Better, Stronger, Healthier
2022 Trends in Collegiate Sports Facility Design
While the design goals of collegiate sports facilities remain largely unchanged, new tools in the architect's toolbox (visualizing software, collaborative systems like BIM 360, and diversity in staff specialization like wellness and sustainability) are resulting in more effective designs where project ideas are being integrated earlier in the process through multiple disciplines. Combine this with heightened competition between schools for student athletes in an age of open portals, and the overall results are better by just about every metric.
Whether it's more kinds of amenities, a heightened fan experience, one-stop shopping complexes or catering to the whole student, today's collegiate sports venues and facilities must be better, stronger, healthier and higher-tech than ever before.
"Recruitment is such an important aspect right now, and the architecture is following. Everybody is looking for an edge," said Blaine Perau, AIA, of RDG Planning and Design in Des Moines, Iowa. "The facilities that can translate success on the court and field is a critical element because it can make the difference between bringing in 4- and 5-star recruits. It's all based on the experience of their first visit and what sticks in their mind when they're on campus."
Graphics and messaging are front and center in today's newest builds, regardless of school size. "It has intensified. There are interactive walls and all kinds of displays. There's a big emphasis on the messaging when you bring in a recruit. What do they see? And how are they inspired?" said Chris Sgarzi, principal and leader of sports practice with Sasaki Design in Boston. "If you look at Division I, a student might come in and want to see a wall of NFL players that have been at that school and be able to dream about themselves. Or there's Division III who aren't necessarily coming with aspirations to play professionally, but the common denominator is pride and history and support."
The impact and integration of NIL (name, image and likeness) rules and understanding how schools have the opportunity to create NIL spaces up front and center can be an incredibly effective recruiting tool and asset for institutions that think early in the programming phase of creating the space, creating the department and creating the technology to allow them to boost student athlete social image profiles.
Greater Athletic Performance and Efficiency
Auburn University's Football Performance Center in Auburn, Ala., is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022 and has been described as nothing short of "mind-blowing." Among its many recruit-attracting amenities, the school will unveil a cutting-edge performance-optimizing department using the Falcon Pursuit athletic avatar technology: 3-D scans of athletes (football, gymnasts and swimmers), combined with AI intelligence, create computational fluid dynamics models or avatars of each athlete.
Uniforms, helmets and equipment can be customized to drag-resistant perfection. But more impressively, its patent-pending Avatar Rendering Engine (ARE) will create 3-D, full-scale performance profiles enabling coaches to review throws, runs and other movements to identify every weakness, strength and possible projected means of improvement.
Auburn's state-of-the-art, $92 million, 233,400-square-foot facility will showcase next-level, one-stop-shopping design as well, in which all athletic amenities and needs will be serviced under one collective roof to eliminate the need for students to go to and from one side of campus to the other.
Greater efficiency is the mantra of the day. The new $85 million construction of University of Florida's Heavener Football Training Center, for example, has designed efficiency into the smallest details affecting the flow of the building's interior. The Gators' meeting room design was changed to add multiple doors so players can exit more quickly to the field to maximize time during their limited 20-hour NCAA-mandated week. Every minute counts.
Greater Creature Comforts
But it's not all work and no play. "Fifteen years ago students were bouncing all over campus to hit nutrition, academics, athletics and training—having to take another extra chunk of time out of their day. So something Auburn will roll out later this year creates a new offering we're calling 'home away from home,'" said Trevor Bechtold, director of sports, recreation and entertainment with HOK in Kansas City, Mo. "Kids are coming for a great education and to be competitive, but they also want to know they've got the comforts of home. That's one of those big drivers and something we think a lot about as we go into these facilities. What are those things you typically have to leave home for? And how can we include those in this building?"
Limited only by the imagination (and budget), amenities like nap rooms, barber shops, demo kitchens, bowling alleys and outdoor entertainment/relaxation spaces in athletic complexes are adding creature comforts alongside areas dedicated to training, fitness and recovery under one roof.
