Feature Article - May 2019
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Making Connections

Fitness Facilities Aim to Connect People With the Outdoors, and Each Other

By Chris Gelbach


As fitness facilities evolve, their designs are shifting to focus on health and well-being, in addition to delivering a higher-quality overall experience. In doing so, designers are sensing an opportunity for fitness facilities to play a larger role in fostering connection, enhancing wellness and counteracting the more negative aspects of modern society.

"One of the things we're seeing is this idea of a technology backlash," said James Braam, a director of the Sports + Recreation + Entertainment practice for the global design and architectural firm HOK. "We see people longing to unplug. We're so tethered to our technology and our phones. For long periods of time, when you'd ask about trends, the answer had to do with some sort of technological new market piece or invention. But what we're seeing is this chance to connect and interact with others and even connect to the outdoors. I think it all goes under this idea of getting back to basics or a bigger-picture wellness."

From Wellness to Recovery

That big-picture approach to wellness is also influencing every aspect of fitness facility design. "The biggest trend of all right now is moving to all things wellness, well-being and even the WELL building certification," said Nathan Harris, architect for the Sports and Recreation Studio at RDG Planning & Design. "They're moving much more toward full-body wellness, full spirit wellness, financial wellness—understanding the wellness wheel and all that it incorporates."

Even when it comes to physical fitness, gym operators are recognizing the importance of also providing products that are focused on the recovery end of the equation. For instance, Rudy Fabiano, founder and design director of the architectural and design firm Fabiano Designs, noted that his past several projects have included hydromassage chairs or lounges. For one client, Gainesville Health & Fitness, he even put in a whole 1,400-square-foot automated spa that's solely aqua beds and massage chairs.

"Recovery becomes not only an important part of fitness, but frankly, also an important revenue stream that, as an industry, we can tap into," Fabiano said. "Because it's not what we normally had offered. And the public's expectation is that this is a little bit of a treat. With something like a massage, they say 'I'm going to treat myself and it's going to cost a little bit more.'"

In one recent project for Level Fitness in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Fabiano's design included not only a hydromassage lounge and saunas but also a salt room featuring Himalayan salt. "We've done that in the sauna studios but now are trying to develop individual salt rooms that are purely recovery—and you're going to see more and more of those types of spaces," Fabiano said.

A Focus on Outdoor Spaces

One of the most ubiquitous trends in the designs of new fitness facilities is the increasing utilization of outdoor spaces, whether they be for rooftop or outside workout areas, rooftop gardens, terraces, balconies or even controlled outdoor areas outside the facility. These areas offer the opportunity for greater square footage at lower cost, as well as the appeal of taking workouts outside in favorable weather.

"With new construction, the ability to develop these outside spaces is there for the taking," Fabiano said. "It's shortsighted not to take those opportunities."

In many instances, these outdoor spaces are being employed to create greater indoor-outdoor connectivity between activity spaces using roll-up garage doors, removable glass or other similar options. "From a programmer point of view, they see it as an opportunity to put on a variety of types of activity and also to extend their ability to draw people in in nice weather," said Mark Hentze, vice president of Recreation & Culture for HDR Architecture Associates Inc.

The availability of a growing range of surfacing options is giving facilities a lot of choice in how they create these spaces. "It could be anything from outside paving to the playground paver tiles to concrete decks," Hentze said. "The limits you've got on your surfacing are only your imagination and your local climatic conditions."

In the Pacific Northwest, Hentze is additionally seeing a lot of client demand for outdoor spaces with verandas or roof overhangs to enable people to exercise outside when the weather is mild but rainy. "And in a time where people are becoming more and more concerned about the risks of skin cancer, I think the days of being fully exposed to the sun while you are doing your thing are probably days that are going by us, too," Hentze said.


Braam is seeing the use of more and more turf to create these indoor-outdoor environments, including one project his firm is working on, currently under construction, that will include an indoor-outdoor fourth floor of functional fitness, including an indoor-outdoor 40-yard sprint area that stretches from inside out to the roof through a set of operable doors.