Feature Article - July 2012
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Beyond Fitness

The Evolution of Multipurpose Facility Design

By Brian Summerfield

In a retrospective published recently in Men's Journal magazine on the early years of Gold's Gym and the rise of "Muscle Beach" in Southern California, writer Paul Solotaroff described the gym scene in the 1960s as both spartan and sparse. In his article, "The Dawn of Huge," he wrote, "Gyms in the 1960s were scarce and vile, most of them unfit to train a dog," and pointed out that when Gold's Gym opened, there were only three other similar clubs serving the 7 million people of the Los Angeles metro area.

And the first Gold's Gym, which would one day become one of the premier brands in health and fitness, wasn't exactly raising the bar (no pun intended). According to Solotaroff, founder Joe Gold "built a two-story bulwark of concrete blocks that had all the amenities of a morgue—a place exclusively for hardcore lifters." It was innovative in one important way, though: "The gym was big for its day, 30 feet wide and 100 deep, and consisted of a single, large, double-height space, unlike the rabbit-hutch layouts of other gyms," Solotaroff wrote.

Fitness centers evolved significantly over the next few decades from the austere, basic offerings of yesteryear. Now they're frequently referred to as multipurpose facilities, as they offer many more activities to members, many of which have little to do with exercise. Additionally, they have proliferated to the point where many suburbs have more fitness options today than entire metro regions had 50 years before.

Design also has been a major difference. "There has been a tremendous amount of change, and all for the better," said Colleen McKenna, associate principal for Cannon Design, who has worked on these types of buildings for 15 years. "If you look at the design of buildings from back in the mid-1980s, they didn't have a lot of daylight and were very utilitarian. Now facilities are bright and welcoming."

Steve Blackburn, a vice president and principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture who has 26 years of experience with these kinds of facilities, agrees, and added that improvements in areas such as lighting, ventilation and flooring have dramatically enhanced the experience for the people who use them. However, he also said that a combination of factors is producing—and will continue to produce over the next couple of decades—changes in fitness centers that will be at least as substantial as the ones witnessed since Gold's Gym hit Venice Beach. Here are some of the most important.

New Offerings

Up until just a few years ago, when a fitness center added features—no matter how new and unusual (e.g., rock climbing walls)—they were still mostly centered on exercise. "Where you may have seen a multipurpose facility with a wide range of activities, they didn't have a lot of amenities," McKenna said.

Up until just a few years ago, when a fitness center added features—no matter how new and unusual (e.g., rock climbing walls)—they were still mostly centered on exercise.

The core of these facilities remains fitness, but as they have sought to attract new members and keep the business of existing ones, they have augmented their offerings with amenities related to leisure, education and general health and wellness. "The building's existence is based on generating revenue, and these businesses have to look at getting all sources of revenue," McKenna explained. "And when you're able to provide new services and expand your business, you're going to get members you wouldn't have before."

"[Municipal multipurpose facilities are] getting a lot of pressure from city managers and city councils to bring more revenue in to cover a certain amount of costs," Blackburn said. "There are very few that totally cover their costs, but there's more pressure to move the dial up to earning 70, 80 or even 90 percent of their operating costs."

Some examples of these new services include:

  • Member lounges
  • Restaurants and cafes
  • Offices for doctors and health professionals
  • Libraries and computer centers
  • Demonstration kitchens for healthy eating
  • Salons and spas
  • Meeting spaces and classrooms

Additionally, party rooms have become practically de rigeur for many multipurpose facilities because they're a cash cow. "Those have more potential to generate revenue than any other room in the building," Blackburn explained. "If you're doing a dozen parties a weekend, you're generating a lot of revenue."