Locker Rooms in the New Decade
Locker room designers, and those they serve at both municipal and commercial recreational facilities, have embraced analytical research on client needs and "smart" technology, when it comes to layout, safety and maintenance of their spaces.
University of North Texas Principal Lecturer Joseph T. Walker, Ph.D., specializing in kinesiology, health promotion and recreation, has done research on client needs that, he said, "shows overall that restrooms and locker rooms (design, security, cleanliness, accessibility, location) are a significant contributor to the patron's overall satisfaction with the facility" and have a direct impact on satisfaction and an indirect impact on intention to renew membership.
According to the Washington Post, Americans spend at least 28 minutes a day, or 2% of the day, on personal grooming activities. That amount of time means significant attention should be given to detail when designing a locker room to ensure all needs are met or exceeded.
"We are trying to get away from the idea of dirty, uninviting locker rooms. That's a thing of the past," said Jason Ringdahl, principal, Barker, Rinker, Seacat, based in Denver. "What he [Walker] found out is that people mostly want to be safe, and in a clean locker room. We also believe people want exclusivity. Having amenities at your fingertips. Everyone wants things right now—convenience."
Much has been written about design trends such as larger and more open spaces in traditional locker rooms, brighter and warmer lighting, and replacing some locker room lockers with more "express" lockers in active spaces. All these trends continue to take hold and mature, said Stephen Springs, vice president and senior principal, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects in Dallas. Gender neutrality demands continue the push for more family/caregiver changing rooms and cabana-style design approaches.
The first impression any potential patron would have is the overall layout of the locker room, said Jim Gabel, vice president, CannonDesign, in Buffalo, N.Y. The more logical and clearly defined the layout is, he contends, the easier it is for the user to navigate the space. Gabel also recommends a clear delineation between wet and dry areas. "Lockers will typically be in the dry area; the wet areas are where the toilets, the showers and sinks are," he explained. "These areas are now programmed in their design. The areas are more open, and there is a clear delineation between wet and dry areas."
At a minimum, added Sara Boyer, associate principal, Moody Nolan, of Columbus, Ohio, "the first impression when you walk into a locker room is to feel that the facility is clean, maintained and secure." A locker room must also comply with all applicable building and accessibility codes. Locker rooms must be durable and highly functionable.
First Impressions, High Expectations
Recreation centers continue to respond to higher expectations from clientele in terms of good impressions, approaching spa and club quality amenity and finish, Springs said. "The good news is there is so much more choice in finish materials today as compared to when most existing facilities were built, and at reasonable price points, that new or renovated locker rooms can easily look nothing like what you're used to."
An upscale finish selection approach, Springs explained, does not have to come at an upscale price. "The devil, as always, is in the details: paying attention to all the little things makes a big difference, like how finishes transition to one another, how they turn corners and terminate cleanly."
Walling has changed, as has flooring material, Gabel noted. Porcelain tile flooring can give the area an upscale look. Smaller tiles produced dirt on the edges so Gabel suggested using larger tiles, almost the size of a plank, a one foot by three foot tile with epoxy grout. "Flooring is very important in making that first good impression," he said.
The locker itself can be of a warmer material, whether it is wood or a laminate that looks like wood, Gabel said. Countertops and grooming shelving made of a nice solid surface of quartz material is something like a patron might find in a kitchen. This also gives the space more of a higher-end feel.
Selecting warm neutral colors and materials has long-term appeal, provides a sense of comfort and can result in a spa-like feel, Boyer added. Accent colors should be understated, and branding should be reserved for more public areas of a facility. Lighting should be planned to illuminate the aisles between lockers, not the tops of lockers. Supplemental lighting at mirrors is an important design feature relative to personal grooming like shaving and applying makeup. At least one full-length mirror should be located in each locker room. A well-lit locker room will feel cleaner.
The last thing about making a good first impression, Gabel said, would be making sure you have the proper ventilation in the locker room, because these spaces get really hot and humid with showers nearby. "Locker rooms typically have lots of people coming in and out. It can be heavily used, so having that ventilation is important. You don't want to walk into a locker room and smell wet socks. You want the smell to be like any other space in the building."
