The Community Experience

Engaging Multipurpose Designs Lead to Long-Term Rec Center Success

Back in February of this year, when Texas was dealing with a paralyzed electric grid brought on by prolonged frigid temperatures along with ice and snow, the city of Plano came up with an idea: They opened up their four recreation centers to residents who didn't have water due to burst pipes, so they could come in and use the showers. This highlighted the important function that community and college rec centers can perform, which is not only to offer places for fitness, wellness, education and recreation, but to offer spaces that patrons feel connected to. And designers of these spaces are keenly aware that the programs and the buildings themselves need to evolve and be flexible to keep pace with current trends and desires.


With so many rec offerings these days, it can be a challenge in the planning phase to prioritize features and amenities. "You want to make the space multipurpose but not multi-useless," joked Keith Hayes, principal and business partner at Barker Rinker Seacat, a Denver-headquartered architecture firm. "How do we anticipate new trends that are coming up, make a space that's flexible but still meets the needs of the key activities that will take place?"

"Incorporating flexible spaces that can transition through time is always a goal regardless of the client," said Dan Sullivan, associate and leader of client development services at Hastings + Chivetta, a St. Louis-based architecture firm, "and that extra space became even more important in response to COVID and the additional social distancing that will be prudent always. Learning spaces like demonstration kitchens and nutrition centers are allowing recreation staff to enhance lifestyle education as well as sustainable education. Offerings for seniors continue to expand as baby boomers age into retirement and are increasingly more active than previous senior generations. Group meeting rooms with finishes to accommodate exercise, dance, public meetings and childcare break-out activities will never go out of style."

Howard Blaisdell and Kris Cochran are architects at Moody Nolan, an architecture firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and they said there's been a major focus on the 'experience' of these facilities, requiring designers to be more engaged with end-users throughout the design process. "Through robust stakeholder and community engagement, we understand their expectations and leverage data-driven results to promote innovation."

They pointed out that space is finite, so how best to design the space to allow flexibility in programming to maximize use throughout the day? "For example, gyms can be used for preschool during the mornings, teens after school and adult basketball in early mornings and evenings. There are many synergies between diverse program offerings, so designing a space for multi-functionality is a priority."


"Hybrid" buildings are becoming more common, according to Blaisdell and Cochran, where two or more partners own one common facility. "There are mutual business benefits to shared operations, so we see owners continuing to explore partnerships."

On the programming side, they said overall health and wellness is supplementing physical activity. "Users prefer bouldering walls over climbing walls as (they) require less supervision and equipment. Functional training allows modifying equipment as needs change, and multiple types of equipment. We're finding that facilities are adding kitchens for teaching healthy cooking, but also being able to serve seniors lunch and kids during before- or after-school programs."

Wellness has taken an expanded role in the building industry, agreed Sullivan. "Rarely is a gym, a cardio deck and one multipurpose room going to satiate the community appetite for a center's offerings." He described a rating system put forth by the International WELL Building Institute addressing how buildings should positively impact our physical and mental health. "The eight components of a WELL building are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind and innovation. These components contribute to the success of a building as much as the sustainable carpet and wood flooring selection, or the number of low-flow plumbing fixtures."

Outdoor passive recreation spaces, whether social gathering spaces for things like BBQs, meditative butterfly gardens, urban farming or herb planting beds, are another trend that Blaisdell and Cochran mentioned, citing the Oklahoma City Health and Wellness Center as an example. "We're also seeing a trend of teaching classrooms or fitness areas that can open up to the exterior to connect to the outdoors."

As many rec centers were shut down due to the pandemic, yet trying to keep revenue coming in and add value to their constituents' lives, they moved into some outdoor and virtual activities, according to Hayes. "So how do we design things more creatively in turn? Is there a way to deliver exercise classes to the community over the web? How does that impact your building; is it a recording studio or just a camera?" He said they'd already been discussing putting more monitors in some rooms so if a person couldn't make a class they could come in and select a disc or call up a class from the website and participate that way.

