Building Bridges

The New Age of Multipurpose Recreation Facilities


Modern multipurpose recreational facilities are rapidly becoming social hubs that can embrace a number of diverse community needs, whether they be located within a city center, on a college campus, or in smaller, suburban settings. In many cases, those who are investing in new facilities are finding ways to partner with others outside the realm of recreation, sports and fitness to offer an even wider variety of options within one multipurpose structure.

One up-and-coming trend creates a perfect fit between recreation and fitness, and healthcare and wellness. The trend, said facility designer Steve Blackburn, principal, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, Denver, is to build or renovate a structure that can accommodate the expansion of the sports and recreation programs into a wider audience of uses and users, while encompassing current health and wellness concerns.

"The idea for this kind of facility is nothing new, it's been around for a decade," Blackburn explained. "But as a trend, it is only now gaining traction, and momentum. And it all makes sense, since recreation and healthcare are a natural fit."

What's held this natural partnership back for years was the uncertainty of healthcare delivery regulations. That is changing now, and partnerships between healthcare providers and fitness operators have become the catalyst for a genre of multipurpose recreation facilities now often labeled as "Wellness Centers."

"I know a number of building projects that have, or are seriously thinking about creating partnerships with healthcare providers who want to have some kind of presence in a recreation center," said Stephen Springs, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, of Dallas. "I think this arrangement is more common in the private sector than the public, where there is actually a storefront within or in front of a recreation center." In the public sector, it is probably more common in a campus environment.

Several years ago, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton designed a university project that combined the student recreation center and the student wellness center under one roof in a new building. "It seemed like a pretty logical step at the time, especially for a smaller campus as opposed to a mega university," Springs said. "It is very beneficial for some communities to have quality-of-life facilities combined. For a small community, it makes sense to have it all in one place. Mom and Dad and other caregivers, grandparents, kids, can all go to one building and do separate things and not have to run all over town. You get exposed to programs that you might not ever be exposed to otherwise. It's almost a cross-pollination that is very natural in those kinds of groupings."


From an administrative point of view, a multipurpose recreation center makes a lot of sense as well. Rather than operating multiple centers and having redundant programs, and a redundant staff, you can put it all under one roof and deliver the same or better quality service for less money.

Once a user comes into the facility, the idea is to have a choice of what they want to do or need to do on that day. "I call it shopping for activities," Springs said.

Other examples of suitable partners for fitness and recreation include sports performance/training venues, an event/convention center, commercial enterprises (such as a spa, restaurant, retail shop or gymnastics academy), educational ventures (supporting curricula for preschools or even higher education by providing physical education facilities), amusement, entertainment spaces (a performing arts theater, art gallery or library), or a nonprofit entity dedicated to specialized recreational programming (a Y or a Boys & Girls Club, for example). Another idea is to use a part of the center as affinity group headquarters for everything from cyclists, runners, walkers and climbers to book clubs, sewing circles, cooking classes, art classes and dance groups. Some new recreation centers, Springs said, even double as municipal administrative offices, with workout rooms that can quickly convert to night council meeting spaces.

Regardless of what makes up such partnerships, they do have to be compatible, flexible and willing to adapt for what promise to be long-term, mutually beneficial relationships, such as you find with senior centers, active aging, libraries and childcare.

How to Succeed

"I believe that there are just two fundamental keys to successful design of multi-partner buildings, such as healthcare, fitness and higher education, for example," said Hervey R. Lavoie, president, Ohlson, Lavoie Collaborative, of Denver.

The first key, he said, is to avoid the initial preconception that every function needs to be in its own room, surrounded by walls with a locked door labeled with the function's name.

"If there is good reason for diverse functions to coexist under a common roof," Lavoie explained, "there is also good reason to question conventional assumptions about need for doors and walls. This is what we call the 'Open Planning' approach, and it can be contrasted to the 'hallways and rooms' approach to facility design, which invariably delivers a building that can feel more like a traditional junior high school than a center for community recreation."


One example, regulatory and code considerations aside, is when fitness and rehabilitation choose to live side-by-side in a "medical/wellness/fitness center," where the synergy of that coexistence does not thrive under the presence of doors and walls.

The second key, Lavoie said, is for designers to invest in a single enhanced arrival experience for the building and to give this arrival experience meaning, spatial impact, wayfinding cues and visual excitement.

In other words, he emphasized, "'Wow factor' matters. It is also important to understand that a single arrival experience does not mean a single entry."

It often works well to configure several entry options into a single arrival lobby. Each entry can serve a separate user population, and its designated parking field. In this way, each user group enjoys the shared partner investment in an enriched arrival experience and begins their enhanced wayfinding to their intended destination from this common arrival space.

