to adjust to direct light.

Here again, Lavoie recommends indirect light. Life Time Fitness, for example, uses an indirect system (aided by natural light from windows) in its indoor pool facilities. Regardless, even if the light setup isn't a pretty one, it has to provide enough visibility to be safe.

Many facilities also have courts of some kind, be they indoor or outdoor. Often these have a similar setup to indoor pool facilities: bright, direct light shining from the ceiling, few (if any) windows. Despite all that light shining from the ceiling, gyms like these can look dark, again because of shrunken pupils. Here, Lavoie recommends bouncing the light from the ceiling to produce an environment that's not overly bright but not dark, either.

"If you're fixated on achieving a certain foot-candle level, you will invariably be able to register that level with less energy and fewer watts with direct lighting," Lavoie says. "But the quality of light is so much better with indirect lighting in a club environment, where you're trying to make people linger and feel comfortable. I think there's something you can't measure with a light meter."


Every day in health-club facilities and recreation centers, a battle rages against sound transmission. This is the continual struggle for architects and designers: how to keep numerous activities from noisily conflicting with each other.

To avoid bright spots and an overall dark look to the pool room at the Wellness Center of Cape Coral in Cape Coral, Fla., designers used indirect lighting. To reduce the echo effect with sound, absorptive pads are line the tops of every wall.

The clank-clank of weight machines. The chatter of televisions. The cacophony from the headphones that guy has cranked. The thumping beat of an aerobics class. The music being piped in by the club's own speakers. But this symphony of sorts isn't necessarily a problem.

"There's a certain amount of energy in a health club," Lavoie says. "It's not a library. There's a certain ambient noise level that's going to be there and in effect lowers the sensitivity to a lot of the noise that takes place in the more active areas of the club."

But the ambition of a huge facility can make for a daunting task when it comes to sound isolation: The massage room might be next to the aquatic area, where kids are screaming down the two-story waterslides. That might also be adjacent to the training area, which could be next to the deafening aerobics studios, which might not be far from the infant area, where you need quiet.

Alleviating the problem begins at the drafting table (ideally), where you try to isolate the high-activity areas from the ones that need tranquility—so avoid placing the aerobics studios adjacent to the massage rooms. When you can't plan any more, insulate, from the walls to door gaskets to power outlets.

At Life Time Fitness, Doerr insulates as much as possible. In the workout rooms, the area above the false ceiling is coated with an acoustical textured spray that deadens the sound of equipment and machines.

"The real challenge becomes getting an open feel and being able to see between the spaces but also having a separation of them," Doerr says.

It doesn't take much to go overboard, either. Soundproofing can be an expensive process, so avoid doing it unnecessarily.

"Just the fact that you might be out on the weight-room floor and hear music from the aerobics room isn't necessarily a bad thing," Lavoie says. "You don't need to spend the money to isolate every source of sound."

Life Time's design seemed to hold up well until its aerobics studios installed new, louder sound systems. Aerobics rooms, with their hardwood floors, are already tough to isolate because of the way sound bounces around inside of them. The traditional treatment of the room had worked, but when the volume went up, Doerr had to find something to decrease the noise emanating from the rooms.

At the Wellness Center of Cape Coral, the cardio theatre uses indirect lighting to create a diffused glow throughout the room.

To do that, he took a cue from the other noisiest place in the club: the indoor aquatics area, where sound bounces off the water, the walls and the mostly untreated ceiling. To absorb some of it, designers had created banners that hang from the ceiling. Their decorative nature makes them look like aesthetic elements, not functional ones, but they make a difference. Now banners hang in the aerobics studios, too.

"For the aerobics rooms, you're always adjusting things," Doerr says.

Although the pool room is noisy, too, it has another problem because of its size and numerous hard surfaces: echoes. Aquatics classes can be particularly difficult to follow because instructors' words easily get lost the farther they have to travel. Again, in this situation absorptive/decorative banners hanging from the ceiling can be effective, especially because they have two sides to dampen sound (front and back). You can also line the walls with similar materials, but only one side of them is able to absorb sound.

"If it isn't properly addressed in the original design, it's easily fixed, but it costs money," Lavoie says. "You miss that in early design, you end up with a situation that's expensive to repair."