Guest Column - October 2002
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How to Make Your Facility Fit

By Michael H. Bourque and Bryan Dunkelberger

In a business that prides itself on making their customers physically fit, it is a daunting task for owners to make their own facilities fit. Facility fitness means getting all of the components to fit together for maximum customer satisfaction. Whether your facility has expanded over the last 10 years or you are looking to relocate, you probably realize that the coordination of programs, space allocation, budget and membership fluctuation is not an easy task.

Located in Baltimore, the Loyola College in Maryland
Fitness and Aquatic Center has a central circulation
path design.

The most important question to ask yourself in planning a fitness facility is, "What can I do to maximize my use of space?"

There are no easy answers, and many variables affect the outcome. Are you working with a new facility or renovating? How old is the facility? What is your budget? Who is the target membership? Are you trying to fix a real or perceived problem with your facility? The best approach to accomplish your goals is to develop a master plan for facility development.

A master plan allows the owner to be proactive with the facilities renovations vs. reactive to individual changing needs. If a facility has grown haphazardly over the past decade, and it's time to give it fresh look or if it's time to take it to the next level, a master plan is your smart choice. Master plans provide for facility renovation to be separated into phases and fit into prescribed time frames, thereby working within tight budgets and limited capital resources for improvements. This approach allows for an optimum upgrade of your facility in phases. The natural progression of these renovations allow for growth while keeping the big picture in mind. Phasing also allows for capital expenses to be spread out over time as well.

On the other hand, if a new facility is being considered, a master plan should also be established based on your long-term goals. The amount of square footage required is determined by what programs will be offered in the facility. This information becomes crucial when looking for land, a building or space to lease. It is also probable that program elements may have to be reduced to fit the facility into the actual chosen real estate. Wish lists are often bigger than the budget.

Several techniques are effective in the development of a master plan for a fitness facility. One approach is to create a circulation path that prominently displays the facility and the programs that are provided. The assumption is that if a member sees other members having fun in a class that they wouldn't normally try, they are much more likely to try it themselves. This can be done in a variety of ways: by providing more glass in areas that are off the path of travel, by placing a water cooler in a location that allows people to see different parts of the facility, or if the facility has dining, making sure there are views from the dining area into the activity spaces. This showcase technique increases the energy level in the space. A central circulation path can also reduce the amount of corridor space, therefore minimizing gross square footage and allowing more useable space for your program.

Use space wisely

Multipurpose rooms, though not a new concept, can be an extremely effective use of space. These rooms can efficiently accommodate multiple program elements, that is, using an aerobics room for yoga, spinning, community classes or nutritional seminars. The space associated with a multipurpose room must be taken into account when planning for a room of this type. The storage must be sufficient for all the equipment associated with each activity that occurs in the space. All too frequently, the amount of storage needed is overlooked, and unfortunately this does not become evident until the room is in use, and equipment is cluttering the perimeter of the room. This problem can be prevented by providing shallow closets and/or mobile dollies for the equipment.

Loyola College Fitness and Aquatic Center

If spinning is being combined with aerobics, making sure there is enough storage for spinning bikes is important. An adjacent room, a large niche or an allocated area on the fitness floor can suffice for bike storage. If two program elements share a room, then sharing the storage space may also be an acceptable solution. On the other hand, if spinning classes are large, the storage requirement may suggest considering a dedicated spinning room. If done with flexibility in mind, this room could still serve as a space for other activities as well.

Large facilities with program elements such as basketball, indoor soccer, roller hockey or volleyball should consider a Multi Activity Court (MAC). Combining a MAC court with a regulation hardwood basketball court gives a facility a variety of additional program options that would not be available with two separate hardwood courts. These courts allow for all the above program elements to be played on one court. MAC courts have a dasher board system with retractable goals. The system surrounds a basketball court and allows for indoor soccer and roller hockey to be played. The courts have special plastic flooring that is approved by National In-Line Hockey Association. Netting from the top of the dasher boards to the ceiling ensures that errant balls do not go into adjacent spaces. If a facility is looking to maximize available square footage without sacrificing program offerings, these courts make for a great option.

Because locker rooms absorb as much as a third of the overall square footage of a facility, they provide a unique challenge to facility planning. Using a 'U' locker layout vs. an island layout can minimize circulation space for these rooms. Grooming stations located at the end of locker runs provide an added amenity to the room without absorbing additional square footage. Running mechanical ductwork above the lockers instead of through the center of the rooms can maximize locker room ceiling heights.

Sport a realistic budget

Getting a project to fit within budget is always challenging. A budget that is not grounded in reality will lead to unfortunate program sacrifices. The first step in developing a successful project budget is completing the due diligence process. Comparing your project with recently constructed similar projects can provide guidelines and cost parameters. Organizations like the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) compile project data and may have information on project costs for facilities similar to yours. Bringing in a contractor to estimate the costs for the scope you are contemplating is an effective tool for budget control.

Understanding the difference between project cost and construction cost is also crucial. The project cost is the total price that it will take to get the project done. That number includes your equipment, architectural fees, engineering fees, consultant fees, audio/visual equipment, and so on. After you have subtracted those numbers from your project cost, you are left with the construction cost. It is always wise to hold some contingency dollars out of your construction costs. A contingency allowance insures that there is a cushion in the event that your project goes over budget at any point in the process. Keep in mind that a contingency that never had to be spent is a bonus to you at the end of a successful project.

All of these considerations are essential in every fitness center design project. The project budget has to match your program, and the program has to match the space that is available. By developing a master plan you will take your facility into the future by having a big picture for phasing what you can afford to do and when you can afford to do it. Also don't overlook that you can use design to showcase your program offerings. These are the straightforward steps to follow that will maximize your profitability by designing for operational efficiency.

Ultimately, you are ensuring that the design of your facility will maximize member satisfaction, which is essential to the bottom line of your business.

Michael Bourque and Bryan Dunkelberger lead the design effort for the Health & Fitness Center design practice at Sasaki Associates Inc. The firm is located in Boston and San Francisco. They can be reached at 617-926-3300 or by visiting