Space For Fun & Wellness

12 Trends in Multipurpose Design


According to leading architects who work in the recreation space, a variety of new trends in multipurpose recreation facility design are changing the look, feel and functionality of YMCA and community recreation centers.

In many cases, these changes are aimed at creating spaces that address ascendant fitness trends, serve to make patrons more comfortable, and expand the appeal of these facilities to serve ever-wider swaths of the community beyond the traditional fitness crowd. Here are 12 of the most common trends influencing the designs of these multipurpose facilities.

#1: More Group Exercise Spaces

Keith Hayes, principal of Barker Rinker Seacat Architects, saw his firm meet this demand in their recent design for the new Sammamish Community YMCA in Sammamish, Wash. "Ten years ago, we were designing buildings that had a modest fitness area and one group exercise classroom," Hayes said. "This facility has a fitness center that is probably three to four times the size of a fitness area that we would have done 10 years ago. In addition, there are three to four group exercise rooms, and my understanding is that they're just all packed at all times of the day."

Keith Russeau, architect and principal at The Collaborative, is also seeing clients prioritize group exercise in the overall facility design. "We're definitely seeing a shift in space prioritization to include more group exercise rooms," Russeau said. "That percentage of space is becoming higher than your traditional cardio and weight areas."

To support different activities, Russeau is also seeing facilities opt for different flooring for different uses. In a facility with three group exercise spaces, one might feature a wood flooring suitable for yoga, Zumba, Pilates and spinning. Another might have a turf floor for suspension training and functional training. A third might have vinyl flooring suitable for non-impact training, meetings and social events.

#2: Room to Stretch

As part of a demand for ever-growing fitness spaces, new facilities are also increasing their open fitness areas for stretching, functional fitness and personal training. Avoiding the temptation to jam every square inch of the facility with equipment also gives it more long-term versatility.

"The building needs to embrace the future," said Dave Larson, senior vice president and director of design for TMP Architecture. "In the weight fitness areas, we want them to not fill it up so that when the next new cool piece of equipment comes in, you have the space to put it in quickly and show that you're relevant and up to date in the industry."

Where the climate permits, Russeau is also seeing more instances of facilities opting to expand their functional fitness areas more affordably by including a turfed-over outside exercise area that's fenced in and open-air but sometimes partially covered.

#3: A Growth in Partnerships

To share cost burdens, facilitate the construction of these larger facilities and better serve customers, more communities and YMCAs are sharing new facilities with partners. In the case of the Sammamish Community YMCA, the project is actually a public-private partnership between the City of Sammamish and the YMCA, with the city owning the building and the Y operating the facility.

Bob McDonald and Doni Visani, senior principals and architects for OLC (Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative), saw another kind of partnership in their work on the Estes Valley Community Center, which is currently under construction and will combine a senior center and recreation center under one roof.

As part of the unique partnership, the facility will include a full commercial kitchen that the senior center will use to prepare Meals on Wheels and the rec center will use for large functions. "They will be able to plate a banquet of 250 or 300 people if they want and use it for large annual fundraising events. They do a Thanksgiving dinner that's a big community event, and they're going to do it out of this facility," McDonald said.

Combining the senior center with the rec center will give seniors access to state-of-the-art aerobics studios, fitness areas and pools. The community will benefit from a state-of-the-art community room with a sound system and banquet facility. "It's a one-plus-one-equals-three type of proposition," McDonald said.

Another recent OLC project, Choice Health & Fitness in Grand Forks, N.D., is a partnership between the Grand Forks Park District and the Altru Family YMCA, which received a $6.5 million investment from Altru Health System. Choice Financial added $2.75 million through a naming sponsor agreement. The 162,000-square-foot facility includes fitness, gym, tennis and aquatics areas as well as onsite services that include a nutrition research center, spa services and a wellness center that includes a prevention clinic, physical therapy services, dieticians, chiropractic and wellness programs.

#4: The Dominance of Leisure Swimming

In these larger facilities, more of an emphasis is being placed upon leisure pools in aquatics-area design. "There's certainly the move toward more of the leisure pool rather than the traditional lap-swimming pool or event pool," said Nathan Harris, architectural intern for RDG Planning & Design. "There's a draw toward both, but more people would lean toward the leisure pool because that draws more people to buy memberships and use the facility."

