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Inclusive and Multifaceted

The Ongoing Evolution of Locker Rooms

By Chris Gelbach

As recreation facilities seek to evolve to better meet the needs of patrons, many are taking a more multifaceted approach in providing different locker and changing-area options. This has been driven by a greater cultural emphasis on privacy and acknowledgement of transgender populations, as well as by an increase in new facilities that serve several distinct user groups. At the same time, cleaner, less labyrinthine layouts and the sensible deployment of new product and technology options are allowing for a cleaner, more comfortable and more convenient experience for patrons—despite an ongoing decrease in locker-room footprints in many fitness environments.

Cabanas, Curtains and More

In new facilities, more locker-room designs are incorporating a growing variety of cabana-style private-room options in lieu of or in addition to traditional men's and women's locker rooms.

"You can have more or less," said Stephen Springs, senior principal for Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects who works extensively in the municipal market. "At a minimum, it would be a changing area, almost like what you'd find in a department store. More often, it's probably a changing area and a shower and occasionally, like in the case of a family changing room, you often either have a shower and a sink or a shower, toilet and sink."

Springs noted that while family changing rooms were initially designed for people who need assistance changing and for parents who have small children of the opposite gender, one challenge is that they're wildly popular with a far wider range of users.

"Anybody who has kids will get this," Springs said. "If you have a choice between a regular locker room and a family changing room where you can close the door and quarantine your toddlers from running around, you're going to go to that space."

Because of their popularity, design choices that help indicate whether a cabana is in use without checking the door can help facilitate both turnover and a more positive patron experience. Melissa Ford, senior associate and design manager for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture has worked extensively on municipal recreation projects and has implemented several approaches to accomplish this in various projects.

At the Center of Recreational Excellence (CORE) under construction in Hobbes, N.M., light indicators tied to the hardware are being used to indicate when a changing room is occupied. In the recently completed Carla Madison Recreation Center in Central Denver, the family changing rooms feature frosted-glass doors that retain privacy, but also make it clear when the lights are on that someone's in the room. In some previous installations, Ford has opted for hardware solutions that keep the doors from latching all the way when they're open. "It just sort of speeds up the efficiency, because people don't try every single handle to see if one is open or not," Ford said.

Since the rooms are so popular, additional signage and design features can be helpful to differentiate specific rooms that should be prioritized for individuals with disabilities. Sara Boyer, senior project architect for Moody Nolan who works extensively in the municipal and collegiate markets, noted that her firm has found that providing at least a few family/shared/individual use facilities is a best practice, with more being offered for larger facilities.

"And then typically what we do is make one of those a little bit even more ADA-accessible," Boyer said. "So if you have somebody who's severely impaired and needs their caretaker to be in there with them, the door's a little bit wider, it might have an ADA opener on it, just to give them a little more space to maneuver."

Ford noted in some cases, her firm has gone away from calling the rooms family changing rooms to calling them gender-neutral. "Sometimes, like at Eaton [the Eaton Area Community Center in Eaton, Colo.], we separated some and called them accessible. So hopefully people will use the other ones first and leave those for people who need the accessible changing rooms."

Springs sees family rooms or cabanas as being almost like storage space—you'll never regret putting them in, but how much space you can devote to them is often budget-driven. The presence of aquatics in the facility also shifts the balance to a greater demand for showers. Square footage is an important additional consideration.

"The challenge for rec centers becomes fixture count," Springs said. "Because if you were to do all your locker rooms in that fashion, your building would become consumed by those kinds of spaces, and it's inherently less efficient than just putting a row of toilet stalls in."

Maintaining some men's and women's locker-room space also retains a faster option for individuals who arrive alone, who don't prioritize exceptional privacy and who don't want to wait for a family changing room. And while overall locker-room footprints may be decreasing in some facilities, there's a limit to how far you can go in that regard.

"We see locker rooms getting smaller but there's a point where it's not going to work to keep getting smaller," Springs said. "Because your morning crowd is still going to be your showering crowd, and your peak is in the morning and then after work. And if you can't accommodate your peak, that's when you're going to cap your membership at some point."

Going Gender-Neutral

A growing number of college and community recreation facilities are also opting to go gender-neutral when it comes to other restrooms throughout the facility beyond those in the locker rooms themselves. This approach can help more people make use of unused restrooms, while also providing a more inclusive environment for transgender individuals.

Michael Clark, executive director of the Palatine (Illinois) Park District, encountered an urgent need to address access for transgender patrons after his community's high school district was involved in the first federal case involving accessibility for a transgender individual to the girl's locker room.

In response, the park district set a policy in place for transgender patrons and trained employees in the policies, in addition to adding new signage at the front of the facilities. "We put an all-inclusive facility sign out front to give that segment of our population the ways and means that they're welcome and should use the locker room that they're most comfortable going in," Clark said.

The park district also took an inventory of its various facilities, looking at locker rooms and restrooms alike to consider their layouts and amenities. This information was used to determine ways to make the amenities more inclusive. The changes implemented included the conversion of some men's and women's restrooms to gender-neutral ones, and the addition of new privacy areas in locker rooms that any patron can choose to use.

"We're usually dealing with old civic buildings that were not designed at that time to even include family locker rooms, let alone privacy areas," Clark said. "So things that we've implemented include privacy curtains that we can put at the end of a locker-room aisle."

For newer facilities, Clark sees providing some family-style rooms or cabanas as the ideal solution to providing equal access to all individuals, including transgender patrons. "For me, that's the ideal layout or format or design I would endorse Because then, you're not singling any one segment of the population out. You're just accommodating everyone in the same way, and everyone still gets the same experience. To me, that's the ultimate goal in this."

