Listen and Lighten Up

From foot candles to acoustical sprays, learn the ins and outs of designing for sound and light

By Kyle Ryan

OK, so it's not Tom Hanks' finest film, but there is a scene in Joe Versus The Volcano that really captures the effect bad lighting has on people (no, really).

The inviting interior of the HealthPoint Fitness and Wellness Center in Waltham, Mass.

Hanks, who plays Joe, works in an unbelievably drab, soul-sucking office in a factory, lit only by buzzing, flickering fluorescent lights. He brings in a desk lamp to provide warmer light, but his boss, Mr. Waturi, doesn't allow it, which eventually leads to a confrontation.

"You look terrible, Mr. Waturi…not that anyone would look good under these zombie lights," Joe says. "I can feel them sucking the juice outta my eyeballs. The lights give me a headache. If the lights don't give you a headache, you must be dead."

To put it more delicately, lighting affects people. Just spend some time in a poorly lit room, and you'll notice it immediately. In recreation centers, the usual suspects include dark natatoriums, harshly lit locker rooms and dungeon-like fitness areas.

Then there's sound. A massage room in your facility may have warmer lighting that a Barbara Walters interview, but if it's next to the bathroom, the relaxing mood will be repeatedly broken by the whoosh of toilets flushing.

Poor lighting and sound insulation can make people uncomfortable quite easily. When you operate a health club, where people may already feel self-conscious, that discomfort can translate into lost revenue. Even worse, fixing these problems after the fact can be an expensive undertaking.

"The overall operational professionalism has increased incredibly in terms of facility design and programs and services," says Bill Howland, director of research for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association. "With lighting and design elements, the current operators building facilities today pay attention to those details. When an experienced customer walks in a place that is not well lit, and the lighting's harsh, they notice it."

If one facility doesn't have what they want, chances are there's another one nearby that will. Maybe that place down the street has nicely lit locker rooms. Maybe it isn't overwhelmed by the noise its aerobics studios generate during classes.

As the person who handles research for IHRSA, Howland has talked to plenty of people to get their gripes.

"A lot of the hesitancy to work out and join a club revolves around comfort and people's perception of their ability to perform," he says. "Anything that can be done to make clubs more inviting, more energizing, more welcoming, I think that helps."

Life Time Fitness de-emphasizes its interior fluorescent lights by wrapping the building in windows and having a large atrium, which reaches to the middle of the building and provides a reference point so members don't get lost inside.

Only in the past decade or so has lighting become much of an issue. Before, the reigning philosophy could pretty much be summed up by "It's bright, ain't it? What else do you want?"

"Every element of club and recreation facility design has become increasingly more sophisticated," Howland says. "We're trying to engage more and more Americans in activity and exercise and encourage them to come into clubs. A big part of that is helping people feel comfortable in a fitness center or gym setting."

The keys to lighting, Howland says, are function and efficiency. There's such a thing as over-designing, especially if those neat, welcoming lights are costly to use and/or replace—like gym or court lights, where each bulb can cost up to $30 to replace.

"These facilities get used 358 days of the year," Howland says. "They open at 5 in the morning and close at 11, but the lights are still running as clean-up is being done at midnight. The amount of use systems get poses a challenge."

At Life Time Fitness, that's not the only challenge. This spring, the health-club chain opened a more than 184,000-square-foot facility (a typical size for Life Time) in Tempe, Ariz., that's open 24 hours a day. Housed inside this giant box are 400 pieces of workout equipment, aerobics studios, saunas, steam rooms, three rock-climbing walls, two full-size basketball courts and an aquatics center. Lighting such a place is no easy task—especially considering the facilities keep getting bigger.

"The real challenge is getting light to the middle of the space," says William Doerr, director of architecture for Life Time Fitness. That's partly accomplished by the massive, two-plus story atrium in every club, which extends to the center of the building. During the day, light passes through the translucent skylight of the atrium and provides a diffused glow.

"The challenge has been keeping the intimacy of it," Doerr says. "What we've done is brought that skylight in further and made it a much more predominant piece. You can grow it without getting lost in it. It really gives customers a reference point to where they entered; they're always aware of the atrium."

The weight room area of Life Time Fitness has the same ceiling setup as the cardio area.

The "big box" is also wrapped with windows around its exterior and peppered inside with interior windows. When combined with the skylight, the natural light supercedes the power of the traditional fluorescent bulbs that are in the ceiling.

"At any point in the club, you can see a window and see light," Doerr says. "[For example,] in a casino, there isn't any daylight. The activities keep people there, but when you run out of money, you can't wait to get out of there. We're really taking the opposite approach."

Part of that plan entails giving people space vertically. The workout areas have a grid-like false ceiling that opens into the real ceiling above that has the lights. The effect makes the room feel more spacious than it is.

