Attention to Detail
The Ongoing Evolution of the Locker Room
By Joe Bush
The attention paid to locker room design and equipment is a 21st century phenomenon, according to one architect.
Ask anyone between the ages of 30 and 50 for memories of locker rooms of their past, and you may hear stories of weird locations, open-room showers, toilet stalls with no doors, and walls with no decoration or paint. Extreme examples from older schools maybe, but there's no doubt that trends of state-of-the-art commercial fitness facilities and campus recreation centers and municipal fitness palaces built and enhanced to attract students and residents are only about 30 years old.
Sam Elsheikh, architect and project manager with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative in Denver, said long gone are the days of back-burner status for the space where people change, shower, groom and use the restroom at recreational buildings.
"The lockers area is usually the members' first meaningful interaction with the facility after experiencing the lobby and check-in, and has a profound impact on the ongoing success or failure of the facility," Elsheikh said. "Owners and designers are now paying much more attention to locker rooms than they did 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Locker rooms that are small, dark and odorous, with poorly ventilated lockers and open gang showers are no longer accepted by the users who are continually demanding more.
"The trend now is a lavish space with lounge-like atmosphere, rich colors, superlative ventilation and digital amenities including TVs, Wi-Fi, scales, swimsuit water extractors, hair dryers and towel service. Customers and members envision the locker room as a space where they can unwind after a good workout, enjoy a social experience with peers, and take a break to check their e-mail before leaving the locker room."
Some of what Elsheikh described is luxurious, for larger budgets, and some is standard, the bare minimum. Still, both are based on the idea that if a facility is competing for patrons, locker rooms can be a draw, or, if they are slighted and not maintained, a reason the public will choose a competitor.
Work With Your Budget
Even on a small budget, locker rooms can be a pro, or at least not a con. Keep it clean and take care of the basics. Fewer amenities doesn't mean sacrificing safety, functionality and longevity.
"For a new facility, your focus should be on an architecturally appealing but simple arrangement," Elsheikh said. "Less is always more. The layout should have less visual obstacles, fewer barriers, devoid of unnecessary walls and doors. If the space is opened up, it will cost less, and provide for a wonderful space that is easy to navigate. Then, invest in durable materials that are easy to clean and maintain, that will withstand the test of time."
Elsheikh said limited-budget projects that upgrade existing locker rooms should focus on the toilet areas and ADA compliance as well as wet areas.
"The showers can provide the most impact on the feel of the facility, but because of constant use, can deteriorate quickly if not constructed properly," he said. "Long gone are the days of gang showers and the small 3-foot by 3-foot compartment showers. Modern arrangements have a privacy and changing compartment and ample room within a 3-foot-4 by 6-foot footprint."
If there is more to spend, Elsheikh recommends replacing the floor in the dry area of the locker room, and adding vanities and grooming stations, followed by replacing or re-facing aging lockers.
"Additions of amenities such as gender-specific saunas, steam rooms and spas in a traditional locker room are always a welcome upgrade for customers who have not had such luxuries in the past," he said.
The trend now is a lavish space with lounge-like atmosphere, rich colors, superlative ventilation and digital amenities including TVs, Wi-Fi, scales, swimsuit water extractors, hair dryers and towel service.
Sara Boyer, a senior associate architect with Moody Nolan, said that if budget is the primary design factor, the bare necessities need to be addressed.
"The everyday elements that will offer the most durability and the best patron experience, like the lockers, plumbing fixtures and finishes," she said. "No one wants to use a locker room that has not been or cannot be maintained. Several manufacturers offer a solid-surface counter with integral bowl sink unit that provides durability and a clean aesthetic.
"The key is to define the priorities with the design team early in the process. It is much easier on the entire team to enhance a space, as opposed to the other way around."
Boyer said special considerations are needed at locker rooms adjacent to aquatic spaces to handle the potential for corrosion and to prevent opportunities for slip-and-fall occurrences. A durable and moisture-resistant locker material, such as phenolic, is recommended in most situations. Very much related to budget, she said there are also numerous sustainable features, such as water-saving toilets, urinals and faucets, that do not require ongoing battery replacement and can save dollars long-term.
