Making Connections

Fitness Facilities Aim to Connect People With the Outdoors, and Each Other


As fitness facilities evolve, their designs are shifting to focus on health and well-being, in addition to delivering a higher-quality overall experience. In doing so, designers are sensing an opportunity for fitness facilities to play a larger role in fostering connection, enhancing wellness and counteracting the more negative aspects of modern society.

"One of the things we're seeing is this idea of a technology backlash," said James Braam, a director of the Sports + Recreation + Entertainment practice for the global design and architectural firm HOK. "We see people longing to unplug. We're so tethered to our technology and our phones. For long periods of time, when you'd ask about trends, the answer had to do with some sort of technological new market piece or invention. But what we're seeing is this chance to connect and interact with others and even connect to the outdoors. I think it all goes under this idea of getting back to basics or a bigger-picture wellness."

From Wellness to Recovery

That big-picture approach to wellness is also influencing every aspect of fitness facility design. "The biggest trend of all right now is moving to all things wellness, well-being and even the WELL building certification," said Nathan Harris, architect for the Sports and Recreation Studio at RDG Planning & Design. "They're moving much more toward full-body wellness, full spirit wellness, financial wellness—understanding the wellness wheel and all that it incorporates."

Even when it comes to physical fitness, gym operators are recognizing the importance of also providing products that are focused on the recovery end of the equation. For instance, Rudy Fabiano, founder and design director of the architectural and design firm Fabiano Designs, noted that his past several projects have included hydromassage chairs or lounges. For one client, Gainesville Health & Fitness, he even put in a whole 1,400-square-foot automated spa that's solely aqua beds and massage chairs.

"Recovery becomes not only an important part of fitness, but frankly, also an important revenue stream that, as an industry, we can tap into," Fabiano said. "Because it's not what we normally had offered. And the public's expectation is that this is a little bit of a treat. With something like a massage, they say 'I'm going to treat myself and it's going to cost a little bit more.'"

In one recent project for Level Fitness in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., Fabiano's design included not only a hydromassage lounge and saunas but also a salt room featuring Himalayan salt. "We've done that in the sauna studios but now are trying to develop individual salt rooms that are purely recovery—and you're going to see more and more of those types of spaces," Fabiano said.

A Focus on Outdoor Spaces

One of the most ubiquitous trends in the designs of new fitness facilities is the increasing utilization of outdoor spaces, whether they be for rooftop or outside workout areas, rooftop gardens, terraces, balconies or even controlled outdoor areas outside the facility. These areas offer the opportunity for greater square footage at lower cost, as well as the appeal of taking workouts outside in favorable weather.

"With new construction, the ability to develop these outside spaces is there for the taking," Fabiano said. "It's shortsighted not to take those opportunities."

In many instances, these outdoor spaces are being employed to create greater indoor-outdoor connectivity between activity spaces using roll-up garage doors, removable glass or other similar options. "From a programmer point of view, they see it as an opportunity to put on a variety of types of activity and also to extend their ability to draw people in in nice weather," said Mark Hentze, vice president of Recreation & Culture for HDR Architecture Associates Inc.

The availability of a growing range of surfacing options is giving facilities a lot of choice in how they create these spaces. "It could be anything from outside paving to the playground paver tiles to concrete decks," Hentze said. "The limits you've got on your surfacing are only your imagination and your local climatic conditions."

In the Pacific Northwest, Hentze is additionally seeing a lot of client demand for outdoor spaces with verandas or roof overhangs to enable people to exercise outside when the weather is mild but rainy. "And in a time where people are becoming more and more concerned about the risks of skin cancer, I think the days of being fully exposed to the sun while you are doing your thing are probably days that are going by us, too," Hentze said.



Braam is seeing the use of more and more turf to create these indoor-outdoor environments, including one project his firm is working on, currently under construction, that will include an indoor-outdoor fourth floor of functional fitness, including an indoor-outdoor 40-yard sprint area that stretches from inside out to the roof through a set of operable doors.