"When you think of this building as a home, you think about what might be in your backyard. Where do you go to relax?" said Bechtold, joking that tattoo parlors could be next. "Serena Williams said, 'When you travel so much, the best and most relaxing thing to do is just sit on the couch and not move.' These athletes are active all the time, and when they're not on a plane or competing or training, they want a place to take a break. That's something that's become more and more important."
At Auburn University, just before the pandemic hit in 2020, designers at HOK were brainstorming new ways to bring relaxation to the locker room. "That became the creation of The Armory," Bechtold said. "In the past the locker room has been treated more like a smelly closet than a living room. It was about creating an area where the team gears up and gears down on the way to and from practice with a direct connection to the locker room, laundry room and equipment room that allows the flow of the day-to-day to remain effective but creates an independent area for a kind of living room or lounge area where the team is spending the most time together."
And while we've seen more and more upscale facelifts in locker rooms (think twinkling backlit Minneapolis city-scape locker door vents in the Athlete's Village at University of Minnesota), locker room functionality itself is being reimagined.
At The Armory, compartmentalization of different spaces in the locker rooms will not only add a home-away-from-home lounge area, but will showcase today's increased attention to more efficient flow. (Incidentally, in a brave new world of pandemic awareness, it's an added bonus that each area can be sanitized independent of any other space.)
"When you're coming back in from practice, you'll set down all your gear and it will go right into the cleaning environment associated with the equipment room and laundry room," Bechtold explained. "Then the guys will travel to the rinse showers, then to hydrotherapy, and then to the grooming areas before going onto their own personal space to get ready for the day. You've created an atmosphere where the guys want to spend time—including a kind of living room to relax. That's the type of locker room we're trying to create here. I think it's going to change the dynamic of lockers, moving forward."
Greater Holistic Care
In addition to amenities mimicking the comforts of home and beyond, facility designs are not only about traditional spaces for fitness and recovery but also about mental health and wellness in an effort to maximize athletic performance. With spa-like atmospheres, hydrotherapy recovery rooms are being joined by therapy suites, medical clinics and life-skills training spaces. "I think we do see our student athletes as more holistic people," Perau observed. "And I do think that our sports facilities are reflecting that in the whole mind-body experience."
Onboarding architectural staff specializing in wellness is ultimately raising the bar for recruit-attracting structures, and reflects growing awareness that students perform at more optimum levels when everything—not just fitness—is aligned.
"Everything about them (students) will be improved," Perau said. "Rest and recovery, leadership and providing counseling space. We call it the 'whole athlete.' One of the biggest results is going to be a focus on athlete wellness. It's all a priority to keep functioning at the highest level."
While the stand-alone, everything-under-one-roof model is still alive and well in sports facility designs on campuses, another design philosophy gaining ground invites and fosters connection with the larger athletic community by sharing facility features among multiple teams (and saves money in the process by eliminating redundant function).
The Heavener Football Training Center, for example, home of the NCAA Gators scheduled to open this spring, will house a shared hub of amenities like a large dining nutrition house, lounge spaces, barber shop, music studio, virtual gaming spaces and pool. Or consider the University of Delaware's recently completed $64 million Whitney Athletic Center where student athletes will share weight rooms, sports medicine facilities, athletic training spaces, nutrition areas and services for academic and career support all in an effort to build community among different teams.
Greater Fan Experience
This push toward greater connection isn't only for the athletes. Today's athletic arenas and sporting venues are also about creating greater connection to the fans and the surrounding community as part of an effort to intensify the overall spectator experience. Many designs like the University of Connecticut's synergistic concept in their Athletic District, are magnifying that experience with shared celebration spaces across multi-sport venues where fan enthusiasm for multiple teams can cross-pollinate and heighten the experience.
At the University of Texas Moody Center in Austin, due to open this fall, designing for the ultimate fan experience included envisioning a central hub and public space. Turning their attention to a previously under-utilized area adjacent to the school's football stadium and track, and across from the baseball stadium, the team created the Moody Plaza, a gathering hub and entertainment venue for fans, students and the community. With its central location surrounded by multiple sports venues, it can act as both an appetizer of gameday fun, hosting food trucks and musical events, as well as a venue all its own regardless of game schedules.
