Fitness for All

Campus Design Focuses on Connection, Inclusiveness


Wellness facilities at colleges and universities have changed quite a bit over time. More than just a gym with locker rooms, campus recreation centers today encompass sophisticated design elements, creating a sense of connection and making it possible for everyone to enjoy their fitness experience.

"The idea [is] health, wellness and fitness, and bringing all of those together in an impactful, seamless way," said Brian Beckler, a senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative (OLC), an architectural firm in Denver.

Over the past 10 years, wellness has evolved and been redefined, and now "It's about energy and life processes and how we manage our energy in its totality; self-responsibility and love, eating and moving, all of these components," Beckler said. "As a culture, we are becoming more educated. We are becoming more responsible for our own health. All of these elements, that is what we see on the design side."

Design Trends

Designing wellness facilities at colleges at universities really starts on the outside, even before you get into the facility. "There is a real emphasis on creating gateways, and physical connections and portraying an image to the surrounding campus, and not just the building right across the street," Beckler said. "The facility and pathways are connected to the surrounding area. And that's very intentional. You really have to think about how students are moving through campus. What do they see?

"Recreation facilities are a powerful tool in conveying an image to the campus community and who they are. It's a great tool in recruiting new students and staff, and retaining them," he said.

Along the lines of design trends, no longer do you come to the building, go through turn-styles, check in and go to a room to lift weights. "You don't do that anymore. The trend is as soon as you walk in, you are visually a part of the environment," Beckler said. "It creates a sense of anticipation. You create a 'wow' factor. Big glassy atrium spaces, wide open, generous gathering spaces. We try to eliminate barriers. Make it open and transparent as possible. You can see the brightness as soon as you walk into the door."

The fact is that "Health and wellness recreation centers have become that social hub. You can study, work out and get all of those pieces in one spot. It's so vibrant. That energy, it's a place that people want to be," he said, adding that technology also has progressively made its way into fitness centers. For example, you can sync up your iPhone with fitness equipment.

The idea is health, wellness and fitness, and bringing all of those together in an impactful, seamless way.

Colleen McKenna, principal, CannonDesign, a global architecture, engineering and design firm, said a major focus is designing campus recreation centers to be inclusive and ensure fitness for everyone. "This means designing spaces where all people feel comfortable and all fitness skill sets can thrive," she said. "Not everyone wants to be on display while exercising, and this is resulting in a breakdown of the historical large 'cardio canyons' into 'fitness neighborhoods,' each with a different personality or area of focus that fosters community building."

In addition, more artificial turf areas and incline ramps are being introduced into fitness centers to allow for more functional training and boot camp style fitness classes. "Inspired by the TV show, we're also seeing some campus recreation centers create 'Ninja Warrior' workout zones with large equipment or a circuit simulating the ninja acrobatic television shows, but on a smaller and more manageable scale," McKenna said. "Fitness equipment continues to grow larger (not smaller) and smarter with integrated technology providing instant and real, measurable feedback through personal devices and smart workout attire."

This trend is only going to grow as fitness enthusiasts and competitive athletes continue to use technology and software for their fitness workouts. "Whether that's tracking their effort or engaging in gaming concepts where workouts are driven by gaming software for small group training or cardio and fitness workouts," she said.

Meanwhile, John McAllister, associate vice president, CannonDesign, noted that virtual reality (VR) is becoming an important tool in the design of campus recreation centers as well. "Colleges and universities are using it in the design process more and more because it can enhance assurance of outcomes, reduce cost, risk and project timelines and help ensure these institutions are creating the best spaces for their students, communities and [their] own future," he said.


For example, engaging students, staff and key stakeholders always has been an important step in the design of campus recreation centers. "Being able to hear directly from these future building users about their preferences, needs and hopes for new or renovated recreation spaces helps surface important ideas and issues that can strengthen the design process," McAllister said. "VR enhances our ability to do this. Imagine being unsure about where to place an indoor jogging track in a new recreation center or whether to use an area for a climbing wall or additional multi-activity space—with VR models, design teams can actually embed students in these possibilities and document their real-time reactions and experiences and then make the best possible decisions," he said.

Troy Sherrard, partner, practice leader, sports and recreation architecture, at architectural firm Moody Nolan, said the trends that have an impact on fitness facility design evolve and carry over from the trends that we live and see all around our everyday lives. "In order to answer this question one needs to look at trends that impact the world around us," Sherrard said. "Personally, I believe these trends break down into eight categories: interconnectedness, net zero, customization, wellness standards, hybrid programming, urban living, user expectations and innovation."

