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Feature Article - May 2018

Fitness for All

Campus Design Focuses on Connection, Inclusiveness

By Deborah L. Vence


Wellness facilities at colleges and universities have changed quite a bit over time. More than just a gym with locker rooms, campus recreation centers today encompass sophisticated design elements, creating a sense of connection and making it possible for everyone to enjoy their fitness experience.

"The idea [is] health, wellness and fitness, and bringing all of those together in an impactful, seamless way," said Brian Beckler, a senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative (OLC), an architectural firm in Denver.

Over the past 10 years, wellness has evolved and been redefined, and now "It's about energy and life processes and how we manage our energy in its totality; self-responsibility and love, eating and moving, all of these components," Beckler said. "As a culture, we are becoming more educated. We are becoming more responsible for our own health. All of these elements, that is what we see on the design side."

Design Trends

Designing wellness facilities at colleges at universities really starts on the outside, even before you get into the facility. "There is a real emphasis on creating gateways, and physical connections and portraying an image to the surrounding campus, and not just the building right across the street," Beckler said. "The facility and pathways are connected to the surrounding area. And that's very intentional. You really have to think about how students are moving through campus. What do they see?

"Recreation facilities are a powerful tool in conveying an image to the campus community and who they are. It's a great tool in recruiting new students and staff, and retaining them," he said.

Along the lines of design trends, no longer do you come to the building, go through turn-styles, check in and go to a room to lift weights. "You don't do that anymore. The trend is as soon as you walk in, you are visually a part of the environment," Beckler said. "It creates a sense of anticipation. You create a 'wow' factor. Big glassy atrium spaces, wide open, generous gathering spaces. We try to eliminate barriers. Make it open and transparent as possible. You can see the brightness as soon as you walk into the door."

The fact is that "Health and wellness recreation centers have become that social hub. You can study, work out and get all of those pieces in one spot. It's so vibrant. That energy, it's a place that people want to be," he said, adding that technology also has progressively made its way into fitness centers. For example, you can sync up your iPhone with fitness equipment.

The idea is health, wellness and fitness, and bringing all of those together in an impactful, seamless way.

Colleen McKenna, principal, CannonDesign, a global architecture, engineering and design firm, said a major focus is designing campus recreation centers to be inclusive and ensure fitness for everyone. "This means designing spaces where all people feel comfortable and all fitness skill sets can thrive," she said. "Not everyone wants to be on display while exercising, and this is resulting in a breakdown of the historical large 'cardio canyons' into 'fitness neighborhoods,' each with a different personality or area of focus that fosters community building."

In addition, more artificial turf areas and incline ramps are being introduced into fitness centers to allow for more functional training and boot camp style fitness classes. "Inspired by the TV show, we're also seeing some campus recreation centers create 'Ninja Warrior' workout zones with large equipment or a circuit simulating the ninja acrobatic television shows, but on a smaller and more manageable scale," McKenna said. "Fitness equipment continues to grow larger (not smaller) and smarter with integrated technology providing instant and real, measurable feedback through personal devices and smart workout attire."

This trend is only going to grow as fitness enthusiasts and competitive athletes continue to use technology and software for their fitness workouts. "Whether that's tracking their effort or engaging in gaming concepts where workouts are driven by gaming software for small group training or cardio and fitness workouts," she said.

Meanwhile, John McAllister, associate vice president, CannonDesign, noted that virtual reality (VR) is becoming an important tool in the design of campus recreation centers as well. "Colleges and universities are using it in the design process more and more because it can enhance assurance of outcomes, reduce cost, risk and project timelines and help ensure these institutions are creating the best spaces for their students, communities and [their] own future," he said.

For example, engaging students, staff and key stakeholders always has been an important step in the design of campus recreation centers. "Being able to hear directly from these future building users about their preferences, needs and hopes for new or renovated recreation spaces helps surface important ideas and issues that can strengthen the design process," McAllister said. "VR enhances our ability to do this. Imagine being unsure about where to place an indoor jogging track in a new recreation center or whether to use an area for a climbing wall or additional multi-activity space—with VR models, design teams can actually embed students in these possibilities and document their real-time reactions and experiences and then make the best possible decisions," he said.

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