Guest Column - November 2013
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Design Corner

The Finish Line

By Mark Hentze

Making your new leisure-oriented building less attractive than it could be seems an unlikely goal. Public buildings are by their nature symbols of community pride. And if, as a recreation administrator, you've gone through any kind of public referendum process to fund construction, you've spent many months marketing the building as something welcoming, vibrant and aesthetically polished—if not beautiful. The last thing you'd want is for taxpayers to see the finished project and wonder where their money went.

But taxpayers can be fickle, and very possibly, if you spare no expense, they'll wonder about where their money went, too. Perhaps this is a change since the onset of global recession, but taxpayers want to know that in an era of across-the-board cuts in public services, your leisure center is nice, but not too nice. A building viewed as extravagant may not go over well with community members sensitive to the municipality's funding priorities. Though people of all socioeconomic groups will want to partake in publicly funded recreation in their community and will place a value on positive leisure experiences, many will be offended if your building utilizes the most expensive materials and systems available.

Cost Consciousness

As designers, we typically get a sense right from the beginning whether these issues will need to be finessed. The project budget offers a simple clue, and once the scope of the building's program has been determined, the cost per square foot will verify our suspicions.

Occasionally, you get a client municipality whose councilors voice their concerns up front. One such client was Burnaby, B.C., which was looking to replace a small community recreation center that had a single gymnasium, one large multipurpose room and a small youth room. Sensitivity to cost—and perceived cost—was part of our approach throughout the project. As we embarked on tours of other recreation facilities in advance of starting design work, appropriateness of design to the surrounding neighborhoods became a stated priority for various stakeholders. Both the buildings' scale and their level of finishes were scrutinized and remarked upon in comparison to nearby structures.

As the new recreation center we were designing would occupy the same parkland site as the former, more spartan community center, it would have to announce its new presence in a more subtle fashion, even with a footprint four times larger than the old building.

Completed in July 2013, Edmonds Community Centre has two full-size gymnasiums, a natatorium (comprising a 25-meter pool and a 15-meter warm-water leisure pool), a fitness center, an active studio (for yoga, fitness and dance), six multipurpose rooms, a seniors lounge, a youth lounge and a preschool/playcare center that features an indoor playground. It's a program that could be called lavish. The building could not be perceived as such.

Material World

Some architects are spendthrifts. It's in the nature of the profession that certain optional expenses will be viewed by the designer as absolutely necessary to complete his or her vision. The building owner, too, sometimes falls in love with a design move or material: We have to do this—it looks great!

As destination facilities, leisure centers have to engender excitement, and one of the primary methods of ensuring a building doesn't recede into the background is to increase its volume, especially in the entry lobby (this imparts a sense of grandeur and helps visitors find the way inside). Recreation facilities are already large in scale, as the building program tends to include spaces—gymnasiums, natatoriums, climbing walls—that are two stories tall, or taller. A second method to boost visibility is to add transparency; storefront windows, punched openings, skylights and clerestories offer glimpses of activity and, at night, glow like a beacon.

A third method is to open up the building so that its structural system is read as sculpture. Whether carried out using painted tubular steel or steel trusses, concrete columns, rough-hewn timber posts or laminated beams, this automatically creates a space unlike any other that visitors will encounter on a given day.

Last, and most potentially problematic, is the building's level of finishes. Marble makes a statement. In its way, so does Corian. Certain materials tell visitors that no expense has been spared—although, as we will see, the truth is more complicated.