Design Corner: Optimizing the Design of Recreation Centers


The design of recreation centers is about innovative use of space that can easily accommodate current and future community requirements. Proper design addresses long-term programming that ensures diversity and flexibility of use. Optimal design of a recreation center considers adaptability of space, flooring, finishes, furniture and changing program needs.

A challenge of designing functional recreation centers is to understand the variety of ways space may be used. This includes planning for long-term use by creating space that can be easily expanded or modified.

Right-size the design. Recreation centers serve many purposes, catering to all the varied ways people choose to spend their leisure time. With such a diverse clientele, recreation leaders are concerned about providing enough space and amenities to support a multitude of uses. It's not just the size, but also how the building is configured, with space for special programs, rental rooms for gatherings, and athletic classes and activities.

Ideally, these spaces are flexible enough to be used for a range of activities. When key stakeholders plan the types of activities that may take place in specific spaces, they aim to select finishes that serve long-term usage. Key features like storage cabinets, flooring types, layout and size can make the difference between a room that is used daily for years and one that often sits empty.

Incorporate storage that serves multiple needs. For a room to perform as multipurpose, facility operators can anticipate moving equipment and features in and out to stage the room for various functions. Transitioning from a step aerobics studio to yoga to TRX, for example, requires fluidity and versatility. New fitness trends are always in vogue, so there's a design challenge to accommodate and store equipment yet to be conceived. Permanent storage closets can double as a sound barrier if placed between rooms.

The ability to adapt space in a multipurpose facility requires foresight and planning. Efficiently designed buildings include storage areas to easily relocate equipment so spaces can accommodate individual events such as graduation receptions, weddings and private parties.

Optimize adjacencies. Installing attractive flooring that supports a variety of engagements and withstands the test of time reduces future expenditures. Viewing existing space as a whole, and compartmentalizing it using dividers to create additional rooms, promotes the concept of a multipurpose, community facility. These key factors can ensure the success of a multipurpose recreation facility designed for long-term community use.


Balance flooring factors. Project leaders consider how a room will be used to determine the best flooring options while balancing cost and durability. Different flooring types fit better in fitness/athletic spaces than classroom or rental spaces. Choosing materials that stand the test of time—wood or synthetic floor, instead of carpet—means forecasting room usage for more than 10 years.

Decisively configure dividers. Dividers can turn one large space into a versatile array of configurations. Multiple room sizes provide options for a revolving door of uses where one room can be used while another is being staged. When dividers are used, storage spaces should be accessible from corridors so someone retrieving equipment for one space doesn't disturb activities in another.

Progressive programming is the best way for building owners to fully optimize the use of space. Smart building owners will take advantage of the space once completed. For example, a facility added a multipurpose room that could be used for party rentals. A moveable wall opened up to an entertainment area. Banquet tables in the dining area could be removed to provide space for entertainment, making the entire space multifunctional with a variety of configurations for different uses. Through progressive programming, the design of the facility can be expanded and adapted to address future demands and changing technologies without overbuilding or compromising the flow of the overall community center.

Flexibility and Future-Proofing

To truly optimize the design of a recreation center, a project team considers the need for possible expansion of usage. Expansion goes hand-in-hand with design flexibility and does not necessarily require costly expansion of the original structure. Thoughtful planning addresses long-term goals as well as sustainability.

A variety of space sizes position a facility for long-term adaptability. It is necessary to get a good understanding of the long-term lifecycle of a space. In the world of fitness, multipurpose rooms present a particular challenge. Different activities require different spaces, depending on amount of movement and type of equipment used.


Furniture optimizes flexibility. It is easier to design for a single purpose, but such designs can be limiting when core components of the precise design are no longer popular. Many leaders return to a simpler design, emphasizing flexibility in program-specific features, such as furniture. More foresight and insight are required to understand space limitation with built-in furniture. Moveable furniture allows building managers to realize the flexibility of space for future use. An alternative might be a custom piece that can be removed, like pull-out seating, to accommodate dances or private rentals of a multipurpose space.

Maximize opportunities for changing program needs. Multipurpose spaces allow owners to adapt to changing program needs. A space like a small gym can be refreshed as a multipurpose fitness room, providing options for more activities and classes. In a competitive market, subtle changes can position one facility to have an advantage.

From a PR perspective, if there is a fundraising element for the project, explaining plans for space optimization can be a great community incentive. If the project is already funded, leaders can create positive press by explaining long-term goals for the plan that are attainable through strategic budgeting. Donors, and voters, always appreciate the effort behind considerate stewardship.

Future-proof through expandability. New buildings are a fresh landscape of opportunity. Trying to future-proof new buildings can be challenging, and ultimately rewarding. Including the latest technology, and other elements that qualify a new space as state-of-the-art when it's constructed are key. However, all considerations for optimizing flexibility still apply—if the space isn't suitable for things leaders want to offer in the room, all the technology in the world won't matter.

To design a visionary recreation center, focus on the circulation system. Rather than using a circular pattern, consider a linear pattern. If a recreation center's initial design incorporates a circulation system that has lines of sight extending from the control or reception desk directly down each corridor, the building will easily accommodate future expansion at the end of each corridor without drastic changes to the original circulation or control design, and better accommodate growth and changing demands.



John C. Dzarnowski, AIA, is principal, director, Municipal and Recreation with FGM Architects. For more information, visit


John Dzarnowski