Upscale & Utilitarian

The Latest in Locker Room Design

By Chris Gelbach

As public and private recreation facilities strive to serve their customers more effectively, many are revamping their approach to locker rooms. Often, they are working to create spaces that are both more utilitarian and more refined. Instead of offering an increasing array of club-like leisure options, they are focused on offering busy patrons more comfort, more choice and more privacy.

The importance of making the right locker room choices cannot be overstated. "A locker room is probably some of the most expensive space in your building, so you want to make good decisions," said Keith Hayes, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. It's a space that patrons won't use unless it's clean and comfortable. "It's also the most expensive space to maintain. So picking materials and selecting finishes that are durable and easy to maintain is very important," Hayes said. "If you cannot maintain it, no one's going to use it."

Refined Yet Utilitarian

Private gyms are moving toward more upscale locker rooms in gym chains with reasonable rates. This, in turn, is nudging public recreation centers to consider locker room designs that are more club-like in feel than the more institutional environments favored in the past.

"It can be a real challenge to provide that professional clubhouse atmosphere in a YMCA in a way that's really durable and easy to maintain," Hayes said. "So I think that it's trying to provide those little moments of a really nice light fixture or a piece of tile trim or the use of color to do it."

Instead of offering an increasing array of club-like leisure options, public and private recreation facilities are focused on offering busy patrons more comfort, more choice and more privacy.

Instead of using furniture, saunas and steam rooms that busy customers may not have time to use anyway, the goal is to create more inviting spaces that are also functional.

"People are expecting more premium finishes and more space to circulate," said Chris Kastelic, a senior vice president at the architectural and design firm Sink Combs Dethlefs. "We're getting more premium lighting, more indirect lighting and other touches that create a softer, more appealing and more comfortable environment."

According to Hayes, recent advances in LED lighting and new accent tiles and other offerings from tile manufacturers are making it easier to provide some of these upscale touches without breaking the bank. Likewise, locker manufacturers are offering more locker options with veneers that combine the higher-end look of wood with the easier maintainability of solid phenolic and laminate products.

At the same time, facilities are using color more often as a low-cost way to make their locker rooms more inviting by forgoing a traditional sterile look. It can be most sensible to make these choices on elements like painted walls and applied graphics, as opposed to more permanent features that could have a lifespan of 50 years or more.

"There's nothing worse than walking into a locker room with teal and purple tile that screams of the 1980s that's still there because no one's going to go in and drill out tile," Kastelic said. "So we lean toward neutral colors on permanent materials and turn toward the more convertible stuff for our impact."

Comfort Comes First

As they look at the layout of their locker room facilities, recreation centers are also addressing the reality that many people simply don't feel at ease in locker rooms. "Today, we're spending a lot more time thinking about these spaces as an environment people are not comfortable with—and about how we can make them more comfortable in that environment," Kastelic said.

Designers are doing this using things like spacious, flowing designs that give patrons more room to move, larger rectangular benches and more mirrored grooming areas throughout the locker area.

They're also addressing privacy concerns by providing more varied facilities for different user groups, such as family cabanas for parents with small children. Finding the right mix of these facilities is important. "We've explored the idea of not having a men's and women's locker room, but going to all family cabanas," Hayes said. "We found that retaining men's and women's locker rooms is a good thing because you can move more people through, particularly if you get large groups."

When including family changing rooms in the mix, designers suggest considering how many of the rooms really need to be full-service. "Not everyone needs a shower, sink locker and toilet within a family change zone," Kastelic said. "And what we find with these larger, full-service rooms is that people will monopolize them if there are only two, three or four of them." Instead, offering a few of these rooms along with a larger percentage of smaller family change stalls can help facilities meet the needs of more families more effectively in the same space.

To accommodate other patrons who don't feel comfortable changing without privacy in a men's or women's locker area, some facilities are offering additional gender-neutral changing areas. Others are addressing the issue within the locker rooms themselves by incorporating change stalls at the end of locker banks that are similar to the changing cubbies used in retail clothing stores. Some facilities are also opting to provide greater privacy in the shower area, as well, through larger individual showers that include a small changing area behind the curtain or glass.

Another option that can make diverse user groups more comfortable is finding a way to better separate kids from adults. While YMCAs have been doing this using separate kids' locker rooms for years, other facilities are segregating these groups more subtly through design principles.

"We hear a lot from the senior population about how uncomfortable it is for them to be changing in the same environment that young kids are in," said Dave Sprague, senior principal for the architectural firm Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. "So we try to create a zone in the locker room toward the pool side of the facility where younger kids will gravitate toward."

