Design Corner: Out of the Stone Age

Flexible Design Crucial to Recreation Facilities

Anticipating future utilization is what the best architects do—it's the exemplar of good design. However, not even the best architects know for certain what's around the corner, even though a lot of time and trouble is spent during the planning of projects, surveying the student body and reading up on predicted trends. The problems with this approach—the student body changes over completely every four years, for one thing, and anticipated trends may fail to materialize—don't nullify the benefits that come with having additional knowledge. But there are other sources of information that are even more valuable.


For example, Hughes Group conducts a "Day 360" exercise on each of the campuses where we have worked. A panoramic view of the building's functional realities approximately one year after opening, Day 360 gets less into what might happen later—although it gives operational and program staff the opportunity to voice their observations and forecast the future of their campus recreation facilities—than what is actually happening in the building. This gives the building's designers invaluable information that is then used to shape future designs.

What Day 360 captures, time and again, is the small ways in which recreation centers function differently than what operators intended during planning. New staff, new programs, new generations of equipment, new building technologies and a student body in constant transition all contribute to this environment of constant, incremental change. During planning, everything was secondary to the amount of program space building owners could get within their budget. But in the past few years, more clients come to the planning process recognizing the value of flexibility above all. Prospective building owners increasingly recognize that as good as a facility program may be, it is a reflection of past performance, not future utilization.

Rather than design around predictions of what might be coming, the best architects have turned to design techniques and construction materials that can accommodate many possibilities. Chief among these design paradigms is boosting technological capabilities to keep up with spiking demand for power. The quantity and distribution of electrical power is changing, with rec centers of today consuming 50 to 80 percent more power than their predecessors. The requirements for having increased access to electricity in every room due to the explosion of laptops was already something that architects planned for, but the introduction of the iPhone eight years ago doubled down on that bet. As with airports, charging stations now grace most student lounges, and outlets are being spaced closer together everywhere to be flexible for future needs.

It is very difficult to forecast the number of "inflatables" needing power for a community event in your gym, the number of display booths for a "Career Day" held in a MAC (100 booths with full Internet access) or the number of hairdryers being used simultaneously on "grooming day" when all of the clothing stores and hairstylists in a campus community set up shop in the lobby of the recreation center. Yes, these were real scenarios. (We were told of the latter event while performing our Day 360 at the one-year anniversary of the University of Illinois Activities and Recreation Center. The stylists all tried to operate their hairdryers at once, and blew the fuses in the building.) Hughes Group has pioneered the utilization of power rails and Internet broadcast technology to easily address all of these needs at low cost when compared to permanent installations.

A more mind-boggling change, gradual at first but exponentially gaining favor, allows for changes to building interiors without requiring major demolition. Change comes slowly to many campuses. Generations of new buildings have left a context to which architects must at least pay homage—brick piled on top of brick, limestone piled on top of limestone. Where recreation centers are concerned, the long spans over fields, tracks and courts require significant structural support, and there is an equal mandate toward the use of materials that are cost-effective, easy to maintain, acoustically sound and well-insulated.

The way a building is framed directly influences the ability to adapt to change, as load-bearing walls are substantial impediments. And for all their advantages as a building material, masonry products—well, let's just say they aren't the easiest to move around. This is a real disadvantage when you're conceiving a student recreation center as a "framework for change."


Architects focusing on flexibility can now utilize light-gauge steel framing, materials that first gained a foothold in commercial construction. Walls built using light-gauge steel framing and plastic laminate surface panels are as bulletproof as masonry walls, and if installed with care (two sets of offset studs carrying the composite surface, with both cavities well-insulated), are solid and strong enough to withstand vibration and contain noise. Light-gauge steel has the best strength-to-weight ratio of any building material, with six tons of steel achieving the same performance as 120 tons of concrete.

Proper installation can mitigate steel framing's two biggest drawbacks (thermal and electrical conductivity), while a steel and laminate system's other characteristics—fire, rot, mold and insect resistance—make it a huge improvement over masonry, wood and drywall. Sustainability is another plus; its lighter weight means fewer deliveries to site. And, where flexibility is concerned, it has no rivals. Rooms can be reconfigured by moving interior walls, and the systems can also be disassembled and recycled. Just this one change in approach to infrastructure can make a facility more easily adjust to future trends, to accommodate programs that don't even exist yet.

The shift away from masonry is hardly apparent to most building users. Consider the University of Texas at Brownsville's Recreation, Education, & Kinesiology (REK) Center, which was designed to fit the campus' Colonial Mexican aesthetic and respond to the harsh environmental conditions of the Rio Grande Valley. The 108,891-square-foot facility, with its brick arches, covered walkways and custom ironwork, has as solid an aspect and permanent appearance as any contemporary recreation center, and yet large swaths of the interior (including racquetball courts, multipurpose rooms, classrooms and the administrative suite) utilized steel framing for future flexibility.

Miles away from Brownsville, literally and figuratively, a major expansion to the Hamel Student Recreation Center currently rising on the University of New Hampshire campus is light and airy (two focal points are a "Living Wall" in the entry composed of native flora and fauna, and a "Sculptural Forest Wall" designed to form a screen between the lobby and multipurpose gymnasium), boasting a transparent exterior of glass and metal panels. Its interior will have the capability of being constantly reconfigured, and is being wired to meet future demands.

There's hardly an element of contemporary recreation centers that isn't being touched by the need for flexibility. Building mechanical systems are increasingly being outfitted with more-flexible ductwork, as the familiar rigid galvanized-steel ductwork is an impediment to later interior alterations. Flexible ductwork can accommodate rapid changes in office and multipurpose room layouts. Daylighting was already an important aspect of sustainability (and the quality of the rec-center experience), but a recent change sees designers placing exterior glazing to accommodate a variety of internal wall configurations. Lighting systems can be designed as parallel systems that can be adjusted quickly to accommodate different types of uses in quick succession. Similarly, sound systems can be configured with modular banks that can be controlled separately while providing balanced fidelity. We have learned that portable public address systems are the best way to enhance the spoken word without trying to adjust a permanent control system. This is a case where incompatibility actually enhances flexibility and rapid change.

The need for flexibility is understandable from a financial standpoint, and certainly the recession served to heighten the need to do more with less. But there appears to be a societal aspect of this change, as well. At Kennesaw State University, where Hughes Group is working on a proposed addition to and renovation of the Recreation and Wellness Center, a student participant in several of the planning forums finally raised his hand and said in an exasperated tone, "Just give us choices." We felt, in that moment, the pressure—and the license—to adapt bricks-and-mortar buildings to an iPhone world.

Building operators see the need for flexibility, but the end users themselves are demanding it—they want programs that are constantly new, vibrant and relevant to their lifestyle. From phone-based exercise tracking apps to the Skill Combine movement, what was once purely recreational is becoming more competitive, and these activities suggest a fitness center very different than what is on offer today. Exactly how these buildings will be configured remains to be seen—what we know is that buildings planned for flexibility will be able to accommodate whatever the future has in store.



Wayne Hughes ([email protected]) is a principal with Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va. For more information, visit