A Space for Everyone
Modern Locker Room Designs Are More Inclusive
You may have had a great swim at your new rec center lap pool, or a killer workout at that fitness club you just joined. Maybe you just sweated through a punishing basketball practice with your teammates. But no matter how positive these experiences might have been or how modern the amenities, if the locker room experience was less than pleasant, then that is likely the thing you'll remember. Those who design locker rooms—and manufacture locker room products—understand this and continually work to upgrade and improve the user experience, no matter the venue.
"Locker rooms touch almost everyone visiting a
recreation facility," pointed out Andy Stein, senior associate at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture (BRS). "Regardless of the activity you're using the facility for, you will likely find yourself in the locker room to use the bathroom, to store your stuff, to change clothes or to shower."
Kevin Armstrong, principal at BRS, agreed that while the locker room is a transitional space, it's one that many people encounter. "We're noticing that there continues to be a trend to make it have a more pleasant feel and appearance, which also means that it wants to be more open both physically and visually within the space, compared to the locker rooms of previous generations. In the time of COVID this is a positive, as it makes it easier to provide social distancing and to allow space for users to feel like they can spread out."
Indeed, it's hard not to wonder how the pandemic has affected design considerations. According to Stein, COVID has pushed the idea of inclusive and universal design further, reinforcing the need for more individual and family-type changing rooms. "Universal locker rooms typically include full-height partitions to provide sound, smell and air separation, creating more separation than a typical locker room. COVID has also accelerated the rate at which we clean. Material maintenance and material durability—especially when exposed to repeated chemical wipe-downs as well as the desire for more hypo-allergenic materials—have all been COVID trends."
Jack Patton, a principal at architecture firm RDG Planning and Design, explained that they've always gravitated to materials that are high-performing and low-maintenance for locker rooms, especially important now that cleaning and sanitizing surfaces is at the forefront. "Thankfully, many of the workhorse materials in locker rooms have long fit that bill, and more new materials keep showing up in the marketplace." He cites ceramic tile, non-porous solid surface materials for countertops, non-porous stone materials, hi-build epoxy paint products and phenolic panels as some examples.
Stephen Springs, an architect at Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, said that "easy to clean" has always been the mantra for janitorial staff. "Simple things such as coved bases and durability contribute to making things easy to clean."
He points out that light colors make a space brighter, and grime that's easy to find is easy to remove. "Specify that detailed cleaning instructions are included in the project close-out documents."
One challenge he mentioned is paying attention to the janitor room. "It's often a closet that's too small to stock enough supplies and equipment."
Springs also explained how there was a brief push for UV-light sanitation early on, but the data supporting it wasn't very robust and the price point was significant. "You also hear a lot about air filtering since the pandemic," he continued. "Fully exhausted locker rooms make more sense, and have been our standard practice for many years."
Patton added that "The pandemic has also brought about much greater attention to touchless and hands-free devices and dispensers, where contact and touching are nearly if not fully eliminated." Springs agreed that touchless technologies—including faucets, soap dispensers, paper towel dispensers and flush valves—have become expectations for patrons. "I think we've all stuck our hands under a sink and then noticed valves we have to touch; since COVID that has a whole new 'ick' factor."
There is a lot of focus on universal or cabana-style locker rooms and how they're evolving. "Showers, toilet rooms and grooming areas—like society—are ever-changing," offered Patton. "I believe this is driven by patrons' matters of privacy, equity and convenience, and an owner's consideration of accommodation and efficiency."
Patton describes the universal locker room as a "collection of many public and private rooms, each a subset of a traditional gender-specific locker room, but now made accessible by all patrons, regardless of biological gender or gender identification."
He suggests that a larger facility may benefit by having multiple universal locker rooms; one near pool/wet areas and one near dry-land spaces or other high-demand areas.
"These spaces are inclusive solutions that meet the need of a variety of users including transgender and non-conforming individuals, families, caregivers and people that require assistance," said Stein. He pointed out while the fixture counts for universal spaces might seem higher, they're often the same, since with traditional gender-specific spaces one might be overloaded while the other is empty. "Challenges still exist in adapting this design to current codes," he continued. "One solution we've had success with is providing a hybrid locker room with shared common space and wash facilities with separated areas with toilets. This arrangement allows for passive monitoring, as busier spaces tend to reduce theft and crime."