Bringing the Outdoors In

Facility owners are also increasingly looking to create a more natural setting within the fitness-center environment. "The green movement has educated us to bring the outside in—green walls, plants, more natural light," Fabiano said. "Probably more than anything, owners understand you need natural light and are allowing me to pop in more windows. Before, they'd say, 'We're in the back of the shopping center and that's good. I don't need a lot of windows.'"

Fabiano is also encouraging facility owners to opt for more natural lighting by using tunable LED lamps that dynamically shift throughout the day to mimic natural light, which is bluer in the morning and more pinkish at night. "Because they're tunable, you can crank these lamps and create a theatrical environment for whatever programming you may want, but the true experience is a more subtle one, which is to keep the light at a more suitable, natural level."

Harris has even seen a more natural approach to things like stormwater management, citing the example of large recreation building on a very tight site at UNC Greensboro. An elevated wooden walkway and benches were placed above the water detention area leading to front of the building, along with some plantings. "It's an interesting approach on how to make people aware of it and celebrate it, but also make it beautiful," he said.

The Ongoing Evolution of Indoor Tracks

As designers look to nature for inspiration in creating more appealing workout spaces, they're also focused on designs that make working out more fun and less of a mind-numbing grind. One way they're doing this is by ongoing innovation in running tracks.

"For the vast majority of people who just want to be fit, the ability to be mentally stimulated is something they're looking for," Hentze said. "If we can give somebody a running track experience that's a little less boring than running a loop, I think that's something you'll increasingly see more and more of."

HOK has already done this in recreation center projects for several universities. For the Auburn Recreation and Wellness Center, this was done using a 1/3-mile indoor walking/running track in a corkscrew configuration that gives users multiple route options. Unlike a traditional track, it also gives runners the ability to run on turns that go both left and right.

These projects also often include features such as a sprint ramp that allows runners and exercisers to experience an uphill climb indoors, and fitness staircases that include sections that are roughly double the height of normal steps. "Now, instead of getting on a stair climber, you're actually doing a stair climber," Braam said. "Instead of hitting hills on your treadmill, you're actually running a hill."

And Braam is seeing the next evolution of these ideas emerge in new designs that bring not only elevation and variety to the indoor track, but also more parcourse-like fitness stations.

Designing for Function and Multiple Use

As facilities evolve, a few different trends are emerging for how to handle spaces such as group exercise areas. One trend, spurred by the success of boutiques such as OrangeTheory, is the need to deliver quality programming for each exercise program through effective design. "All the spaces are moving from generalized … to really start reflecting what they are," Fabiano said.


He noted that fine-tuning these experiences is the most common concern of facility owners who engage his firm to do analytical reviews of existing clubs. "That's the number one thing we're being asked to look at—are our rooms in the right place? Are our rooms configured correctly to help deliver a better experience?" Fabiano said.

These considerations include greater attention to lighting and acoustics. While advances in LED technology are helping spaces become more multipurpose, poor handling of acoustics in creating certain more customized environments can destroy the overall club experience.

"It really started with taking spin to the next level—everyone wants this rockin' experience and they did that, except they didn't think far enough in advance, and the noise would blow away all the other programming in the gym," Fabiano said. "The quality of the sound and the isolation of the sound is almost a science and has to be carefully configured and considered. The right sound environment will give you a great experience. The wrong sound environment will give you a crappy experience."

As racket sports remain popular in some areas and decline in popularity in others, designers are seeing fewer requests for these spaces, and are struggling with ways to make those spaces more multipurpose. The unfinished sanded floors that are a technical requirement for squash and racquetball make it harder to make those spaces flexible ones.

For an upcoming project at the University of Michigan, Harris's firm has employed retractable back walls that allow racquetball courts to be converted int squash courts. While the two court types typically have slightly different widths as well, this solution works well enough for a recreational setting. "It helps you reduce the amount of square footage in the building that you've dedicated to those racket sports because you can have both in one footprint," Harris said.

