Feature Article - May 2014
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Fit by Design

Getting More From Fitness Facility Design

By Kelli Ra Anderson


Special Needs

Not every fitness facility these days, however, is about multiuse or providing something for everyone under one roof. For some it is just the opposite. It's about doing one thing well. Very well.

"In the last 2 to 3 years specialty centers have exponentially taken off. With the advent of small group training there is a huge explosion in boutique studios," said Rudy Fabiano, design principal for Fabiano Designs, an award-winning architecture and interior design firm in Montclair, N.J. "Where a few years ago the big trend was low-cost fitness, what's happening now is people are taking parts of the big box idea and creating cross-training centers, functional training centers and spinning-only centers. And doing it at a very high level. I think that's the biggest change right now."

Inspired by the truism that people are motivated to do what they are comfortable with and enjoy, health clubs comprised of 85 percent boutique studios are springing up in dense urban areas like Chicago or on the coasts like Los Angeles and New York City. And people are willing to pay premium prices for the high-service experience.

Swing Your Partner

But another significant change Fabiano sees is the rise of partnerships between hospitals and fitness and wellness centers—a result, he explained, stemming from the changes in national health care and health insurance laws. For many, it makes sense to move into the health maintenance business. "Usually going off site, the new model of retail wellness centers still carry the hospital name and credentials," Fabiano said. "Usually they're the large multifunctional facility with aquatics and some rehab component, integration and commercial fitness."

The Westerville Community Center certainly attributes much of its recent membership growth to new policies from health insurance companies they are calling "Silver Sneakers," a program that pays for senior citizen wellness center fees as an incentive to improve and maintain their health. It has been a win-win-win for the Westerville Parks and Recreation department's goal to engage people to live a healthier lifestyle, for senior citizens who can afford to go to the Community Center on a regular basis, and for reducing medical claims to the insurance companies.

But for some, partnering with insurance companies or hospitals is only the beginning. As budgets still feel the squeeze from the economy and taxpayers are less willing or less able to pay for new projects, partnerships have become critical.

For the Choice Health and Fitness Center in Grand Forks, partnerships were so successful taxpayer dollars were not needed. Instead, the entire $23.4 million project was funded by a variety of partnerships, grants and donations. As a result, some of those partnerships lead to such unique services as on-site physical and occupational therapy with health and wellness specialists, dietitians and chiropractor. And they are home to a federal-funded human nutrition research center focusing on the subject of obesity.

The Right Stuff

It all begins with good planning, with directors like Auler attributing much of their gold-medal winning success to taking plenty of time and being thorough. Once the market is accurately identified, including needs and wants (being careful not to duplicate services provided by others in your area), long-time designers like Fabiano underscore the importance of being honest about the budget. Knowing numbers up front allows designers to help create a master plan that can evolve as funds allow while making sure the most important elements like quality mechanical systems, ventilation systems and lighting—one of the most important parts of a project—are not needlessly sacrificed.

Key areas of cardio, resistance and free weight, for example, should always include areas for stretching. Always. And even if a facility can't include square footage for every kind of activity, placing some elements like cardio equipment or free weights on pods located to the side of an athletic space, or using express lockers instead of investing in larger locker room area, are great ways to incorporate some features, even if entire rooms can't be dedicated to their use.

One of the most underrated but important aspects of design has to do with what Fabiano coins "the glamour of sweat. "It's less about the lipstick glamour and more about that dreaminess of the imagination that can capture someone to think about what life can be," he explained. "It builds up a desire so fitness centers are perfect for that. Lighting and material are critical for that."

Thankfully, indirect and direct lighting are less about expensive fixtures and more about intelligent placement. Something anyone can afford. And even for tight budgets, a few high-end materials placed where people are most likely to come into physical contact—counters, desks, vanities—can create the illusion of more with less.

No matter large or small, multipurpose or specialized boutique, a well-designed fitness facility sparks the hope that there is something better for those who enter its doors. Better health, yes. But also better relationships, a better self, and ultimately, a better life.