"We're currently using Virtual Reality (VR) in our design work to help clients visualize their spaces, but the technology hasn't kept up with our imagination; clunky goggles and backpacks are still necessary," said Sullivan, citing VR as a potential trend and explaining that they see the technology advancing and being adapted for immersive fitness and recreation experiences. "Imagine playing basketball in your recreation center with friends, but VR lets your friends look like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, and you'll be able to hear and see roaring crowds cheer for you when you score a basket."

Many rec centers are decades old and simply need a facelift. Hayes pointed out that accessibility standards have vastly improved, whereas previously halls and doors were skinnier, toilet stalls smaller, etc. "We've defined a new standard of care in that regard in the last 20 years; having more space, more amenities, a higher level of finish… people want a nice locker room."


The community recreation center in Broadview Heights, Ohio, was built in the 1960s and was in need of an update. Sited on a 67-acre campus, there was plenty of room to grow. Hayes' firm worked with the city and citizens on a feasibility study and design for expansion and renovation, which utilized most of the former structure. "We had a community volunteer group that helped with the levy campaign and a specific individual that was part of the design process that represented the community," said Director of Parks and Recreation Amanda Hutcheson. The new facility opened in late 2018, and Hutcheson reported that the community is very happy to have the new amenities. "In January 2020 we peaked at over 6,000 memberships."

Hutcheson described some of the upgrades, including a popular walking/jogging track that seniors and moms with strollers love in the winter. "In the old facility they walked in the basement; now they have large windows and can see outside and look at the pool and fitness center." Capacity in the fitness space has doubled. "We also have a loft above the main fitness floor that has equipment as well. They get to look out over the campus with floor-to-ceiling windows. We have a new locker room for men and women and four family cabanas and extra lockers. We have swimsuit dryers in those areas as well. We added two new restrooms just outside the new gymnasiums."

Two new party rooms host pool parties, baby showers, city and staff meetings, in-services and classes, according to Hutcheson. "We can have two rooms of 25 or open it up to accommodate 50. We have sinks, TVs, cabinets and refrigerators in those rooms." Lobbies and lounges have become a bigger focus in recent years, offering spaces for community interaction, and Hutcheson described a lobby when entering their new facility and a lounge area on the main level with tables and chairs, a TV and vending. "Our seniors like this area. The lower-level lounge has a TV and games like foosball, ping pong and games with prizes in them, as well as seating for the kids. Our purpose was to have the open concept and to see into all areas from where you are at. We went with modern colors—gray, blue and whites—and high ceilings with an industrial look and a lot of windows to bring the outside in."

"We've found that part of sustainability is having a connection with the outdoors," said Hayes, "so natural light is good. It provides security, provides an idea of the activity going on inside; it's a great advertisement."

Sullivan agreed that the appearance of a bright, active, transparent building is more desirable. "Our projects tend to bring the outside in whenever possible, like the new Human Performance Center at Dixie State University (St. George, Utah), which has exterior CrossFit decks and a rooftop recreation deck with a running track connected on two levels that is half indoors and half open to the Utah sunshine."


Blaisdell and Cochran pointed to data showing universal connectivity of humans to the natural and built environment. "Access to daylight and fresh air can reduce stress, improve well-being and perhaps promote a restorative response. The challenge of design professionals is balancing access to daylight with the programmed needs of the space and the overall performance of the building from an energy standpoint."

They also pointed out that rec centers are heavily used in the evenings. "Designing the building to appear warm and inviting at night is a key issue with making people feel safe coming to the center and draws their attention to the building."

Developing environmentally sensitive facilities continues to be a bigger priority for both clients and patrons, according to Sullivan. "Especially on college campuses where the next generation is very aware of the earth they are inheriting as they become adults, designing sustainably is the least we can do to contribute to an atmosphere of stewardship for their communities." He described their Sumers Recreation Center project at Washington University in St. Louis, which was certified LEED Platinum. "The site of the 1904 Olympics, the historic structure was repurposed into a modern amenity for students and staff, and incorporates sustainable features including a rooftop photovoltaic array which contributed to a 55% reduction in energy use, a 37% reduction in water use achieved through low-flow fixtures, and an in-ground water retention system to capture and slow water runoff. High-volume low-velocity fans help cool the indoor air and reduce air conditioning usage."