Greater connection between the campus community and the city was also the goal of this $338 million dollar project. "The upper concourse has 360 degrees of glass," said Laura Brodersen, AIA and lead project architect on the project with Gensler, in Austin, Texas. "We really wanted to provide a strong sense of community, so when an event is going on within the building you can really see the activity as you're driving by or, if you are within the building, you still have this connection to parts of the city."
Greater connection to the game has also been integral to the Moody Center's design. "What is great about this arena is the rake of the bowl," Brodersen said, noting the flatter seating bowl of the Frank Erwin Center, which the new facility will replace. "The steepness of the new seating is pretty sharp, so no matter where your seat is it feels very close to the event. I can attest that when you walk into the arena you can walk into the upper concourse to the very back seat and it still feels close. You're still getting a very intimate seat."
From the moment fans arrive at the interactive plaza until they find their seats, the Moody Center will be an immersive, brand-forward experience that, like many new designs, will be multipurpose—hosting events year-round and not just during game season. Designed with a newer generation in mind who are often more about socializing than staying seated, there will be plenty of group gathering spaces and activities. As a result, the Moody Center is offering something for everyone, including those not necessarily there to watch a game.
"The trend we're finding is a ticket gets you into a place but there's actually a lot more going on once you get there," Brodersen said. "The Moody Center will provide a really special experience for any level of ticket holder. With four beautiful clubs designed with Austin themes, no detail was really left out of this wonderful space."
Even smaller schools like Cornell College in Mount Vernon, Iowa, are jumping on the party bandwagon. Although the construction costs for the renovation of The Small Sports Center skyrocketed during COVID and forced the school to cut back some of their plans, they are forging ahead to create a much-needed flexible celebration space where fans, students and the community can gather and create stronger connections.
"We want to provide a wonderful gameday experience for student athletes, visiting teams and faculty staff where we can be more engaged," said Seth Wing, director of athletics for the school. "I'm excited that we can host a celebration for an anniversary team that won a conference 10 years ago. Now we will have that space and be able to host more camps and clinics for community engagement."
Another design feature The Small Sports Center will enjoy is plenty of natural light, an element that continues to feature strongly in designs centering around sustainability and biophilia (incorporating elements of nature to impact the health and well-being of users). With studies from medical heavy-hitters like the Mayo Clinic proving the powerful psychological impact of biophilia, today's sports facilities are incorporating related elements of more natural light, more outdoor views, more air flow and use of calming colors and natural materials.
"No doubt the biggest change will be a lot of natural light, which will be a win-win in efficiency for our operating budget," Wing said. "And will give a great open feel to have natural light in the fitness center… It will be fantastic in a space that right now is, frankly, a dungeon."
One very unique renovation completed in February 2022, the University of Oregon and its RDG designers developed a custom louvered skylight system to gather and disperse light within their LEED-certified SRC natatorium that greatly increased efficiency and reduced the electrical load. "People want to be outside and want more natural light after having been outside in ways that they had never been before, athletically," Perau explained about an example of COVID's impact on design.
Another small school making big headlines in the realm of sustainability and biophilia is the University of Idaho's ICCU Arena in Moscow, Idaho. A stunning basketball venue only seating 4,000, its gorgeous curvilinear wooden interior created in cooperation with the school's Department of Natural Resources was made from renewable timber harvested from the college's own land and is the only stadium of its kind.
"It was a mission. They would say, 'We are building this as a monument to the Idaho Forest Industry,'" said Dan Sullivan, AIA, associate and leader of client development with Hastings & Chivetta in St. Louis, about the uniqueness of this project. "So they got the whole state behind it—getting a whole region or state to buy into an architectural mission can make a difference."
Especially impressive for its size, the ICCU Arena is a great example of intimate, dynamic and beautiful design coming out of today's collegiate sports facilities. With its exciting (read: enormous) four-sided, 8K resolution scoreboard, warm wood-sculpted interior boasting sustainability, and great spectator experience seating, it ticks a lot of today's best design boxes. "I mean, it's just fantastic," said Sullivan. RM