Harris is also seeing more activities happening in the leisure pools, from battleship to long-rolling competitions that can be programmed, to features such as basketball hoops, volleyball nets, slides and lazy-river components.

An increasing effort is also being made to up the appeal and versatility of lap-swimming areas. "We've talked with many avid swimmers and Olympic swimmers, and if you ask them what kind of pool they want to spend half their life in, they're going to say, 'Give me a pool where I can see outside,'" Larson said.

In the case of TMP's recent work on the Elkhart Community and Fitness Center in Elkhart, Ind., this included the construction of a 66-meter pool with two bulkheads that has views of a river surrounding the site.

Since the lap pools also tend to serve swim teams in the mornings and afternoons, designers are also opening up those areas to other uses. In Hayes's work on the Montrose Community Recreation Center in Montrose, Colo., which includes a large leisure pool, a large therapy pool and a competition pool, the lap pool will also be periodically used to feature a course with inflatables. He's also seeing clients embrace newer programming options such as slacklining over the water and yoga on paddleboards as well as more traditional options such as kayaking and lifesaving courses.

#5: Nontraditional Running Tracks

The Montrose facility will also include two interlocking tracks, including one that's flat and another that goes up and down. The circuit has additionally been integrated into nearby stairs to create a more interesting run for those who choose to tie together the various options.

Hayes is also working on another project under construction, the Center for Recreational Excellence in Hobbes, N.M., that will feature a spiraling track with a hill integrated into it. "I don't think it's much more costly to implement some of these hill ideas," Hayes said. "We're always trying to strategize throughout the design about how we can integrate the track into the design to make it something that isn't a boring experience, and something that gives you views outside as well as into other aspects of the building."

#6: More Lounge Areas

Designers are increasingly looking to create more lounge areas in lobbies and in other areas around a rec center or YMCA building.

"We're seeing a need for creating a sense of place—a variety of spaces for large and small groups to gather comfortably and feel more at home in the facility," Larson said. He is seeing designers accomplish this in lobby spaces and other areas by providing a variety of light levels, by selecting higher-backed furniture to create a "nest" in the space, and by including a change of floor material in the lounge area to create a visual cue that it's a hangout zone.

#7: A Priority on Pickleball

Designers are also addressing the burgeoning popularity for pickeball by including lines for the sport in new gymnasiums.

"Pickleball has just taken over the country. It's unbelievable. So we're spending more time at the beginning of projects just seeing how many pickleball courts we can fit into a gymnasium," said Hayes. "The idea is to get three, four or six pickleball courts into one space."

Russeau is also seeing facilities opt for netting systems to allow for these multiple pickleball courts, and for other options such as using more absorptive materials and glass to help mitigate noise concerns.

#8: Greater Acoustical Sophistication

Beyond pickleball-related issues, designers are now more commonly working with acousticians to strike the right balance between mitigating noise and preserving the acoustic transparency that helps staff stay aware of what's going on in the building.

These professionals can also help create more versatile spaces that work for multiple uses. In his work with Larson on the Elkhart facility, an acoustician helped to create a gymnasium space that can also be converted into a space for wedding receptions and other events. Additional acoustical absorption was used to help make the space softer acoustically. A lot of natural light was made available, as were dimmable lighting options to change the mood. A floor-covering system featuring carpet squares was also used to enable further transformation of the space.

#9: More Design Focus on Entrances and Exits

The Elkhart gym also features a separate entrance apart from the one to the main fitness center so that people attending a wedding reception don't have to mix with sweaty gymgoers in shorts.

This kind of approach is part of growing scrutiny on the design of entrances and exits overall. As community centers struggle to do more operationally, the right design choices can help minimize the need for additional staff to accomplish the goal.

"Our clients are going to spend money once on the building to build it, but they're going to have operational costs forever," Hayes said. "So if we can strategize ways to reduce staffing levels, we try to. And that's why looking at the control desk is so important to us."

In recognition of the role community centers and YMCAs can play as a shelter in the event of a natural disaster or other emergency, designers are also considering how these uses should impact overall design. "If you're going to use a facility as a shelter, it could get packed and blocked by people and their belongings," Visani said. For this reason, it's important to consider the role that multiple exits could play up front. "It doesn't have to be much, and an extra door or two is not going to hurt the cost of the building," Visani said.

