Design Your Niche

Designing Facilities for Fitness Niches


Success as a fitness facility often means finding your niche. Design choices can support and enhance that specialization, whether it's in part of a larger facility or by creating an elevated experience in a highly targeted facility for one specific offering or audience.

Elevating the Experience

According to Rudy Fabiano, principal of Fabiano Designs in Montclair, N.J., who works on many recreational projects, boutique fitness has changed the industry in this regard. "An interesting thing happened when boutique fitness came along. An example is spinning with SoulCycle and Flywheel. They took what was actually a component of a club, and they committed to doing it at the highest level," said Fabiano. "They elevated the whole experience."

Architecturally, they energized the room, according to Fabiano. They packed it with more people, they combined the light and sound as a show. And they got 'rock star' instructors to really motivate attendees. As a result, the definition of spinning is different from what it was eight years ago.

"So it leaves other clubs with a quandary," Fabiano said. "Do they elevate it? Some are thinking of getting rid of it. They may not need to elevate it to the same level, but certainly everyone is now looking at it as a boutique element."

Fabiano sees the trend as part of the growing retailing of fitness. He likens it to a department store, where you will find a highly articulated experience in the section where the Gucci bags are that's very different from what you'll experience in the jeans section.

This approach caters to an enthusiast audience—and it needs to deliver to be effective. "If SoulCycle didn't give you a great workout when you were done, you're not going to pay all that money," Fabiano said. "If it's all fluff and no substance, you're not going to last long."

To provide an enhanced experience, even some universities are taking this higher-end approach to spinning. Chicago-based Cannon Design created a spinning room at the University of Minnesota with a tiered floor and a video screen on which people can monitor their heart rate. The space also offers various lighting options to create different levels of ambience in the space.


"We also did something similar at the University of Colorado-Boulder," said Reed Vorhees, senior vice president for Cannon Design. "We've seen spaces that go beyond that with theatrical lighting to darken the room, and shades that come down with a push of a button to provide a different atmosphere."

A similar approach can be taken to elevating any programming space or element. Fabiano noted the example of a recent basketball install, which started with the entry's design to create a feeling of a heightened experience before patrons even enter the court.

"In our latest club, we have a huge 20-by-20-foot graphic blowup of a basketball, and the little dots on the basketball make a really nice wall covering," Fabiano said. "And so it really says basketball without being goofy, but in an interesting and subliminal way." Elements such as a performance floor, good lighting that doesn't produce glare, and colors and graphics are used to enhance the basketball experience within the court itself.

Elements such as onsite referees are another staffing element that can contribute to a heightened experience. "It's really legitimizing every experience at the highest level you can afford so you have one of the best basketball courts to play at in terms of experience," Fabiano said.

Functional Fitness Keeps Growing

One niche element that continues to explode in recreational facilities of all types is functional training areas. Chris Poirier is general manager at a North Kingstown, R.I., company that has been focused on the functional training and sports performance niche for more than 25 years, and is seeing the trend continue unabated.

"A lot of facilities are seeing people leave their gyms and go to Crossfit, or some will have memberships in both places," Poirier said. "So a lot of these gyms are saying, 'How do we provide some sports performance or personal training or do some functional training so we can get added dollars out of them, but also keep them here?'"

If it's an existing club, it comes down to how much space they're willing to devote to the area. Poirier is seeing many gyms opt for less selectorized equipment. "Instead of taking a huge line with three leg extensions or three leg curls, they're reducing it down to one," Poirier said.

When it comes to carving out space for a functional training area, a long, narrow space is often best. "We can do more with that kind of space," Poirier said. As part of the trend, Poirier estimates that about 80 percent of the facilities his company is currently designing include a turf area.


"It's not just to kick a soccer ball or play on. It's turf to push sleds on, to foam roll on, to do agility stuff or movement prep stuff. Because you can still exercise on it," Poirier said. "But the turf has a nicer surface so you can do a lot more plyometrics stuff on it. It's much softer on the legs to bound on turf than on rubber."

For facilities that need to be able to accommodate many athletes at a time—such as a high school facility that might have 40 football players working out at the same time—a good design is crucial. Old-school weight rooms with different sections for Olympic benches, squat racks and platforms in their own areas are going by the wayside. "That takes up a lot of space in a room, and it costs a lot of money," said Poirier.