For example, the first trend category is centered on "our data-driven and hyper-connected interconnectedness and technology," he said. "This will continue to evolve. Personal data collection and performance monitoring allows users to better understand, track and take part in what is best for each of us. Knowledge is power and power motivates us to do more."

What's more, gender inclusivity seems to be a highly considered component in current design, noted Nathan Harris, Associate AIA, at architectural firm RDG Planning & Design. "This is straightforward in the design of locker rooms and toilet rooms, supplying ample space and entrance sequencing to these spaces," he said, adding that, however, one aspect to this that is often overlooked is the distribution for fitness equipment throughout the facility.


"By dispersing equipment into 'neighborhoods,' offering a variety of all equipment types in a single space, diverse groups of people feel comfortable working out in the same area," Harris said. "This is in opposition to the old way of equipment distribution, providing separate spaces for free weights, cardio equipment and selectorized equipment."

A holistic approach to overall wellbeing is yet another trend, with recreation centers beginning to include other campus departments, such as health services and counseling and psychological services. "Some have created new or combined existing departments to include a 'Wellbeing Suite,' with full-time staff dedicated to the awareness and facilitation of a healthy lifestyle," Harris said. "The inclusion of these additional amenities begins to make the traditional rec center more than a place to exercise.

"Complete body wellness can be achieved by meeting with a mental health provider, financial advisor, a spiritual group, gathering with friends to study, as well as the traditional weights and cardio workouts. Creating a location on campus that houses all these groups creates a one stop shop for all things wellness," he said.

In addition, openness, transparency and connectivity are "huge in facility design." "The concept of seeing and being seen is essential when laying out space adjacencies and travel patterns through the rec center," Harris explained.

"Some spaces," he said, "want to be public and open, [while] others desire a certain level of privacy. Gymnasia, leisure pools, jogging tracks and weights/cardio areas are typically very social spaces that wish to be up front and on display. Other spaces, like group exercise rooms and personal training suites want privacy for those participating in these activities. These concepts really start to form the framework of an overall facility layout, in conjunction with specific owner requests and design goals."

Fitness Trends

Cardio still is the biggest draw for a recreation center, according to Harris. "However, functional fitness is quickly becoming a highly demanded space," he said. "This type of training employs more body weight exercises, using various types of equipment for specific exercises that work to keep the individual in shape as it relates to their individual lifestyles."

And, more and more space is being dedicated to functional fitness. "These workouts usually take more square footage than traditional equipment because of the intentional focus on whole body movement, not simply using a stationary piece of equipment," he said.

Individual interactive workouts seem to be in high demand, too. "Offering an on-demand fitness class with a virtual instructor allows users ultimate flexibility. Whether they are unable to attend scheduled classes because of time conflicts or a group setting is uncomfortable, the virtual component allows them to complete individual workouts anytime," Harris said. "These are usually offered via video screen within a group exercise room, with content offered by numerous third-party providers."


For Sherrard, he presumes that everybody knows that fitness is more than physical wellness. "It is about a holistic and 'whole body' focus," he said. "What is good for the body is good for the mind. You are what you eat, and so on."

In addition, people have limited time, so fitness activities that support whole body development and focus on a variety of movement, balance and skills will grow. "This includes activities such as club sports, climbing, boxing gyms, paddle board yoga and so on," Sherrard said, adding that he sees "fit challenges" (ninja warrior, Spartan races, etc.) only gaining more in popularity. "It's challenging (both mentally and physically), social, messy, unexpected, promotes teamwork, exhilarating and many times, supports a good cause," he said. "Of course, to be ready for these types of challenges, one must prepare, train, eat right, etc., which supports the 'why' we need fitness facilities."

Another fitness trend is in creating a variety of experiences throughout the facility. "You don't have to go to a room to enjoy fitness, free weights or selectorized equipment. You can have it in a variety of places," Beckler said, such as elevated tracks, tracks going through a facility or wrapping around a facility, or overlooking other courts and activities, such as racquetball—thus, creating a lot of visual connections.

Group workouts also have grown in popularity, whether you are working out on a piece of equipment, doing high-intensity interval training or in a spinning class.

