Create Community on Campus

Fitness & Wellness in College Recreation Facilities

When the American economy kicks back into gear and universities safely welcome back students, many of the cost-saving concepts and forward-thinking industry trends that have guided the design of on-campus recreation centers will be more important than ever, according to architectural design experts.

"People who have been self-quarantined, students who attended class remotely, I believe will want to reconnect with others after coronavirus, and there is probably no better place to do that than in a relaxed community-type atmosphere," said James Braam, director of recreation and wellness, HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. "We were trending in that direction before the pandemic. I think that trend will be even stronger whenever the economy starts picking up again."


The facility of the future, suggested Troy Sherrard, partner, practice leader, sports and recreation design, Moody Nolan, an architectural firm, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, will strive to be a part of a hybrid approach incorporating nutrition, wellness, meditation, counseling and physical therapy.

Tom Ohle, project manager for RDG Planning and Design, added, "What was once a peripheral or support building—the recreation center—has become a core element of a campus' culture."

Across the timeline of campus planning, where once designers focused on an administration or religious building, which was replaced by the library or academic core, and then by a student union, is now where the recreation center exists, Ohle said. "The recreation center is now rebranding by an institution to include a vision of wellness. Recreation centers now are an assembly of parts, a cross-pollination of activities with other campus constituents."

Literally and figuratively, he continued, recreation centers can be a melting pot of diverse university programs, a synergy of recreational, health and academic activities. For example, where a student might feel uncomfortable about the stigma of seeing a counselor regarding their mental health, they could be comfortable going to the recreation center to work off some stress. Or, someone might have body image challenges and might not feel comfortable working out. Within a shared-use wellness center they could find themselves in a less threatening group setting, or walking by the counseling suite in the recreation center they might see and want to participate in a yoga class where the barrier is removed and is therefore more welcoming.

Activity begets activity, Ohle believes. "We have users who would not typically be in the recreation, academic, or health space now perhaps watching someone else perform an activity, and that could remove a belief that the activity is inaccessible or unattainable to them. A public space that looks onto a recreation control desk that rents shoes to climbers can give a student access to a tool that could otherwise be a limiting reason to not participate. Seeing a wellness seminar about nutrition in the lobby could help someone who is in training support their body better. Folks can move from climbing to a study space to a dental cleaning to a swim more efficiently and effectively."

Another advantage of having a hybrid wellness-recreation facility is that it can be activated 24/7 to meet a campus' vibrancy.

The hours of a recreation center typically run focus on early and late high-demand peak-activity periods, while a health center or academic function can bring students into a facility throughout the day.

"The public space could be open throughout the entire day and give the students a space to socialize and study outside of their planned activities, keeping the program elements secure," Ohle said.

Moreover, Ohle said, this design trend offers a sticky space to promote serendipitous intellectual and social engagement. "Throw in a food—even coffee—and everyone will want to visit the space."

The term "sticky space" requires some explanation. Colleges around the country have bought into the benefits of peer-based learning, and so have devoted spaces for students on campus to study in groups. Designing these spaces so they actually attract students—making them "sticky"—requires providing the right mix for solo students and small and large groups; the furniture to accommodate them; amenities like ample white boards and well-placed coffee bars; floods of natural light; and ubiquitous access to power for recharging smartphones and laptops.


A sticky space, Ohle said, fosters flexible retention of students in nooks and crannies for individuals and groups both large and small. Wellness centers have an enviable mixture of space, user types and scales performing a multitude of activities that can be combined into a public realm with the rough edges of private space, drop-in furniture, Wi-Fi, caffeine… Do all that, and you've got sustaining peer-generated engagement.

At Wake Forest University, he said, "we had the opportunity to give them a well-being space through a series of facilities, old and new, for their program called Thrive—their motto was, "… to give you the skills, knowledge, and perspective to maintain a healthy, balanced life—wherever life may take you.

"It was a three-phase project for the Sutton Center, turning Reynolds Gym into a hub for campus-wide well-being, with 46,000 square feet of space for fitness programming and campus activities connected to Reynolds Gym by a floor-to-ceiling glass atrium, state-of-the-art fitness equipment, a 3,000-square-foot open living room, and a bouldering and climbing wall," Ohle added. "There was a fitness space for weight training and other activities, and an eight-lane indoor pool, which replaces the original 1956 pool. In addition, it included more than 50,000 square feet of enhanced fitness, recreation and social spaces, including group fitness studios for students, faculty and staff; multipurpose rooms for intramural and club sports; and a varsity court for the volleyball team."

A recent project at Troy University's Trojan Fitness Center was the result of a student-led initiative. RDG's design for the new center offered a state-of-the-art space where students can exercise, socialize and recharge. The Trojan Fitness Center is one of the first buildings visitors encounter as they enter the campus. Designed to accommodate the fitness and recreational needs of both the students and the larger campus community, the multi-story facility offers vibrant and engaging spaces with strong indoor/outdoor connections. An open rotunda on the northwest side offers visibility into all three levels of the facility, while a grand staircase serves as a striking visual element within the facility's highly efficient design.

"The Trojan Fitness Center creates a home for the university's Student Wellness Program and serves as a place where students can come together in wellness," said RDG Principal and Architect Jack Patton "The building was designed to blend into Troy's architectural fabric. The graphic design incorporates banners, dimensional art, window graphics, wall graphics and signage to create an experience that embraces the entire student body and highlights the nationalities of students who attend the university."

The 78,000-square-foot center, which officially opened its doors in January, includes a multi-activity court, a basketball court, free and circuit weight training areas, aerobic exercise rooms, an outdoor swimming pool, a multi-level walking track and four offices. In other words, a one-stop shop for student needs.