Those with larger budgets can add to the above with just about any luxury you can imagine, Boyer said. The trend is away from the basics, budget notwithstanding. "Utilitarian locker rooms are behind the times," Boyer said.
"The quality of amenities offered to patrons always seems to be evolving," she said. "The quality of the amenities is usually on par with the balance of the facility, meaning an upscale health club or recreation center is expected to have upscale amenities. Amenities could range from large program elements, such as wet and/or dry saunas, to more detailed items, like illuminated mirrors or USB charging locations."
Money can be spent on higher-end basics, too. Branding is starting to be infused in locker rooms, said Boyer, such as logo-embossed sinks, signage and locker wayfinding.
"Clients are continuously looking for ways to improve the feel of new or existing locker rooms, often requesting the spa-like feel or a sense of more school spirit for a college or university," Boyer said. "Colors and materials have a key role to define the feel of the locker room. People remember the colors and the materials."
Boyer said quartz countertops at grooming and sink counters are typically what her firm specifies for upgrading locations, because maintenance is significantly less than with granite and the durability is the same. Frosted glass shower doors in lieu of shower curtains and tile with patterning are other ways to spruce up a shower area, she said.
"Integral speakers for audio and well-placed TVs bring a locker room to another level," Boyer added. "Regardless of the services, the circulation should be clear for the patron to find their locker while providing some degree of privacy and for the facilities management staff to supervise the room as a whole."
The Right Accommodations
Besides men's and women's locker rooms, facilities can add to the minimum ADA-required stalls and showers and sinks with whole ADA-compliant locker rooms, like what Boyer calls a "super ADA" locker area that can accommodate individuals requiring full assistance from motorized wheelchairs.
"A generous path to get to this room should also be considered to make getting to the room easier," she said. "Any facility that offers community programs would benefit from these style locker rooms as well, speaking from experience with taking small children to and from swim lessons. The family locker rooms can also address the need for 'all gender' or 'gender neutral' facilities."
Elsheikh said cabana-style locker and changing areas evolved from such neutral spaces are very popular and, in fact, could become the norm. As the adaptation of family changing rooms and assisted changing rooms over the past two decades has gained more and more acceptance, they have evolved into what is now known as the "family cabana," Elsheikh said. The family cabanas differ from the old family changing room that was thought of as a secondary locker facility stacked between the men's and women's lockers. Now, there are generous centrally positioned common spaces that may have access to daylight, aquatic space or even an overlook from a fitness floor above.
Family cabanas include a variety of locker styles and sizes that cater to the needs of large families, single users or those who arrive already dressed for their activity.
"The main focus of the cabanas is the combination of the need for inclusion while maintaining the highest level of privacy," Elsheikh said. "Cabanas provide the perfect solution for the growing demand of gender inclusiveness by a diverse set of user groups. The family cabanas accomplish this, while maintaining the highest level of privacy required for a modern-day changing facility."
Cabanas can vary in size from an enlarged dry changing room with a bench to a full-service changing room with toilet and sink, accessible shower and accessible bench. The targeted members would dictate the combination of cabana types to be provided in the overall layout. Each facility, depending on the anticipated targeted membership type and number, would dictate the amount of family cabanas and how it would affect the size of the traditional men's and women's lockers in reductions or elimination of these lockers all together.
"Family cabanas are here to stay, and their adaption will continue to evolve," Elsheikh said. "The jury is still out as to whether this trend will ever completely replace the gender-specific locker rooms, but the odds are in favor of family cabanas becoming the predominant lockering arrangement."
A Locker Room Update
Howard Taylor is the director of recreational sports at Purdue University, and oversees operation of the school's France A. Cordova Recreational Sports Center. The facility expanded by 50 percent in 2012 to approximately 355,000 square feet, including upgrades like climbing and bouldering walls, LEED materials and systems, a gymnasium, indoor track, recreation pool and spaces for health and wellness programs staffed by Purdue employees and students.
Locker room space also got a 50 percent boost, with many updated features. Taylor, who had been a part of a rec center opening in his time at Wichita State University, said the original locker rooms were built in 1957, when Purdue's enrollment was a quarter of its present number. Not only are there more students and staff to accommodate now, Taylor said, there's a new century's consumer demand for safety, comfort and convenience in locker rooms.