What's more, "what we're starting to see is the idea of a virtual 4-D experience. The trend now is taking what's been evolving over the last 10 years. You don't have to have the rooms in squares," he said, adding that different lighting systems and technologies are being incorporated now, producing an enhanced experience. "Between the color and the lighting and mist and sound, [it] takes you to a different place."

What to Consider

Access and control are two things to keep in mind when designing a wellness facility at a college or university.

"Where are students coming from on campus and how are they going to approach the facility? Will there be activities taking place after hours that will require control sequencing, to be thought through?" Harris said.

Also, expansion should be considered when planning and constructing these facilities. "The optimistic viewpoint of those building these new facilities is to grow usership and increase revenue, which will eventually lead to a necessary expansion," he said. "If designers do not assist in projecting a facility's design into the future, this limits a college and/or university to meet future needs on campus."

Access and control are two things to keep in mind when designing a wellness facility at a college or university.

Sherrard believes the response in evaluating future ready facilities breaks down into eight categories: interconnectedness/technology, sustainable health, customization/adaptability, wellness standards, hybrid programming/partnerships, urban living, evolving user expectations and innovation. "It is also necessary to note that each of these considerations has indoor and outdoor components," he said.

Another important aspect is the idea of renovation. "And, inevitably, there are some colleges that have some form of existing facilities," Beckler said. "Sometimes, we just want new … we want the cool and excitement, we want that experience. But, renovating and revitalizing existing structures can be a great way to have everything you want.

"We are seeing more renovations, and it really is a powerful message to the campus and the community about the university's goals and priorities," he said. "Just a wonderful example that epitomizes the idea of health and wellness; you are renewing it, giving it new life, creating a new future," he added. "A direct benefit is that you can maximize your dollars, [though] that's not necessarily true for every case. Universities are giving more consideration to renovating existing facilities."

Design Projects

In a recent example Beckler shared, the University of Wyoming was in need of a renovation to its recreation center, Half-Acre Gymnasium, its original name. Built in 1925, the gymnasium essentially was a big block of stone with a gym and locker rooms.

"Over the course of the past 90 years, it's gone through so many tries to fix it … [but] no one really knew what to do with it. The university wanted to do something new," Beckler said, noting that the idea was of health and wellness, and the university's mission and what they saw for the future, was to make it more than just a gym.

"We did a $24 million dollar renovation and remodel, blending the old and new together, building wellness programs and putting it all into one facility," Beckler said.


Now called the Half Acre Health & Wellness Center, the facility underwent a transformation that included a 101,000-square-foot remodel as well as a 40,500-square-foot expansion. Design goals included: improving circulation while joining it seamlessly with the current program areas; combining with a newly conceived expansion, and integrating it all within the building's existing systems and with the University's Long Range Campus Plan.

In another design example, Sherrard noted Penn State's intramural building that involved creating variety and engaging active atmospheres. Flexible oversized multipurpose rooms were created with space for equipment as well to offer more diverse whole body fitness options.

The intramural building has hybrid active programming that focuses on shared spaces and circulation offers a diversity of options to engage in all types of fitness and social connectivity. What's more, the intramural building has integrated fitness assessment space and programming that offers a way to tangibly gauge progress and provide individual fitness goals.

"The more a facility supports a 'whole body focus,' [it] will attract a wider variety of users; the more users, the more revenue, either by student fee or membership," Sherrard said.

Finally, CannonDesign's design team worked to remove visual barriers in order to develop a new circulation spine and unify the numerous components into one cohesive facility that visually connects activity spaces, welcomes natural light and provides spectacular views of the Colorado Front Range at the University of Colorado at Boulder's Student Recreation Center.

The center, originally built in 1970, was touted as one of the nation's top student recreation centers, with unique planning and spatial qualities that placed it ahead of its time. Now, decades later, the recreation center required a combination of repairs and new construction to restore it to its former stature.

Renovations at the center included a three-court gymnasium, jogging track, natatorium, racquetball courts, locker rooms and group exercise studios along with the inclusion of an additional three-court gymnasium, indoor turf gym, outdoor recreation center and wellness suite.

Also, three separate additions contain a new three-story weights and fitness pavilion, two group exercise rooms, a mind-body (hot yoga) studio, new building entry, new 500-seat ice arena capped by three rooftop tennis courts and an overlook terrace, a 7,000-square-foot rock climbing/bouldering gym, administration offices and a sunken terrace with a new outdoor recreational pool shaped like the school's mascot, "Ralphie" the Buffalo."