Going the Extra Mile
To take a locker room to the next level, Boyer said, there must be attention to design detail and a variety of amenities offered. "Facility managers will decide what level to achieve," she said. "For instance, some consider providing towels as a basic service, whereas others consider towels to be a premium service. Another example is hairdryers; some may choose to provide an outlet for a bring-your-own approach, others may choose to provide a wall-mounted hotel-style hair dryer."
A variety of locker sizes ensures that diverse needs are met, Boyer continued. The size consideration should also evaluate the items being stored, such as heavy winter coats. There are multiple materials available in addition to metal, such as high-density polyethylene (HDPE) and highly durable phenolic.
Power outlets in logical locations for handheld appliances, such as at grooming counters, are required amenities. You can never have enough outlets. Especially in the past few years, you want to provide power outlets not only for hair, shaving and makeup equipment, but also for charging smart phones.
"Space planning should be efficient, yet reasonably and comfortably beyond code minimums," Boyer said. "Showers, for instance, can be as small as 3-by-3 feet at a non-accessible stall, but a few more inches in each direction is more comfortable and accommodates people of size. Appropriately located shelves and grooming counters accommodate toiletries."
Locker rooms serving aquatic facilities have additional considerations. Showers near the entry to the pool should be provided for pre- and post-swim showering, Boyer said. Swimsuit extractors, which extrapolate water from suits and towels, are a must. Additional floor drains along the pathway from the pool are necessary to control wet and potentially slippery floors. Create a clear delineation between wet and dry areas through the use of appropriate materials while providing a comfortable distinction between functions.
If families will be using a locker room, Boyer noted, diaper changing stations should be strategically located. Providing at least one larger room with a toilet stall, sink, shower and changing space is advisable.
Universal changing rooms serve as an ideal location for families, Boyer said. Inclusive facilities accommodate all people equitably. It is worth considering additional needs beyond code minimum for differently-abled persons. For example, providing 42-inch (in lieu of 36-inch) wide doors simplifies power-operated wheelchairs moving through a doorway. Providing power-assisted door openers at locker room doors also assists circulation. Gender-neutral showers and changing address the needs of a diverse population.
Community locker rooms are different from the campus locker rooms and will differ even more from an athletic-focused locker room, Gabel said. "You need to know your users. Community locker rooms are going to have more of that family changing space that has evolved over the last 10 years. Even campus recreation centers now have unisex or family locker room components in them. Usually there will be separate male, female and family locker room in a campus recreation facility. Ten, 20 years ago you didn't see that. Those are things we would discuss with the client, making sure that is accommodated for."
Family spaces can be small or fairly big in size, he said. There have been a few campus recreation centers where you might have a ring of lockers on the perimeter of a large space. And in the middle of that space are cabanas, little changing rooms with a door for privacy. But each cabana will have a toilet, a shower and a bench. "You can put stuff in your lockers and go into your cabana to change, put things in your locker and then exit out," Gabel explained. "That's another iteration of locker room design that is currently evolving."
While a sense of privacy is preferred in a locker room due to the nature of personal grooming and clothes changing, overall, Boyer said, a secure feeling should be the primary goal in the locker room design.
The contradiction between the need to provide both security and privacy is certainly a challenge, added Springs. "No one wants to put cameras in a locker room, but they can be placed at the entrances to document who and when people go in and out," he explained. "Using strategies for visual privacy but acoustical transparency are effective deterrents for nefarious activities. An example," he said, "is the use of zero sight line partitions, with minimal open bottoms and tops. Be very careful about mirror placement. There are tons of options regarding locker locks, but many have high price points. We recommend trying out a few options for both patron and operations feedback before deploying a new lock universally."
The sense of personal security in a locker room starts with the planning.
Have an open locker room design, said Ringdahl. "Don't have any dead corners, and don't have any locker bays where you can't see into corners. We've learned through the years that our clients want no dark corners. There should be visibility everywhere. The openness can enhance the security. The more people you can get in the open space, the more self-patrolling they can do on their own and don't have to worry as much about vandalism and theft."