Instead, facilities are favoring multiple racks or half-racks with connectors in between where athletes can do pull-ups, suspension training and other work. "We try to create areas where three or four athletes can do their Olympic lifting stuff and bench, squat, press, clean and deadlift, so they can stay in the same area for two-thirds of the workout," Poirier said. The remaining space can be used for supplemental work and may include some turf and movement prep area where the athletes might be for the other third of the workout.

The success of these facilities hinges on educated staff with training from a major certification agency such as NASM, ACE, NSCA or ACSM, according to Poirier. "To get results, there's a lot of education behind it," Poirier said. "If you get people who come in and don't get results, they're going to leave."

A Focus on Wellness

As part of a shift toward a more specialized approach, many recreation centers are also taking a more individualized approach to health and fitness through an increasing focus on wellness. Dave Larson, senior vice president and director of design for TMP Architecture, is seeing this manifest in facility designs in a variety of ways.

One is through the inclusion of an area for one-on-one consultation. "You might have just a little examination area, little conference room, and a larger space for a few pieces of equipment," Larson said. "So you can get some baseline data on the person from an attitude and wellness and flexibility perspective, and then chart a course for their use of the regular facility."


Larson has installed areas like these in recent recreational facilities for the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and at Michigan's Kalamazoo College. In other facilities such as community centers that he's worked on, it's become more common for healthcare providers to rent space and use it as an outreach to facility members.

In another facility at the University of Alabama, TMP is installing a demonstration kitchen. "It's about showing people how to do basic things with food—demystifying cooking so they aren't as tempted by the ramen noodles as they would be," Larson said.

Cannon Design's recent work for the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus included a teaching kitchen as well as doctor's offices and research labs. "It's also got a mock grocery store to teach students how to shop for and buy food," said Colleen McKenna, principal for Cannon Design. "The data from the users in the wellness facility is then used to capture and advance their research, which is terrific. It's really a very unique facility."

Flexibility Plus Function

Creating spaces that are flexible in an era of increasing specialization is becoming more difficult. But new technologies and products are helping to address this challenge. Among these considerations for multipurpose spaces is the importance of including as much temperature and lighting control as possible to provide a wider range of dimming and cooling options. Also critical is including the power, data and wireless capabilities that might be needed for any future use.

McKenna recommends going further in facility design to consider the structure of the building itself. She noted that this is often an issue in converting old racquetball courts, since building columns were often placed between the courts. In removing the courts, the columns often had to remain, preventing the space from being as efficient and effective as possible.

"So now when we're designing systems, we're thinking about, 'What if in five or 10 or 20 years from now this all becomes more fitness space?' What walls can come down? Where do we put more structure? Where do we put the infrastructure to be able to adapt to different activities that come and go?'" McKenna said.


More wide-open spaces can provide this flexibility inherently, while also providing security benefits. "The one thing we like to talk about with our clients is transparency," Larson said. "To be able to see and even hear what's going on in the facility. And that provides a higher level of security in the building as well." A notable example can be found at the University of Alabama, where glass dashers are incorporated in the multipurpose activity courts.

More versatile products are additionally enabling greater flexibility within single spaces. Fabiano noted the example of more versatile flooring products, such as the use of synthetic rubber that looks like wood in a group fitness studio. "That can give you the performance to do other things, like have kids' programming in there," Fabiano said.

Vorhees noted the example of other products such as technologies that allow a volleyball net to come down on a court at the touch of a button, or mat rooms with tracks overhead that allow a user to pull a whole chain of heavy bags out of a closet, or put them back in to use the room for something else. "A lot of the equipment is becoming more flexible and adaptable for helping facility operators create more flexible, more multiuse and more operationally efficient spaces," Vorhees said.

In athletic training areas, Poirier is seeing facilities provide more flexibility through the use of features such as recessed slide boards placed into the floor that can be covered by rubber mats when they're not in use. Additional space is also being created through the use of wall-mounted racks and storage areas for items like stability balls that are mounted high up on the wall so they don't impede on the work area.

According to Fabiano, many operators don't want to devote sufficient space to storage, but in terms of flexibility, it's often worth it. "Donating 10 percent of your square footage in that room is a hard pill to swallow for many operators because that's square footage they see being used for active activities," Fabiano said. "Nevertheless, I think it's critically important to give them that flexibility."

Through the right choice of products, and a thoughtful approach to design, facilities are finding ways to maintain their flexibility for future uses. They're also managing to provide the elevated experiences that today's facility users expect. These approaches are helping to turn members into enthusiasts, giving customers the experiences they want and providing the heightened revenue streams that facilities need.