According to Sprague, this can be done successfully using a flow-through corridor that goes almost to the rear of the locker rooms. "If you can create an unbroken pathway to the back end of that locker room, kids and parents with kids will gravitate toward that end of the locker room because it's closest to the pool," Sprague said. The corridor may even be painted in pool colors to further encourage pool traffic in that direction. Meanwhile, adults using the fitness area will naturally opt for the front of the locker room. "It's almost like creating two locker rooms in one," Sprague said.

Other facilities that include aquatic and fitness areas are separating their locker rooms into wet and dry areas. In some cases, this can include lockable doors to the aquatic area. This allows for additional security and safety—and reduced maintenance costs—by giving the facility the ability to shut down that area of the locker room if the pool area has more limited hours.

More Spaces, Greater Convenience

Likewise, some larger facilities are opting to provide a mix of different locker room options—including multiple men's and women's locker room areas—to maximize throughput and convenience instead of forcing all patrons to use the same locker area.

At 236,000 square feet, The Williston Area Recreation Center in Williston, N.D., claims to be the nation's largest rec center owned by a park district. With indoor offerings that include a 200-meter competition track, four tennis courts, four basketball courts, competition and instructional pools, a waterpark, fitness areas and other amenities, it serves a large and diverse base of users.

To accommodate the 1,400 people a day who use the building, the facility includes men's and women's locker rooms downstairs that connect to the pool and the rest of the building. It also has separate men's and women's locker rooms upstairs by the cardio area that are designated for adults only. A third set of locker rooms is located near the 50-meter competition pool. In addition, families are served by 13 family changing rooms—three of them with shower facilities.

"We have 592 lockers, and I'd say 75 percent of those are being used on Saturday. It's just a busy place," said Darin L. Krueger, executive director of the Williston Parks & Recreation District. "We also added five other restrooms throughout the building just to try to spread the usage out a little bit."

Exemplifying the trend toward more upscale materials, the main locker rooms feature green glass, 12-by-12-inch dark chocolate tile floors, and showers featuring frosted glass and raindrop shower heads.

Another larger facility that incorporates multiple locker rooms into its design is the 190,000-square-foot Campbell County Recreation Center in Gillette, Wyo. Its main men's and women's locker rooms are split into wet and dry areas sharing central shower and toilet areas. "Then you don't have people from the pool walking all the way through the locker room," said Dave McCormick, executive director for Campbell County Parks and Recreation. "It's worked out really well for us."

Also included are four family changing stalls and three family changing rooms with showers. And a set of smaller men's and women's locker rooms can be found in the attached field house near a six-lane track. Several other restrooms are located throughout the facility to further disperse facility usage.

Choosing the Right Lockers

Recreation centers of all sizes struggle with how to create the right mix of locker sizes and how to manage and maintain them. It's something that should be thought through carefully during the planning process.

"You have to talk about, do you want to have permanent rentals? What type of locking device do you want on them? What's the configuration going to look like? What does the mix look like? Is it all full-size or half-size lockers?" Sprague said.

Half-size lockers can accommodate twice as many users in the same space, but the smaller you go, the more patron comfort is sacrificed. Facilities serving users who visit before work, or who are in a climate that sometimes requires heavy coats, are most likely to benefit from offering more large lockers.

The Campbell County Recreation Center uses coin-operated phenolic lockers throughout its facility in a variety of sizes. On the dry side of the main locker rooms, larger two-tier lockers are used to accommodate adult fitness patrons. A mix of two-tier and smaller three-tier and four-tier lockers are available in the wet side because the smaller lockers are suitable for children using the pool.

The facility has also chosen to rent out some lockers to patrons on a quarterly basis that they can lock with their own padlock. "We get a lot of use with the rentals—people like that option," McCormick said.

The Williston Area Recreation Center additionally uses coin-operated lockers. The facility considered offering rental lockers, as well, but opted against it because of cleanliness concerns and to avoid creating a potential management issue for staff. "We're in an oil boom [town]," Krueger said. "Guys are two weeks on, two weeks off. If they go home and leave stinky gym shorts in there for two weeks and I cut off the lock, we have a battle."

Both the Campbell County and Williston facilities offer additional smaller lockers outside the family changing areas where people can put a duffel bag, representative of a broader trend toward express lockers. These lockers are sufficient for the growing percentage of gym-goers who choose to arrive dressed to work out, providing convenience and much-needed security for belongings in the age of the ubiquitous $500 smartphone.

A bank of express lockers in the main gym area can also help facilities minimize their locker room expenses. "It takes a tremendous burden off the locker rooms themselves," Sprague said. "It actually allows us to do somewhat more compact locker rooms if they're used right."

A combination of express lockers, clean locker rooms and family changing rooms also gives patrons the ability to interact with the facility in the manner they're most comfortable. In turn, providing these options can transform your locker rooms from ones that patrons choose not to use into ones that give them reason to choose your facility.

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