Guest Column - February 2016
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Design Corner

Out of the Stone Age
Flexible Design Crucial to Recreation Facilities

By Wayne Hughes

The shift away from masonry is hardly apparent to most building users. Consider the University of Texas at Brownsville's Recreation, Education, & Kinesiology (REK) Center, which was designed to fit the campus' Colonial Mexican aesthetic and respond to the harsh environmental conditions of the Rio Grande Valley. The 108,891-square-foot facility, with its brick arches, covered walkways and custom ironwork, has as solid an aspect and permanent appearance as any contemporary recreation center, and yet large swaths of the interior (including racquetball courts, multipurpose rooms, classrooms and the administrative suite) utilized steel framing for future flexibility.

Miles away from Brownsville, literally and figuratively, a major expansion to the Hamel Student Recreation Center currently rising on the University of New Hampshire campus is light and airy (two focal points are a "Living Wall" in the entry composed of native flora and fauna, and a "Sculptural Forest Wall" designed to form a screen between the lobby and multipurpose gymnasium), boasting a transparent exterior of glass and metal panels. Its interior will have the capability of being constantly reconfigured, and is being wired to meet future demands.

There's hardly an element of contemporary recreation centers that isn't being touched by the need for flexibility. Building mechanical systems are increasingly being outfitted with more-flexible ductwork, as the familiar rigid galvanized-steel ductwork is an impediment to later interior alterations. Flexible ductwork can accommodate rapid changes in office and multipurpose room layouts. Daylighting was already an important aspect of sustainability (and the quality of the rec-center experience), but a recent change sees designers placing exterior glazing to accommodate a variety of internal wall configurations. Lighting systems can be designed as parallel systems that can be adjusted quickly to accommodate different types of uses in quick succession. Similarly, sound systems can be configured with modular banks that can be controlled separately while providing balanced fidelity. We have learned that portable public address systems are the best way to enhance the spoken word without trying to adjust a permanent control system. This is a case where incompatibility actually enhances flexibility and rapid change.

The need for flexibility is understandable from a financial standpoint, and certainly the recession served to heighten the need to do more with less. But there appears to be a societal aspect of this change, as well. At Kennesaw State University, where Hughes Group is working on a proposed addition to and renovation of the Recreation and Wellness Center, a student participant in several of the planning forums finally raised his hand and said in an exasperated tone, "Just give us choices." We felt, in that moment, the pressure—and the license—to adapt bricks-and-mortar buildings to an iPhone world.

Building operators see the need for flexibility, but the end users themselves are demanding it—they want programs that are constantly new, vibrant and relevant to their lifestyle. From phone-based exercise tracking apps to the Skill Combine movement, what was once purely recreational is becoming more competitive, and these activities suggest a fitness center very different than what is on offer today. Exactly how these buildings will be configured remains to be seen—what we know is that buildings planned for flexibility will be able to accommodate whatever the future has in store.

Wayne Hughes ( is a principal with Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va. For more information, visit