Colleges Continue the Locker-Room Divide

In college locker rooms, the ongoing divide between lockers for the general student body and those for athletic teams continues to grow. Many students looking to use recreational facilities just want somewhere to store a backpack and little more.

"At the University of Connecticut, most of our lockers are those day express lockers," said Kris Cochran, a project architect for Moody Nolan, who has worked on the student recreation center there that is scheduled for completion in 2019. "That's what the students mostly want to use. They don't want to go into the locker room if they don't have to. They just want to drop their stuff off, go work out and go back to the dorm room to shower."

Many express lockers are located throughout the facility, while the locker room itself has more of a focus on larger lockers for rent to faculty and staff. "There was less concern with the general population in terms of having a lot of lockers in the locker room itself Those lockers would really be reserved for people who would be able to purchase them, and they would be their lockers for the whole year. It's a profit center of sorts for the university."

For athletic teams, the arms race continues in universities, with spaces being built with large lockers, lounge areas in the locker rooms, and an ever-increasing use of school colors, graphics and logos for branding as the locker rooms continue to be a showcase recruiting tool.

"At larger colleges and universities, we're seeing dedicated athletic locker rooms, and by sport," Boyer said. "Women's volleyball would have its own locker room as would women's basketball, men's basketball, etc."

At smaller universities, like the facility Boyer worked on for Penn State's York campus, there might be one set of men's and women's locker rooms for a specific sport. A second set of locker rooms is most often used by the general student population, but is also sometimes locked down and used by the visiting team during a sporting event. "The way we balanced the demand was by providing day lockers out in the common space," Boyer said. "So unfortunately, the general student population suffers a bit or is inconvenienced. But there's less of a demand by the general student population to use the locker rooms."

Complicated Partnerships, Complementary Usage

As partnerships between municipalities, health systems, universities and other entities on new rec centers become more common, many of these facilities are also taking different approaches to their locker-room designs.

The Palatine Park District, for instance, has partnered with Harper College and Northwest Community Healthcare on a new intergovernmental health and recreation center that will open later in 2018 that includes an aquatics facility, fitness center, space for group fitness and a student-faculty health center clinic. To accommodate all the different patrons, the facility will feature gender-neutral washrooms, private changing rooms, and men's and women's locker rooms that will be used by the public and the general student population. A second set of men's and women's locker rooms, positioned near the rear of the facility and closer to Harper College's athletic fields, will be reserved for the college's athletic teams.

Clark noted that the collaboration will offer the advantage of maximizing usage of the public facility, since community members are more likely to use the facility early in the mornings when college students are still asleep, and in the evenings and on weekends. At the same time, peak usage from the student body will come during the day on weekdays. "For me, it's a very complementary partnership and use of that facility because the goal is that you don't want to have that facility very vacant at any time during the day," Clark said.

Springs noted that Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects has recently worked on a new rec center with gymnasium space, a fitness center, group exercise areas and a natatorium with an eight-lane competition pool and a leisure pools that will open soon in New Braunfels, Texas. "It's a city-owned building and the school district pitched in some money to fund the competitive pool and also to get some of their own locker space as part of it," Springs said.

As a result, the school district will also get their own locker areas for students in the men's and women's locker rooms that are behind a door that the public doesn't have access to, but the students will use the same fixtures the public will for showering.

Trends in Lockers

As facilities try to serve diverse audiences through multiple locker-room options, they're also doing the same through choice of locker types. For the increasing number of gymgoers who don't wish to use the shower or really enter the locker room at all, express lockers and even cubbies are becoming more common in gymnasium, fitness and group exercise areas.

Benches that incorporate cubbies underneath are growing in popularity in both basketball gyms and fitness areas to give people a place to store their shoes or other items. "It kind of speeds up the turnover of the room if everyone's not crowding up around a locker bank, if it's a longer bench," Springs said. For security reasons, Boyer recommends using open cubbies only if they're located in a place where they can be seen by people in the room, and preferably in rooms like spinning rooms that are closed once class begins.

In terms of locker materials, phenolic is continuing to gain prominence. "We generally always recommend the solid phenolic that has a through-color," Ford said. "They're more durable and abuse-resistant because if you scratch them, they're going to be the same color throughout and not show black lines."

Ford also recommends against metal lockers in natatorium environments because of the risk of rust, and against the use of 12-inch lockers because they're too small for shoes to fit in them. For the South Meridian Family YMCA, a recent project that's still under construction in Meridian, Idaho, Ford noted that the client wanted cubbies in each space where people would be working out. To secure smaller items like wallets or phones, a bank of wallet lockers was also included.

While the trend toward more express lockers is prevalent in many rec-center environments, Ford did note that she has seen requests for much larger lockers in destination centers located in more rural environments that attract more families that may travel from farther away and spend a good portion of the day at the center. "For the locker sizes for families that have six kids, they are requesting larger-size lockers and locating them in places where the whole family could access them," Ford said.

As locker rooms continue to evolve, the array of available options make it possible to create more appealing, budget-friendly and comfortable locker-room spaces. But the wealth of options also creates a host of questions that can only be answered by considering who you're looking to serve.

"A lot of our clients wrangle with this," Springs said. "It's a big discussion piece and they're also looking to us for answers, when really all we can do is provide them options. Ultimately, they have to figure out where to spend their budget dollars based on what their community demands are."



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