#10: Creativity in Creating Destination Facilities

As some community centers strive to compete with nearby communities in the scale and breadth of their recreation offerings, others are taking a more strategic look at how they can create a unique offering that serves residents while also attracting visitors from afar.

The City of Glendale, Colo., took this latter approach with its Infinity Park, which includes a 4,000-seat rugby stadium that helps position the community as a premier national setting for rugby events. The stadium is also used for community events, and the field's jumbo screen is used on Monday nights in the summer for free outdoor movies.

Revenues from the rugby operations also help subsidize local residents' memberships at the complex's Sports Center. "If you're a resident, it's a great thing to have even if you're not interested in the rugby or the events going on," Visani said. "Revenue-wise, it has just helped the city tremendously." The destination rugby facility has become a major economic driver for the small community, which had a population of just over 4,000 residents as of the 2010 Census.

#11: A Focus on Sustainability Over Certification


Designers are also seeing clients becoming more interested in sustainable practices than ever before, from the use of non-VOC and recycled materials to the embrace of energy-efficient mechanical plumbing systems, low-flow toilet fixtures, and LED lighting and occupancy sensors to minimize lighting costs. They are also interested in providing informational signage to let visitors know about their sustainable practices. At the same time, however, they seem less interested in coughing up money for the LEED plaque on the wall.

"We've done upward of 25 to 30 LEED buildings, and I don't know the last one we've done," Russeau said. "It seems like it's falling off, specifically with rec centers and YMCAs. It's a pretty difficult certification [for these facilities] because there's so much water use, so much load, big spaces with lighting requirements and other considerations like that."

That being said, Russeau cautions that certification does require facilities to commit to commissioning that verifies energy savings, something that makes it more than just a checklist of green features. "You can put in all the recyclable materials you want, but if you're not tracking the energy performance of the building, it's really not LEED-like at all."

Even as clients are seeking certification less often, they're often implementing sustainable practices that have traditionally been uncommon in the market, such as geothermal systems for mechanical. And at the Sammamish Community YMCA, Barker Rinker Seacat recently implemented its first system to recycle stormwater off the roof, which is run through a filter system and used to flush toilets.

#12: An Emphasis on Inclusion

In some instances, YMCAs and community centers are also serving as innovative experiments in inclusive design. One notable example is the recently opened Mary Free Bed YMCA in Grand Rapids, Mich. It is the first YMCA to be certified for its adoption of Universal Design Standards. Among the design's notable features are:

  • A campus designed to eliminate steps, curbs and other obstacles to encourage ease of movement and physical activity.
  • Designated parking beside all major sports fields to reduce the distance between parking and playing.
  • High-contrast lighting and color schemes and larger font sizes to assist people with visual impairments.
  • A comprehensive signage and wayfinding system.
  • Special locker rooms with fully accessible changing tables for individuals and family members with limited mobility.
  • Hearing aid loops throughout the building for individuals with hearing impairments.
  • A wheelchair softball field and preferred gymnasium programming for wheelchair sports.
  • An accessible greenhouse, teaching kitchen and outdoor garden that promotes nutrition education for all.
  • A fully accessible playground for kids and families.

According to Danise Levine, an architect and the assistant director of the IDeA Center at the University of Buffalo who worked on the design, many people have misconceptions about inclusive design that have slowed its adoption, including the myth that it's expensive.

"Many people incorrectly assume that universally designed products are more expensive and, therefore, need to be specially ordered," Levine said. "It's actually quite the contrary."

According to Levine, many universal design features can be included at no additional cost, especially if they are planned from the beginning. Others may slightly increase the cost, but can provide benefits in overall value and usability that exceed their expense.

"Universal design is an inclusive approach that increases the usability of buildings for everyone," Levine said. "It does this by going beyond just differences in physical ability and taking into consideration other issues such as differences in age, stature, intellectual ability, the way people think and the way they perceive things. In a community building like the YMCA, where diversity is valued and celebrated, a universal design approach just makes sense."

Through universal design, a more welcoming approach to outsiders that includes lounge areas, greater attention to comfort in spaces throughout the facility, and a greater array of class offerings, the latest designs are helping multipurpose recreation facilities fulfill their promise. Their features are working to bring more people together, to entice them to stay longer, and to teach them the skills to become healthier. As a result, these features are helping community rec centers and YMCAs more fully accomplish their mission of building healthier, closer communities.