Blaisdell and Cochran pointed out that local municipalities continue to have more stringent sustainability requirements. "There are increasingly more user-friendly tools to support sustainable design. A current trend is adaptability for our designs: How do they respond to the developing changes to the environment? This includes how they address water in areas becoming wetter, heat in areas becoming warmer and protecting the building in areas subject to more severe storms to provide resiliency."

Hayes discussed meeting with a recent client focus group that really wanted a lounge in their facility with tables and chairs. They felt that between lessons, basketball leagues and other activities, grabbing a pizza at the rec center might be the best opportunity for a family dinner on some nights. "So it's rising to the occasion and figuring out how the community center can fill some of those gaps as our lifestyles get so busy." And Hayes reiterated that part of a successful business plan is offering that variety of activities for families, so maybe your wife takes a dance class while you're in a spinning session. Or mom does a workout while her child takes a swim lesson.


Speaking of swimming, aquatics have long been cornerstones for many community—and college—rec centers. "But now, people are expecting more out of the pools," said Hayes. "Warmer water, leisure water, water with zero-depth entry where kids can be comfortable. On the other end of the spectrum, being able to provide water walking and water exercise, having a current channel for example for therapy activities. Just providing these pools with social amenities is a huge deal for communities."

"Aquatics is a great way to attract patrons," agreed Sullivan, "especially in cold-weather locations that only have four months of swim time." However, he cautioned that the realities of maintaining and managing indoor pools often makes the inclusion of these spaces the most important decision a planning committee can make. "I believe that the percentage of projects with or without a pool has not changed much in the past 20 years, but the kinds of components have: Zip lines, climbing walls, drop slides, spray parks and leisure components are more the rule than the exception."

Blaisdell and Cochran added that hybrid pools are popular—maximizing flexibility with simpler configurations and water depth. "Spas are still heavily utilized. Programming has always been important for senior water aerobics, family play areas, learn-to-swim and exercise. We're seeing portable amenities being added to pools and lap lanes that may be fun elements or challenge courses to engage older kids and teens."

At the new Broadview Heights Recreation Center, Hutcheson said they now have many additional aquatics amenities including a large slide and other play features, a rock wall and basketball hoops. "We offer group swim lessons, semi and private swim lessons, a swim team, group exercise classes, SilverSneakers classes, and the Cleveland Clinic uses the pool for patients for aquatics therapy. We have a lazy river that is popular with all ages."

Sullivan believes COVID has changed—and will continue to change—some aspects of recreation facility design. "No-touch features like sliding doors and bathroom fixtures or mechanical improvements like ceiling fans with air-cleaning features, or the use of high-quality air filters are all lower-cost solutions that I think will remain. I find that our facilities that already connect to exterior amenities will increasingly be the standard for collegiate, community and even private fitness and wellness facilities."

"The truth is that the obvious issues that the pandemic brought attention to are not new to the rec community," said Blaisdell and Cochran. "Indoor air quality, safety, cleanliness and flexibility to adapt to evolving circumstances—these have been design considerations for some time. What has in many instances been less obvious is that COVID has exposed disparities in health and wellness, which are driven by social detriments."


They pointed out that if you live in a food desert or you don't have access to programs and services that focus on health and wellness, then that's a real problem. On the plus side, they are seeing community rec projects that have made inclusivity and equity a priority. "We're seeing partnerships with healthcare providers, food providers and community organizations to expand programming to address these needs. You are starting to see how important community rec projects are to mending a broken system."

"The pandemic has also taught us how important socialization is to everyone," added Blaisdell and Cochran. "Creating these physical and social connections is just as important as the physical benefits of exercise."

Back in Ohio, Hutcheson explained how they've been slowly rolling things out and adding more offerings. She doesn't see much in the way of change necessarily, though they look to improve all facets of their new facility to serve their members as best they can. "Our goal this year is to get back to normal and help our members live a healthy life with numerous opportunities." RM