"Locker room entries should be visible from a central control space to monitor entrance and exit," Boyer suggested. "Ideally, the locker room is set up as a double-loaded corridor. For instance, lockers are on one side of the corridor with restrooms and showers on the other side. A double-loaded corridor provides clear path through the space. This clear path simplifies staff supervision of the space, especially when during nightly closing protocol. Obscure niches should be avoided."
Besides personal safety, Boyer continued, "a place to secure belongings is critical. Straight locker aisles provide clear lines of sight to one's belongings. The location of amenities, such as grooming counters, should take into account a line of sight to one's locker. Integrally designed digital locks are often preferred by users, whereas facility managers prefer the tried-and-true bring-your-own-lock practice. Either are acceptable provided belongings can be secured and policies are clearly communicated."
With respect to individual locker rooms, Boyer said, "it is best practice to locate these in a group. While the sense of privacy is achieved with single-user facilities, one must be cautious to create an environment that is safe and not a place for malfeasance. By grouping individual locker rooms, passive supervision is achieved by having other users in the vicinity."
Of course, one of the most important things when talking about security is the actual locker itself, said Gabel. For the most part, gone are the days of the padlock; locks on lockers have become pretty sophisticated. "You put your valuables in a locker and you trust that the facility will have locks that can't be tampered with, and that people aren't going to come in and steal your things," he said. "Locking systems have advanced exponentially over the years. You might have a fingerprint recognition system. Everybody has a cell phone so you might have a code on your phone, where you put your phone next to the lock and it unlocks (given the code). What kind of locks you offer clients often comes down to cost, but there are umpteen options."
Use of light colors can make small spaces feel larger and brighter, Springs said. "They also reveal dirt easily, which is a double-edged sword. It is much easier to effectively clean what you can see, but it is also harder to keep up. Dark colors can look clean until they dry, then revealing what was missed."
Focus on color to your advantage, Spring advised. Lighter colors on walls and ceilings, darker colors on floors and accents. Always use dark grouts on floors and bases. Make sure your bases match the floors instead of the walls, and use coves to make the corners easy to clean. "Linear trims will allow you to use any tile you want and still have it be easy to clean," he suggested. "In new projects, we recommend thick-set tile flooring and linear drains. These allow much greater control in installation for positive drainage. Large format tile is increasingly popular, which dramatically reduces grout lines and maintenance."
The double-loaded corridor and straight locker aisle design provides a space that is easy to supervise, as well as to maintain. Custodial rooms should be nearby. Hose connections should be provided at wet areas for cleanability.
Flooring selection is critical. Careful consideration should be taken when designing potentially wet areas to avoid slip-and-fall occurrences. There are many options to meet a variety of budgets. Positive drainage to floor drains should be incorporated in shower areas and restrooms, as well as circulation zones, in order to keep flooring dry and to facilitate housekeeping. Again, creating a clear distinction between wet and dry zones is achieved with effective space planning.
It bears repeating that durable materials, such as solid surface or quartz countertops, are worth the investment due to the ease of maintenance and the longevity of the materials, Boyer said. Painted concrete block walls are durable, yet utilitarian; polished stone or tile are durable and provide an enhanced finish. A decision regarding materials of lockers and toilet partitions is influenced by the desired feel of the space, as well as the sustainability goals of the project. Many sustainable durable products are available for these purposes. Building systems should not be overlooked with respect to maintenance. An efficient and effective exhaust system is necessary in locker rooms to maintain air quality and avoid mildew.
If you have rows and pods, Gabel advised, you can shut that down during slow times, during the week. Or close off half of the room during slow periods, Gabel suggested. "One section of a locker room can be open in the morning, the other in the afternoon. That allows staff to have time to clean up at different times of operation. It also helps reduce the number of staff, potentially."
Bottom line, Gabel said, is to make sure your maintenance crew and owners have the proper manuals, a facility guide, which will dictate how you clean various surfaces because there are so many different materials. Every month it seems there are new products that you have to be an expert on. RM