"Our locker rooms were 1950s, 1960s vintage," he said. "They were in need of a serious facelift. We were trying to make the locker spaces nicer, but we also knew to accomplish all the other goals we had we couldn't go to the level of the high-end country club style. We kind of walked a middle ground to maximize the amount of space we had for lockers and showers, to make them much nicer than they were but not over-the-top nice."
Private shower stalls replaced the group setting, and because the locker rooms are now so large, there are three separate shower and restroom facilities, and in each of those there are either five or six shower units and next to it a restroom area with adjacent grooming stations.
"We did that so that depending on where your locker was, you'd have an easy access to get to a shower or a restroom area," Taylor said. "We also designated one of those sections as a faculty and staff area partly to support the number of faculty and staff users we have and to give them a little bit more privacy for those that might not want to be in the general area."
Tile covers the floors and walls in wet areas and carpeting in dry. Taylor said that anti-microbial carpeting makes for a little softer environment and helps mute noise but must be taken care of because it ages quickly.
The facility is certified LEED Gold, so the showerheads are low flow to meet the LEED criteria but also provide customer satisfaction. For branding, stainless steel sinks have embossed Purdue logos, as do some water fountains.
"It kind of lets everybody know you're at Purdue, but it does it in a classier way than just splashing our school colors everywhere," Taylor said.
Granite countertops adorn the grooming areas, and there is a sauna in each locker area. Taylor said higher-end metal lockers—full and half, no boxes—with heavy-duty padlocks got the nod, with benches closer to the lockers leaving space down the middle. Digital displays run some marketing messages and a news channel.
Taylor said he had been told during planning to allow for the trend of users arriving already changed, and leaving without showering, thus altering locker room use, but he discovered something about human behavior after the upgrades.
"We get a lot of users that do that, but one of the things that we found is that once we had nicer locker rooms, more people wanted to use the locker rooms than previously wanted to use them," said Taylor.
Taylor said if he were to have a do-over he would add women's grooming stations and reconfigure the flow among shower, locker and grooming area.
"We have had some of the women complain to us that even though we have the three areas where they can go and shower and use restrooms, some of them feel like they would rather have the showers closer to their lockers," he said. "This would have been a greater cost, but we should have dispersed them more than we did."
Locker Room Priorities
Taylor said no matter the size or expense of amenities, there are baseline philosophies to locker room design and operation:
- Cleaning and maintenance should be factored into choices of space and materials. Design cleaning supply and equipment space inside each locker area, and schedule regular touch-up cleaning during the day with thorough cleaning overnight. "A facility is judged by how nice the restrooms and locker rooms are," Taylor said. "You need to stay on top of that. When you have them looking nice and care for them, I think people care for them more."
- Air flow. Balancing the need for air turnover necessary to remove moisture but not feel like a breeze for users who are wet from the pool or shower. "There's got to be a great relationship between the architect and the engineers to get that right," Taylor said.
For Jill Schladweiler, aquatics director for the Estes Valley (Colo.) Recreation and Parks District, safety was the top priority when she provided input for the locker room renovation that will come with a new community center that will adjoin her pool facility. Set for a January 2018 finish, the construction allowed Schladweiler to fight for better floor surfacing.
Her facility is the only recreational pool in town and so serves not only the area's high number of older folks, but the needs of children for play and lessons and camps and competition.
The original surface was tile, which is fine, but it was 1 foot by 1 foot, which is not. The larger space means more slippery-when-wet surface when what's needed is smaller squares with more grout and texture for grip. Schladweiler had lessened the risk with mats and grip strips but that extra expense is unnecessary with the proper flooring that will be a part of the remodeled locker rooms.
"I was kind of a stickler on locker rooms," said Schladweiler. "That's pretty much all I said for the first two months of meetings, 'If we're doing anything we're going to get rid of the tile.' It's really pretty, but it's not appropriate. We're replacing it with 1-by-1 small square tiles and similar color with mosaic patterns."
Schladweiler also has some tips for those with an older demographic: stall doors that open outward to make movement in the stall easier, as well as wide locker benches for ease of dressing and putting on shoes.
"We tried to do little things like that to make sure everybody's accounted for," she said.
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