"Once viewed as spaces especially for those needing caregiver assistance, they are taken over by the stroller-using crowd and others for the obvious convenience and elbow room," added Springs. "Add the heightened social consciousness regarding gender equity, and you have a very high demand for gender-neutral locker room design."
Patton described how most universal locker rooms include the following spaces, in varying quantities based on the user population: private toilet room with a water closet and lavatory; private locker room with a shower, bench, drying area, grooming counter, water closet and lavatory; private changing station ("Think dressing room at a department store but secure and private"); lockers for personal effects, located in a public area, often situated for easy access at the center of these other rooms. As an example, Patton offered the number of individual room types that were incorporated into the universal locker rooms at Troy University Wellness Center in Alabama, spread out over different zones: 20 individual locker rooms; six changing rooms; eight toilet (only) rooms; 340 lockers.
Patton suggested these spaces should be easily accessible and on the most common traffic paths, since the private nature of them can be cause for concern for some populations and locations. "By placing them in an open, accessible, public and brightly lit area you can minimize some of these logical concerns. Related, we've seen a strong growth of small, private single-patron rooms often called a privacy room, wellness space or similar. While not a 'locker room,' these rooms often provide a comfortable chair, softer lighting and a countertop or shelf. Some of our clients mandate at least one of these rooms per building." These might be utilized by nursing mothers, an individual changing out an insulin pump or anyone needing a spot for temporary respite.
Of course, an integral part of locker rooms is lockers, and many material options are available including wood, laminate, plastic and phenolic. And while less common nowadays, the old-guard metal lockers are still available, though not always the wisest choice. "These decisions often come down to owner preferences and designer recommendations," said Jim Gabel, vice president of CannonDesign. "For example, you wouldn't want to put metal lockers in a pool facility; that would be a material/program mismatch."
According to Stein, when selecting finishes, one must consider use (wet or dry environment?), abuse (can it withstand impact and scratches?) and maintenance (cleanability and durability). "With these items in mind, we tend to favor phenolic panels for lockers in a natatorium facility as they are scratch-, mildew- and graffiti-resistant. In addition, they're water-impermeable and come in a huge variety of colors and patterns, allowing us as designers to elevate locker rooms from mundane to sophisticated."
When picking materials for locker room benches and furniture, he said they keep that same design mindset. "We tend to favor composite bench slats in wet facilities for the same reasons we choose phenolic for lockers."
Charles Hebert is with a locker and locker room furniture manufacturing firm based in California, and he explained that rec and sports venues of all sizes are striving to offer nicer amenities and experiences. "I believe increased competition is a big factor in facilities upping their game in all areas, including locker rooms. Public facilities and Ys need to offer a similar aesthetic if they want to retain membership and continue to receive funding." He reports that 20% to 30% of their orders are destined for remodels. "Replacing old metal lockers is quite common. Many facilities are modifying, expanding and upgrading to accommodate more diverse locker room visitors.
"Metal lockers rust and dent," he continued. "Wood lockers can warp and delaminate in high-moisture environments. Phenolic, on the other hand, is an extremely durable, waterproof material that's ideal for locker use. Phenolic has always been popular with higher-end facilities. We're now working with more small organizations that want high-quality phenolic locker solutions."
Phenolic lockers are easy to clean and sanitize, according to Hebert, and come in hundreds of colors and patterns. There are many sizes and styles, and options include integrated benches, open cubbies, towel receptacles, ironing board storage, USB and power outlets, custom logos and a variety of lock options. "Mechanical combination locks and hasps for guest-supplied locks are still best-sellers," said Hebert.
Springs pointed out that there are lots of digital locking devices on the market too, and said they're becoming more popular despite the cost. "Patrons are starting to expect that ease-of-use."