While many places don't share the size of a Life Time Fitness facility, they share many amenities: weight rooms, aerobics studios, locker rooms and so on. Each area requires something different when it comes to lighting.

But you can use a standard method for measuring luminance in a room: the foot candle (fc). This a standard unit that equals the total intensity of light that falls upon one square foot surface placed one foot away from a source of light that equals one candle power. Lux is a similar unit, only it measures meters.

For instance, the locker room is ground zero for personal discomfort in any facility. Harsh light only exacerbates that, so use soft, warm, possibly indirect, lighting (between 30 and 50 fc).

"You want enough but not harsh," says Hervey Lavoie, president of Ohlson-Lavoie Corporation, an architecture firm based in Denver. Lavoie has handled the company's sports/recreation/fitness designs for more than 20 years. "People are grooming, so skin color needs to be rendered correctly there. You don't want to look like you're dead."

Lavoie is a big proponent of indirect lighting, especially in locker rooms. One inexpensive way to accomplish that is to put fixtures on top of the lockers to cast light up, not down, and provide a certain diffused glow to the room. At the mirrors, light balance on the face is important, especially in women's locker rooms, for applying makeup. Luminance at the mirrors can be up to 100 fc.

In the weight room, chances are people will spend a healthy chunk of time on their backs using equipment. When they're down, they won't want to look directly into super-bright lights. There, Lavoie says, a light with a 30 to 40 fc rating would work fine.

The cardio room at Life Time Fitness uses a false ceiling to create the illusion of space vertically. Lights and speakers are housed in the actual ceiling, which is treated with a spray to reduce noise.

"Probably the fitness area is one of the easiest places to deal with lighting," Lavoie says. "A certain amount of ambient lighting is needed to safely move around the space. The primary purpose in the workout area is someone to see well enough so they're not sitting in somebody else's pool of sweat."

In a place like a natatorium, though, lighting gets more difficult. In the past, pools were traditionally placed in dark, windowless rooms because of safety concerns: Light reflected on the surface of the pool could prevent a lifeguard from seeing if someone was in trouble underwater. But if lifeguards are placed with their backs to the source of the light, underwater activity won't be obscured by surface reflections.

Essentially, lighting in a natatorium needs to be bright enough to penetrate the water, which usually isn't very deep. Lavoie cautions against using expensive underwater pool lights for that purpose, as they create surface reflections that draw attention to every little piece of debris that might be floating there.

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."

Gyms have similar problems with echoes, but banners might not work there because balls often travel high in the air. Here, Lavoie recommends using acoustical steel decking for the roof structure during the construction phase. The benefits, he says, are huge and the investment small.

If you have a facility that's already constructed, simple ceiling panels are easy to install and absorb sound well. All it takes is a quick calculation of how many you need for the square footage.

"A lot of it you can plan for and design for, but until you get in there, and all the issues come out, sometimes it takes building the first one," Doerr says. "Acoustical modeling can help you with the planning, but the reality of the space often doesn't turn out as designed or planned for. Everything's kind of a work in progress."

The reign of aesthetics

When asked about other design elements he likes to use in the facilities he builds, Lavoie mentions accent lighting to emphasize a bulletin board, a piece of art or a particularly striking architectural feature.

Designers used indirect lighting at the Boston Celtics Athletic Training Facility, a design choice not seen often in gymnasiums.

Doerr mentions Life Time's new work on exterior lighting at night. There are lighting fixtures attached to the top parapet of the building with illuminated accent medallions. Lights on the ground shine up and wash the walls with a glow.

"It's a combination of lighting angles, not just flooding the building with light, to accentuate the finer details of the building," he says.

Hearing them, it's obvious that gone are the days of having a no-frills rec center, especially if you're a health club that wants to stay competitive. Howland says aesthetics will continue to be emphasized, if not more so, in the future.

"If you visit facilities, they're just much more aesthetically interesting and appealing than gyms were just 10 years ago," Howland says. "That's what the experienced consumer comes to expect. It's a matter of keeping up with the Joneses. That brand-new gym down the street has brought in a professional to help them with their design and layout. I think it makes a difference."

It's a fine line to walk, though, because just as overzealous attention to sound isolation can be costly, over-designing a facility can do that as well, and the customers end up footing the bill.

"We try to keep the thing economic as well," Doerr says. "There's always more money that can be spent trying to come up with solutions, but we try to get more bang for buck, not driving price of membership up to the point that the model doesn't work."

Going to such lengths to keep up with the Joneses doesn't guarantee customers, either. While consumers may expect more these days, your business will suffer if the basics are overlooked.

"You may have state-of-the-art equipment on the floor, but to the average, inexperienced exerciser, they have no idea," Howland says. "But when they walk through the front door, they can tell if the club is well-lit and warm and friendly, and they can tell if the club is dirty or smelly. As an operator, which choice do you want to make?"

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