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Feature Article - March 2018
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Inclusive and Multifaceted

The Ongoing Evolution of Locker Rooms

By Chris Gelbach

Going Gender-Neutral

A growing number of college and community recreation facilities are also opting to go gender-neutral when it comes to other restrooms throughout the facility beyond those in the locker rooms themselves. This approach can help more people make use of unused restrooms, while also providing a more inclusive environment for transgender individuals.

Michael Clark, executive director of the Palatine (Illinois) Park District, encountered an urgent need to address access for transgender patrons after his community's high school district was involved in the first federal case involving accessibility for a transgender individual to the girl's locker room.

In response, the park district set a policy in place for transgender patrons and trained employees in the policies, in addition to adding new signage at the front of the facilities. "We put an all-inclusive facility sign out front to give that segment of our population the ways and means that they're welcome and should use the locker room that they're most comfortable going in," Clark said.

The park district also took an inventory of its various facilities, looking at locker rooms and restrooms alike to consider their layouts and amenities. This information was used to determine ways to make the amenities more inclusive. The changes implemented included the conversion of some men's and women's restrooms to gender-neutral ones, and the addition of new privacy areas in locker rooms that any patron can choose to use.

"We're usually dealing with old civic buildings that were not designed at that time to even include family locker rooms, let alone privacy areas," Clark said. "So things that we've implemented include privacy curtains that we can put at the end of a locker-room aisle."

For newer facilities, Clark sees providing some family-style rooms or cabanas as the ideal solution to providing equal access to all individuals, including transgender patrons. "For me, that's the ideal layout or format or design I would endorse … Because then, you're not singling any one segment of the population out. You're just accommodating everyone in the same way, and everyone still gets the same experience. … To me, that's the ultimate goal in this."

Colleges Continue the Locker-Room Divide

In college locker rooms, the ongoing divide between lockers for the general student body and those for athletic teams continues to grow. Many students looking to use recreational facilities just want somewhere to store a backpack and little more.

"At the University of Connecticut, most of our lockers are those day express lockers," said Kris Cochran, a project architect for Moody Nolan, who has worked on the student recreation center there that is scheduled for completion in 2019. "That's what the students mostly want to use. They don't want to go into the locker room if they don't have to. They just want to drop their stuff off, go work out and go back to the dorm room to shower."

Many express lockers are located throughout the facility, while the locker room itself has more of a focus on larger lockers for rent to faculty and staff. "There was less concern with the general population in terms of having a lot of lockers in the locker room itself … Those lockers would really be reserved for people who would be able to purchase them, and they would be their lockers for the whole year. It's a profit center of sorts for the university."

For athletic teams, the arms race continues in universities, with spaces being built with large lockers, lounge areas in the locker rooms, and an ever-increasing use of school colors, graphics and logos for branding as the locker rooms continue to be a showcase recruiting tool.

"At larger colleges and universities, we're seeing dedicated athletic locker rooms, and by sport," Boyer said. "Women's volleyball would have its own locker room as would women's basketball, men's basketball, etc."

At smaller universities, like the facility Boyer worked on for Penn State's York campus, there might be one set of men's and women's locker rooms for a specific sport. A second set of locker rooms is most often used by the general student population, but is also sometimes locked down and used by the visiting team during a sporting event. "The way we balanced the demand was by providing day lockers out in the common space," Boyer said. "So unfortunately, the general student population suffers a bit or is inconvenienced. But there's less of a demand by the general student population to use the locker rooms."

Complicated Partnerships, Complementary Usage

As partnerships between municipalities, health systems, universities and other entities on new rec centers become more common, many of these facilities are also taking different approaches to their locker-room designs.

The Palatine Park District, for instance, has partnered with Harper College and Northwest Community Healthcare on a new intergovernmental health and recreation center that will open later in 2018 that includes an aquatics facility, fitness center, space for group fitness and a student-faculty health center clinic. To accommodate all the different patrons, the facility will feature gender-neutral washrooms, private changing rooms, and men's and women's locker rooms that will be used by the public and the general student population. A second set of men's and women's locker rooms, positioned near the rear of the facility and closer to Harper College's athletic fields, will be reserved for the college's athletic teams.

Clark noted that the collaboration will offer the advantage of maximizing usage of the public facility, since community members are more likely to use the facility early in the mornings when college students are still asleep, and in the evenings and on weekends. At the same time, peak usage from the student body will come during the day on weekdays. "For me, it's a very complementary partnership and use of that facility because the goal is that you don't want to have that facility very vacant at any time during the day," Clark said.

Springs noted that Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects has recently worked on a new rec center with gymnasium space, a fitness center, group exercise areas and a natatorium with an eight-lane competition pool and a leisure pools that will open soon in New Braunfels, Texas. "It's a city-owned building and the school district pitched in some money to fund the competitive pool and also to get some of their own locker space as part of it," Springs said.

As a result, the school district will also get their own locker areas for students in the men's and women's locker rooms that are behind a door that the public doesn't have access to, but the students will use the same fixtures the public will for showering.