Patton anticipates seeing more alternative material choices in lockers and locker room materials in general, comparing this to composite decking for outdoor decks and similar reclaimed, recycled or manmade materials. "…we expect to see more recycled and/or rapidly renewable wood-like products in the marketplace. These are working their way into many of our designs, and I suspect they will further march their way into locker rooms as well."
Some facilities are also upping their number of so-called wallet or cell phone lockers. "We continue to observe the trend that many people come to the rec center ready to work out and they may not use the locker room," said Armstrong. "As such, we often design our projects with a number of smaller day-use and wallet lockers spread throughout the facility. The benefit is that it places the storage closer to where the user is going within the center, rather than requiring them to go to a centralized locker location. It provides an ease-of-use for facility patrons."
When it comes to flooring, Patton mentioned some ceramic tile trends which are "following the interior design industry," including larger format tiles—"some as large as two-feet by four-feet. Beware sloping floor surfaces and the many potential roadblocks in using these super large tiles in a locker room. Some are best left to wall surfaces."
Wood-look tiles are another option. "These are ceramic and porcelain tiles that look and feel like a wooden plank."
Sports facilities—particularly professional sports and Division l universities—continue to offer more upscale locker room items such as large TVs and monitors, saunas and whirlpools, personal hygiene products and services. But smaller facilities are also looking to up their game with nicer products and services.
"Locker rooms are of critical focus when it comes to student-athlete recruitment and retain," explained Gabel. "As a result, teams and institutions are constantly adding new features and amenities that blur the boundaries between locker rooms and team lounges. These spaces can be the deciding factor for prospective athletes."
Recreation facilities are also hoping to entice patrons with nicer locker room amenities, though budgets are of course the deciding factor. "The trend toward more upscale offerings has not waned, though we do not see much lounge space, TVs, etc., in our community-based work," said Springs. "Those spaces are outside the locker room. Creature comforts such as roomier showers, vanities and changing areas are better ways to spend those square-footage dollars."
And what might some differences be between sports and rec facility locker rooms? "Athletics and aquatics mean more shower demand and usage than recreational spaces, so more moisture and wet floors to contend with," said Springs. "Athletes also tend to load a locker room all at once compared to come-and-go recreational users. So we tend to increase our fixture counts for athletic facilities as compared to rec."
Gabel explained that sports facility locker rooms should be geared toward the specific sport or group of sports they serve. "With that in mind, these spaces can often be designed to optimize team interaction, performance and enthusiasm. When you design recreation locker rooms, they have to be ready to serve a more general population."
High-performance athletes and those involved in competitive sports are often treated to intentionally larger spaces, according to Patton, with greater amenities and higher-quality interior finishes. But he added that rec locker rooms are also improving to attract and retain users. "They're becoming more convenient, less compacted, more easily sanitized.
"Athletic lockers are typically larger, and more replete with sport-specific amenities," continued Patton. "Most team locker rooms use an open-face locker, where clothing and equipment is easily accessible without a door—or behind a retractable door—for easy ventilation and ease-of-use by the athlete."
He said that the total area per locker room is usually much higher for athletic venues (25 to 80 square feet per locker) than for recreation (10 to 14 square feet per locker). "Most recreational venues have a fixed bench or minimal number of loose chairs/stools, whereas athletic venues have more furnishings, larger lockers and usually include space to easily facilitate team meetings and gatherings."
A New Look
All of our contributors are involved with renovating locker rooms as well as designing new ones. "Renovating a locker room…can make a dramatic impact toward meeting the needs of your users," said Patton. "Old locker rooms, which may be rundown or simply not well-suited for the needs of your current user, can readily be modified for only a portion of the cost for new. The evolution of locker rooms—and the significant impact of lessons learned during COVID-19—makes locker room design as important as ever, whether new or renovated."
Renovations offer the added challenge of bringing a new sense of design and character to a center that people have used many times before, according to Armstrong. "What's exciting is seeing people come into the new locker room after the renovation is complete for the first time. Seeing their eyes open wide and hearing them state how they couldn't have imagined how the space could feel so much better is amazing. That's our goal, to improve the overall user experience." RM