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


Durable Yet Aesthetic

Because these facilities take a beating, designers are also employing new methods and products to keep them better-looking and longer-lasting. Hentze, for instance, has opted to use more durable edge grain wood flooring in some recent installations, including a multipurpose space that would be used for ball hockey, which would have damaged a traditional wood floor. "So we used the edge grain stuff and all of a sudden that floor can stand up to a different kind of traffic better than a normal floor, and you've just expanded your functionality."

Braam has increasingly turned to burnished concrete block in designing gymnasium spaces. It features the durability of concrete but the look of granite. "While there's a small upcharge for the finish, when you think about the lifecycle cost you're never painting that wall in its history," Braam said. "It will always be a block wall that looks like stone and has the durability that these spaces are looking for."

Harris is seeing a continuation of an ongoing trend toward large-format tile to reduce the amount of grout lines that are an ongoing maintenance concern with those types of floors or walls. He is also seeing more client requests for products either using recycled content or that will be recyclable once their useful life has concluded.

Fabiano is seeing an increasing array of synthetic products that wear better, have better properties and are less expensive than their authentic counterparts, including vinyl tiles and wall coverings that look like wood, stone or metal.

"I think it's good for the owner because some of these products are certainly less expensive but have the longevity aspect to them," Fabiano said. "But they also present a slight design dilemma as to when to use actual wood versus a wood substitute that looks like wood."

In general, more expensive clubs demand more authentic materials, and less expensive buildings require designers to opt more for synthetic products. "The point is that even when you're making the choices of synthetic or authentic materials, you can still get high design and not just a general warehouse look," Fabiano said.

As owners seek more future-proof spaces, Hentze also noted the importance of building in ceiling and wall structures that can support different types of equipment to accommodate more bodyweight work.

Creating a Social Environment

In their newest facilities, designers are also incorporating more elements that introduce a social component both to working out and to socializing before and after the workout. These include ever-larger turf spaces for functional fitness that can be used for unstructured group workouts and stretching, as well as smaller spaces designed for two or three people to work out in. According to Braam, HOK started incorporating the latter spaces in their designs, often with a door and a glass wall, after being inspired by similar small study alcoves that are often incorporated in newer university library designs. Other fitness activities that are social in nature, such as bouldering, are also growing in prominence.

At the Wake Forest Well-Being Center, RDG even included a large space dedicated to social gathering called the Living Room that features soft seating, a fireplace and a two-story waterfall feature. "Some of these recreation centers are almost becoming a second union space," Harris said. "So if someone's in between classes, they can drop into the rec center and be with friends and sit and study in these social spaces."

Hentze also noted the growing importance of including social spaces outside of group exercise areas where people can wait and socialize more comfortably in between classes. "There might be a space where we can sit on some pretty nice couches or a space where we can do some stretching without people looking at us weirdly and thinking, 'Why are you doing this in the hallway?'" Hentze said.

At Chicago's East Bank Club, known as a networking spot for the city's business community, the club is even starting to get in on the coworking craze by devoting space to that function and charging members for the opportunity.

"In a lot of the more club-type environments, members are going there and hanging out in the café with their laptops all day long, like it's their office," Fabiano said. "Clubs are saying, if they want to be here anyway, maybe we can create an area for them where they can hang out and do business and we can charge for it and still be their home away from home."

Designers are additionally including features that create a homey atmosphere for all visitors, from a shift to cabana-style locker rooms that offer privacy to all audiences to a variety of features to make the clubs more welcoming to members with disabilities. Hentze noted that HDR is incorporating features such as 18-inch benches in locker rooms that are easier for disabled users to change on, wider 3.6-foot doors that easily accommodate users in sport wheelchairs, induction loops in multipurpose rooms that benefit people with hearing aids, bright colors such as caution yellow that are easier for the visually impaired to see, textured surfaces that help visually impaired users with wayfinding, and braille on doors.

Overall, these trends reflect a larger move toward inclusion, wellness and connection in the fitness facility space. "I really believe that our society is longing to work out together, and there's a greater benefit with that camaraderie and it becomes an experience," Braam said.