Feature Article - July 2013
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Multipurpose Means Healthy Living

How Flexible Facilities Promote Community and Wellness for All

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Turns out, it's not just your doctor who wants you to exercise more. It's more than your mother who wants you to eat healthy. It's not just your spouse who wants you to stop being so stressed out all the time, and it's more than your kids who want you to get up off the couch and play!

At this point, the very society you live in could be plotting against you. Across the board, recreation professionals, healthcare providers and educators of all kinds are looking for ways to lure people of all ages toward health and wellness. And because of these goals, the very nature of recreation facilities is changing. On college campuses and in communities around the country, thinking is evolving about how best to encourage healthy lifestyles.

"Recreation and the way we view it is in a constant state of change as professionals attempt to find better ways to get people moving and in shape," explained Michael Thrailkill, AIA, CSI, LEED AP, an associate at Yost Grube Hall (YGH) Architecture in Beaverton, Ore.

And these efforts have effects not only on the activities offered, but on the spaces they're offered in and the way they're combined and integrated. It's not enough to have lots of possibilities available. These days, the most effective multipurpose facilities are carefully planned and beautifully designed to be welcoming, inclusive spaces that encourage all kinds of visitors to get involved and hang out a while.

What's driving this trend, and what does it mean for your community? Read on to find out!

Focus on Flexibility

Although a multipurpose facility might seem flexible by nature, these days the trend is toward making sure each part of the building can be used in many ways. This is a complete change from the structures built in the 1950s through the 1980s. Back then, spaces were built with very specific activities in mind, Thrailkill said.

He noted that racquetball was big in the '70s and '80s, but has fewer devoted followers now. These days, many health clubs, YMCAs and recreation centers around the country have narrow, extra-tall spaces with an air conditioning system that can keep up with only four people: racquetball courts. If they reinvent this space as a spinning studio, that means a lot more people at a time in the room, and the A/C can't keep up. Plus, the leader in the front is quite a ways away from the spinners in the back. "You can't use the room as effectively," he said.

So, today, when a community asks for a spinning studio, YGH creates "a multipurpose space with enhanced HVAC for high heat-generating activities," Thrailkill explained. It's perfect for spinning, but can also be used for ballet and gymnastics—and likely for whatever new exercise trend is on the horizon.

What's more, beyond this emphasis on flexibility, an assortment of other related trends is having an impact as well:

More than just jocks. Years ago, athletics were for, well, athletes. Practices and workouts were conducted in no-nonsense—and often no-frills—facilities that spared little expense for features like lighting, ventilation, privacy and so on. "But with a growing awareness of the benefits of fitness and healthy lifestyles, as well as more choices [in the marketplace], we need to make these places more attractive and more comfortable," said David Larson, AIA, senior vice president, design director and head of the sports/recreation design group for TMP Architecture in Bloomfield, Mich.

In addition, we non-jock types may be more interested in a little fun with our fitness than your average gym rat. In many cases, college campuses are at the forefront of the fun trend—adding rock climbing walls or volleyball in the swimming pool and LED lights for night swimming, noted Matt Ross of Moody Nolan Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio. Zip lines also up the entertainment factor at a multipurpose facility, as do pools with a resistance current, which can be used for a broad range of exercise and rehabilitation activities. "You want to use the space as much as possible, so provide lots of options and classes," he suggested.

Although a multipurpose facility might seem flexible by nature, these days the trend is toward making sure each part of the building can be used in many ways.

Accommodate all ages. Along with inviting those who are not dedicated bodybuilders and marathon runners, today's multipurpose facilities are looking to include activities and amenities for a range of ages. "It's the notion of inclusion," Larson said. Communities want to get their members on the path to an active lifestyle as young as possible, so the facilities they build include the whole family, from children all the way through seniors.

However, this can be tricky because not all these groups necessarily want to be included with one another. David Sprague, AIA, senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative in Denver, Colo., pointed out that in some communities, seniors are drawn to hospital exercise facilities because they know there will be lots of other seniors there. "It's not Gold's Gym, and it's not a fitness center with lots of kids," he explained. But don't despair. There are ways to bring the community together while still providing some personal space for various groups.

Big picture health. On many college campuses, and in communities as well, health is a holistic concept. More than just exercise, it means nutrition, social interaction and healthy living. And when recreation activities are co-located with health and wellness services, this helps constituents make the connection as well. "All of this looks to be part of a movement to break down some of the social stigmas and barriers that often keep people from attempting to get fit," Thrailkill explained. "It's a desire to get that next group of people involved." If students come to a recreation center for tutoring or financial aid, or if members of a community find the library or local mental health resources in the same building as a fitness center, they'll see what else is there, and perhaps be interested, he said. "There's a lot of learning [between these programs] and trying to cross-pollinate each other."