Durable Yet Aesthetic

Because these facilities take a beating, designers are also employing new methods and products to keep them better-looking and longer-lasting. Hentze, for instance, has opted to use more durable edge grain wood flooring in some recent installations, including a multipurpose space that would be used for ball hockey, which would have damaged a traditional wood floor. "So we used the edge grain stuff and all of a sudden that floor can stand up to a different kind of traffic better than a normal floor, and you've just expanded your functionality."

Braam has increasingly turned to burnished concrete block in designing gymnasium spaces. It features the durability of concrete but the look of granite. "While there's a small upcharge for the finish, when you think about the lifecycle cost you're never painting that wall in its history," Braam said. "It will always be a block wall that looks like stone and has the durability that these spaces are looking for."

Harris is seeing a continuation of an ongoing trend toward large-format tile to reduce the amount of grout lines that are an ongoing maintenance concern with those types of floors or walls. He is also seeing more client requests for products either using recycled content or that will be recyclable once their useful life has concluded.

Fabiano is seeing an increasing array of synthetic products that wear better, have better properties and are less expensive than their authentic counterparts, including vinyl tiles and wall coverings that look like wood, stone or metal.

"I think it's good for the owner because some of these products are certainly less expensive but have the longevity aspect to them," Fabiano said. "But they also present a slight design dilemma as to when to use actual wood versus a wood substitute that looks like wood."

In general, more expensive clubs demand more authentic materials, and less expensive buildings require designers to opt more for synthetic products. "The point is that even when you're making the choices of synthetic or authentic materials, you can still get high design and not just a general warehouse look," Fabiano said.

As owners seek more future-proof spaces, Hentze also noted the importance of building in ceiling and wall structures that can support different types of equipment to accommodate more bodyweight work.

Creating a Social Environment

In their newest facilities, designers are also incorporating more elements that introduce a social component both to working out and to socializing before and after the workout. These include ever-larger turf spaces for functional fitness that can be used for unstructured group workouts and stretching, as well as smaller spaces designed for two or three people to work out in. According to Braam, HOK started incorporating the latter spaces in their designs, often with a door and a glass wall, after being inspired by similar small study alcoves that are often incorporated in newer university library designs. Other fitness activities that are social in nature, such as bouldering, are also growing in prominence.


At the Wake Forest Well-Being Center, RDG even included a large space dedicated to social gathering called the Living Room that features soft seating, a fireplace and a two-story waterfall feature. "Some of these recreation centers are almost becoming a second union space," Harris said. "So if someone's in between classes, they can drop into the rec center and be with friends and sit and study in these social spaces."

Hentze also noted the growing importance of including social spaces outside of group exercise areas where people can wait and socialize more comfortably in between classes. "There might be a space where we can sit on some pretty nice couches or a space where we can do some stretching without people looking at us weirdly and thinking, 'Why are you doing this in the hallway?'" Hentze said.

At Chicago's East Bank Club, known as a networking spot for the city's business community, the club is even starting to get in on the coworking craze by devoting space to that function and charging members for the opportunity.

"In a lot of the more club-type environments, members are going there and hanging out in the café with their laptops all day long, like it's their office," Fabiano said. "Clubs are saying, if they want to be here anyway, maybe we can create an area for them where they can hang out and do business and we can charge for it and still be their home away from home."

Designers are additionally including features that create a homey atmosphere for all visitors, from a shift to cabana-style locker rooms that offer privacy to all audiences to a variety of features to make the clubs more welcoming to members with disabilities. Hentze noted that HDR is incorporating features such as 18-inch benches in locker rooms that are easier for disabled users to change on, wider 3.6-foot doors that easily accommodate users in sport wheelchairs, induction loops in multipurpose rooms that benefit people with hearing aids, bright colors such as caution yellow that are easier for the visually impaired to see, textured surfaces that help visually impaired users with wayfinding, and braille on doors.

Overall, these trends reflect a larger move toward inclusion, wellness and connection in the fitness facility space. "I really believe that our society is longing to work out together, and there's a greater benefit with that camaraderie and it becomes an experience," Braam said.