Guest Column - March 2014
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Welcome to the Neighborhood
Balancing Inclusivity & Exclusivity in Fitness Center Design

By James Braam

I come not to praise the big-box clubs or to bury them. Gold's, 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness and the like serve a distinct market and have enjoyed long and successful runs as fitness centers and fitness brands. A lot of young people come to college using these types of facilities as the yardstick against which they measure their school's recreation center.

That said, we're noticing that the college students with whom we work during the early design phase of recreation centers are asking for something very different than what they would get from their local health club franchise. Some of the students (typically women) are uncomfortable exercising in full view of everyone. Some (typically the hardcore lifters) would prefer to be seen—but at the same time, to control access to "their" space. Some want to disappear into their iPods, while others see the center as representing the larger collegiate experience—the ultimate space for socializing.

Divergent needs among users isn't new, and sensitivity to these needs is far from universal—in fact, it's still taking root. For years, the prevailing attitude in college rec departments fell under the heading of "If we build it." People did come, but the vast collections of fitness equipment housed in vast equipment rooms almost certainly kept a lot of students away. Increasingly, we see ourselves charged with finding ways to create a built environment that is welcoming to a wider swath of the student population.

A 'Small School' Feel

There are three very valid reasons to build a warehouse-style fitness floor: Doing so is cost-effective, it is easy to supervise, and it allows users to fully experience the energy of exercise. Ideally, though, one should be able to build a fitness center that is both economical and breaks up what could be a cavernous room into friendlier spaces. Two advantages—people do not get "lost" in smaller spaces, which also help control the transfer of sound—ought to be obvious from my use of "cavernous" to describe the alternative.

Embarking on the design of the new Wellness and Recreation Center at Auburn University, where "the Auburn family" is a common expression, we heard students as well as administrators express a preference for spaces that somehow "felt" like Auburn. Touring the campus, we were struck by the way in which the different dormitories and academic buildings each had their separate quads, but the quads were nonetheless connected through different axial relationships and pathways. This public university of 25,000-plus students still had a kind of quaint, small-school feel, and we set about trying to conceive the fitness space in that same spirit.

Fitness equipment sits on two floors of the new facility in a large atrium, as well as within a five-story "cardio tower" that serves as the building's point of entry. The upper floors of the tower are the place for truly separate spaces: Above the covered entry and an open mezzanine level arrayed with cardio equipment are a third level programmed for suspension training, a fourth-level group-cycling studio and, on the top floor, in a symbolic gesture of wellness, a yoga studio.

With the group-fitness studios thus vertically captured within one small footprint, the larger two-story fitness area focuses just on the "collective yet individual" experience, utilizing various design touches that either provide physical separation of spaces or merely suggest it.

How do you go about creating neighborhoods within a large city grid? Urban planners strategically deviate from the grid through the addition of winding roads, parks and cul de sacs. We added the ultimate winding road within the Auburn facility, a jogging track that meanders through the fitness center and two gymnasiums, and which has gotten a significant amount of press for two unique features—its apparently unprecedented one-third-of-a-mile length and its signature figure-8 crossover (the "corkscrew") that encircles the climbing wall in the fitness atrium. But the track's greatest strength is the way it helps divide the space at the same time that it is, visually, the building's single most unifying element. The track divides by helping define the spaces around it, while our decision to highlight the track using the AU color of burnt orange helps to make it the skeleton that supports the body of the building.