Feature Article - November 2003
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Special Mega Section:
Recreation Management’s Complete Guide to Designing and Outfitting Fitness Centers

By Margaret Ahrweiler


Of course, none of this equipment can be purchased without first figuring out where to put it all. Good fitness center planning must incorporate visibility, accessibility, common sense and a strong sense of design.

The same principles apply to both marquee clubs like Sports Club LA and small recreation centers, says Bob Keeler, senior associate partner with Langdon Wilson Architects, a Southern California firm that has designed for both.

"Keep the space as flexible as possible because fitness center needs are always evolving," he advises. This means adding as many banks of electrical outlets to accommodate treadmills and entertainment equipment as possible. And within that flexible program, he encourages high visibility, such as at the University of California, Irvine.

"It promotes interaction and creates a social hub," he says. The 89,000-square-foot facility features a two-story lobby, from which most of its facilities can be seen. A 35-foot climbing wall provides more visual interest and serves as an "icon," he says.

While not all facilities can afford a 35-foot climbing wall, they can take the cue to provide a visual focus, he says, especially for cardiovascular areas.

"People use the cardio equipment for the longest time and they want something to look at so they don't get bored," he explains. "That's why you often make a facility transparent, to make it as exciting as possible."

At Langdon Wilson's Sports Club/Irvine, equipment areas look out onto a multistory atrium, pool and basketball court, among other things.

When configuring equipment and deciding how much to install, Keeler advises that facilities create a "zone of privacy" to give users a sense of space. He advocates arranging equipment with shorter rows and using higher ceilings—at least 11 or 12 feet if possible—to avoid the sardine feel.

Properly spaced machines create greater comfort levels, adds Bryan Dunkelberger, an architect with Boston-based Sasaki Associates. While most codes dictate a minimum of 3-foot 10-inch corridors between machines, he suggests 5-foot corridors to allow users to pass easily. Along with spacing between machines, clubs need to provide enough space—at least three to four feet for treadmills—behind machines as well.

Beyond proper spacing, strong design can make a visual impact without a high price tag, Dunkelberger adds. A recent Sasaki project for Boston-based Fitcorp came in at $85 per square foot, much lower than average, yet created an intense visual impact nonetheless.

"Our society has gained a really strong design orientation with the success of shows like Trading Spaces and retailers like Target and IKEA," he says. "Design can give you an edge over your competitors."

Dunkelberger likes bold color and inexpensive custom areas, such as information desks, to give a club a cutting-edge look. Service desks constitute an important but neglected design area, he adds.

"You want the desk to be approachable so people feel comfortable asking questions or seeking help," he says. Service desks, especially at smaller clubs, should give staff a view of the entire space, with traffic patterns crossing in front of it. Larger centers should consider adding smaller, auxiliary service desks throughout the facility to make sure staff members, training records and accessories are easily accessible.


A collection of web-like bars lurks near the exercise mats. Is a vintage jungle gym? A Gothic instrument of torture? No, it's the latest must-have for fitness centers: a stretching machine. Offered by several manufacturers, the stretchers have stopped trade-show attendants dead in their tracks and have proven a sure draw by their very appearance.

"Users love it because it's exotic," says John Harper, athletic director of Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Mass. "You watch them in it like it's a go-go cage but at the same time, they use it and they like the fact that it's passive."

Beyond their bizarre appearance, stretchers appeal to fitness pros because they help users stretch properly, and equally important, help them remember to stretch—an oft-neglected part of exercise regimens. The cage-like apparatus start at around $1,200. Other manufacturers make bench-like models as well.