"In this way," Lavoie said, "cross-awareness of other partner destinations within the building can be assured. Patients will learn of fitness offerings. Recreational users will learn of rehab offerings. This is just one significant way in which far-sighted architecture can ensure successful operations."

The Planning Stages

"Let's take a step back before the build even begins," said Sara R. Boyer, project architect, Moody Nolan, of Columbus, Ohio. "Our advice is to get the key players involved as early as possible. We designed the recreation center in Columbus, Ohio, and met with one of the local hospitals and their physical therapy group to accommodate their physical therapy program in our hybrid pool. It's not a lap pool, or just a recreation pool. It can address both functions, and by making some minor tweaks to the pool design, which involved changes in the floor slopes and adding some handholds, we were able to accommodate that function for them."

Getting key players involved from the beginning in that case was important, because changes are much more expensive the further down the road into the project you get, Boyer said. As part of your feasibility study, you note who might be your partners. "Often we do see hospitals being interested in at least being able to have some kind of function occur in the community center."


Reaching out to the community prior to the design process is essential, Springs said. "At Brinkley Sargent Wiginton, we do an entire seminar on the feasibility process because 90 percent of our projects begin with a study, which is analyzing what the market demand is within the community for these kinds of facilities: What are the voids in the marketplace for certain facilities, and where should we locate it? We also want to know how big should it be, how much will it cost and how will it be paid for? And after it is paid for, what are the business plans for that center? How much will it cost to operate? How many staff will it take? And what are the potential revenue flows to cover that operational cost, the cost recovery?"

Cost recovery means that if it costs $1 million to operate that recreation facility and your revenue flows are $800,000 dollars a year then your cost recovery is 80 percent. This means there is a 20 percent subsidy that has to come from somewhere. For those municipal governments doing this to keep their constituents healthy, that 20 percent will usually come from their general fund—no problem. But for districts that don't have a general fund to draw from, those officials might have to float a bond, and go to their electorate for permission to do so.

"We call it a hybrid facility when you are sharing the resources," Boyer said. "And when you can do so with partners, you get more bang for your buck, since space is expensive. Sometimes our collegiate work has the same sort of design requirements, where the community might be coming to a university building. At Purdue University, for example, we have a multipurpose facility designed with a yoga studio and other exercise classes for students and the public."

Partnerships That Work

The Natatorium in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, designed by Barker Rinker Seacat, is a multipurpose recreation facility that illustrates how a major project can work seamlessly with partners and make money. A $27 million project that opened in 2004, it is 116,000 square feet, and when you walk in the door you get the sense of all the opportunities that are available. On the left is the welcome and registration desk. But on the right is the Summa Health Rehab center, a long-term tenant.

The Natatorium has a combination of more than 100 land and aquatics classes each week. The main floor houses a main gym, auxiliary gym, two racquetball courts, weight floor, the Fit Kid Experience, Kids' Castle babysitting, and the aquatics area with three pools and a 21-person spa. An upper-level fitness floor is equipped with more than 200 cardio and fitness machines, a 1/8-mile walking track, and a fitness circuit.


"It gets to that question of medical and wellness, and how does that play together with other facilities in a community," Blackburn said. "In the Natatorium, we built a wellness center. The reason we placed it right at the front door was that Summa Health Systems, who was a partner of the city of Cuyahoga Falls, was at the planning table from the very beginning. One of their requests was to have a front door. They didn't want their clients to have to wander around to find them. That's what we did. We placed it right at the front door."

Because of the partnership, the health center also can offer aquatic therapy. If someone comes to Summa for massage therapy, they can be introduced to the fitness center, which is right out the back door of the wellness center. Not too many steps from there is the natatorium, which is the complete aquatic offerings of the building. The rest of this part of the building contains everything else you could imagine a community needs, including a true government seat one night a week. There are caucus rooms in the building. And for food, there is a Subway operation in the middle of a grand atrium.

The Natatorium is a facility where parents can check their 5-year-olds and younger in and have the Cuyahoga Falls staff watch them. It is not daycare. It is not a licensed program. It is a customer service that allows mom and dad to go off to a fitness class and work out or swim and leave their kids in the able view and care of staff.

The Natatorium was not a renovation. It was originally an old building that didn't work very well, didn't flow. "We did a financial analysis of renovating it versus building new, Blackburn said. "How much would it cost and what could be the return on that investment? After the analysis the city council voted 11-0 to build new. It was a difficult build because it was right downtown, in an urban center, strategically located between their government center, city hall and courts and the high school. It was quite the project. And now they are reaping the benefits of some really wise decisions."