Guest Column - March 2014
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Welcome to the Neighborhood
Balancing Inclusivity & Exclusivity in Fitness Center Design

By James Braam

We also used a standard design move for unifying (and dividing) multilevel facilities—cutouts that provide views from floor to floor. As with the track (and climbing tower), the result is physical separation but visual unification, with the key being deft use of the atrium's communal space. On the second level of the Auburn facility, the cutouts separate the floor horizontally into a cardio loft and a strength-training loft, while connecting these spaces vertically to the fitness areas below.

Many different elements can be used to similarly suggest separations between spaces, for example, changes in flooring materials or colors, graphics on floor or wall surfaces, strategic use of ceiling soffits and even pendulous light fixtures hanging at different heights. The object is for these disparate elements to provide definition but, at the same time, to use a common architectural language that helps knit these different areas into a common user experience.

Breaking Down Barriers

"Inclusion" is the watchword of Laurie Braden, president of NIRSA and director of university recreation at Louisiana State University, where we are in the midst of an expansion and redesign of the school's Student Recreation Complex. LSU's administrators want to ensure that the new center is welcoming to people to all different levels of activity and interest in wellness. While we've opened up the fitness center to more views and natural light, we've designed dividers within the fitness areas to help make up for the loss of mirrors resulting from the specification of more windows. The mirrored dividers are user-scaled, 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide, and incorporate built-in storage for cleaning supplies and towel drops. Because the dividers don't go all the way to the ceiling, the space reads as continuous, and the dividers are turned perpendicular to the space's primary circulation path, maintaining the fitness center's open feel. At the same time, exercisers working out between the dividers experience space that feels more "personal."

Other designers and institutions have opted for completely separate workout spaces, which can be perfectly valid depending on the institution's goals and students' desires for the facility. For example, we've seen a glassed-in "quiet" workout space that effectively accommodates exercisers with a different workout sensibility, and any number of renovated racquet courts that serve as successful group-cycling or suspension-training rooms. In general, though, the future of fitness centers will revolve around collective spaces that feel somewhat individualized, and individual spaces that nonetheless provide a sense of openness.

If there's one thing we're learning, it's that while good fences may make good neighbors, they don't necessarily make for good fitness centers. If exercise for many remains a solitary pursuit (symbolized these days by long white earbud cords bouncing around on every treadmill), college administrators have a particular interest in helping students become more connected to the community, not less so. Architects can help break the iPod syndrome by providing students with collective spaces that are comfortable enough for them to unplug.

James Braam is senior project designer at Kansas City-based 360 Architecture. For more information, visit