What are some of the ways to use these facilities to create community for existing students, and attract potential students? "Every square foot of a fitness facility should be intentionally and purposefully designed," Sherrard said. "The connective tissue between active and passive program spaces should be looked at as critical opportunities to create spaces for social engagement and community, and rest, pause and mindfulness.

"We challenge ourselves on every project to create inclusive experiences that focus on being healthy, positive and engaging," Sherrard said. "University-focused branded environments, combining various hybrid programming options and integrating highly sustainable design features go a long way toward creating a unique 'sense of place' for students."


Braam described a most unusual site off the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Universities have always been looking to create better value—more for less—and we've seen that trend for some time now," he said. "For that reason, I think there is a huge trend toward adaptation, rehabilitation of buildings. There is also an emphasis on sustainability. Reusing the building you already have is part of that trend. If possible, you want to modify, adapt and infuse an old facility with new life, and that's what we did at the University of Mississippi.

"The university president bought an old, abandoned industrial warehouse without windows," Braam said. "It was across a highway away from the campus, and they didn't know what they were going to do with it. And someone said why don't we make it into a satellite recreation and wellness center?"

The designers at HOK worked with university officials and "transformed this concrete bunker of a warehouse into this absolutely celebratory building," Braam said.

The Department of Campus Recreation opened the South Campus Recreation Center in August 2019. The facility provides opportunities for the university community to pursue lifelong well-being and, Braam noted, serves as a transformational space in providing University of Mississippi students a premier collegiate experience.

The South Campus Recreation Center is located at the former Whirlpool property. "When they bought it," Braam said, "I don't think they realized the possibilities of what they had."

A 98,000-square-foot facility, it includes several innovative elements, including a 6,000-square-foot functional training zone (4,000 square feet inside, 2,000 outside). The centerpiece of the facility is north Mississippi's only indoor climbing wall. There is abundant fitness space (25,000 square feet), three fitness studios, two basketball courts, a multi-activity court, walking/jogging track, a classroom demonstration kitchen and a convenience store.

Services for wellness education, outdoor programming and personal training also have dedicated spaces at the SCRC: Two fields for intramural sports, sport clubs and informal recreation are located adjacent to the facility, and the original plan to come online was spring 2020. A sidewalk links the building to the South Campus Rail Trail, providing indoor and outdoor recreational options for the community.

Administrative offices for both the Department of Campus Recreation and the Department of Parking and Transportation Services are housed at the facility. The facility serves as a campus transportation hub, with more than 700 parking spaces, service on the O.U.T. bus lines and shuttles to main campus.

There is ample parking space at the center, so students can stay away from the central campus and catch a bus or even stay a while at the recreation center before attending class. The facility brings in revenue by offering membership opportunities for faculty, staff, alumni and community members.

Think outside the box—think partnerships, Ohle suggested. What are some private institutions that would like to join the campus community? What groups can be incorporated into a facility as an outside operator? Think healthcare systems such as hospitals, rehabilitation centers and commercial fitness organizations.

Other trends in on-campus design, said Sherrard, include integrated information technology, interactive video screens and upgraded Wi-Fi. "Access to technology is only going to increase in demand."


While recreation centers widen the scope of their offerings, never forget the basics, Sherrard said. "When it comes to equipment and activities, you want to have flexible fitness zones for individual training to various-sized group training spaces. This is critical to providing options and flexibility for all students with varying degrees of body consciousness and abilities."

And, "the customization aspect of functional training fitness has opened the door for some pretty amazing, dynamic and engaging fitness opportunities."

But fitness spaces are just one aspect of 'whole' student wellness focus, he explained. Bouldering walls that engage one's whole body for balance, strength and focus are growing in future fitness and recreation spaces, as they offer a less intimidating, more social, yet challenging climbing experience.

The flexibility of functional cross-training equipment has opened the door for some incredible, dynamic and engaging fitness opportunities, Sherrard said. Moveable fitness gear that facilitates climbing, jumping, flipping, slamming, balancing, etc., add endless variety to one's fitness experience.

Some other unique offerings Sherrard suggests are ninja courses suspended over aquatic areas, as well as integrating kinetic climbing structures. These add interest and energy to existing program amenities, he said.

Ohle explained that you should offer a mind-body suite of yoga, light therapy, massage and personal trainer space. He also suggests a diversity of indoor synthetic court types for club-sports needs: basketball, volleyball, tennis, badminton, and pickleball.

"We are designing a 20,000-square-foot indoor turf venue for Forest County Potawatomi Tribe in Crandon, Wis.," he said. "The functionality of indoor turf for club sports is invaluable. Some of our clients are using the space for soccer, ultimate, lacrosse and functional fitness."

Post-pandemic, said Braam, we'll likely see more and more repurposed recreation facilities designed to foster a culture of sustainability, healthy lifestyles and disease prevention. The new recreation centers will combine the best aspects of a fitness center, health clinic and research lab, have a green roof with vegetable and herb gardens, a healthy bistro, a research and educational grocery lab, and meeting and classroom space.

You have to plan for the unexpected, Ohle said. Spaces must be multipurpose. Everyone seems to need to attract partners in wellness. "I see few dedicated to one-event kinds of spaces, which means … more convertible rooms. What began with operable walls and push-button drop-down curtains and basketball goals has grown to push-button drop-down volleyball nets and sky-fold walls. I am using drop-down curtains in group exercise rooms to cover up mirrors for multipurpose function use." RM