Feature Article - March 2015
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Upscale & Utilitarian

The Latest in Locker Room Design

By Chris Gelbach

As public and private recreation facilities strive to serve their customers more effectively, many are revamping their approach to locker rooms. Often, they are working to create spaces that are both more utilitarian and more refined. Instead of offering an increasing array of club-like leisure options, they are focused on offering busy patrons more comfort, more choice and more privacy.

The importance of making the right locker room choices cannot be overstated. "A locker room is probably some of the most expensive space in your building, so you want to make good decisions," said Keith Hayes, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. It's a space that patrons won't use unless it's clean and comfortable. "It's also the most expensive space to maintain. So picking materials and selecting finishes that are durable and easy to maintain is very important," Hayes said. "If you cannot maintain it, no one's going to use it."

Refined Yet Utilitarian

Private gyms are moving toward more upscale locker rooms in gym chains with reasonable rates. This, in turn, is nudging public recreation centers to consider locker room designs that are more club-like in feel than the more institutional environments favored in the past.

"It can be a real challenge to provide that professional clubhouse atmosphere in a YMCA in a way that's really durable and easy to maintain," Hayes said. "So I think that it's trying to provide those little moments of a really nice light fixture or a piece of tile trim or the use of color to do it."

Instead of offering an increasing array of club-like leisure options, public and private recreation facilities are focused on offering busy patrons more comfort, more choice and more privacy.

Instead of using furniture, saunas and steam rooms that busy customers may not have time to use anyway, the goal is to create more inviting spaces that are also functional.

"People are expecting more premium finishes and more space to circulate," said Chris Kastelic, a senior vice president at the architectural and design firm Sink Combs Dethlefs. "We're getting more premium lighting, more indirect lighting and other touches that create a softer, more appealing and more comfortable environment."

According to Hayes, recent advances in LED lighting and new accent tiles and other offerings from tile manufacturers are making it easier to provide some of these upscale touches without breaking the bank. Likewise, locker manufacturers are offering more locker options with veneers that combine the higher-end look of wood with the easier maintainability of solid phenolic and laminate products.

At the same time, facilities are using color more often as a low-cost way to make their locker rooms more inviting by forgoing a traditional sterile look. It can be most sensible to make these choices on elements like painted walls and applied graphics, as opposed to more permanent features that could have a lifespan of 50 years or more.

"There's nothing worse than walking into a locker room with teal and purple tile that screams of the 1980s that's still there because no one's going to go in and drill out tile," Kastelic said. "So we lean toward neutral colors on permanent materials and turn toward the more convertible stuff for our impact."

Comfort Comes First

As they look at the layout of their locker room facilities, recreation centers are also addressing the reality that many people simply don't feel at ease in locker rooms. "Today, we're spending a lot more time thinking about these spaces as an environment people are not comfortable with—and about how we can make them more comfortable in that environment," Kastelic said.

Designers are doing this using things like spacious, flowing designs that give patrons more room to move, larger rectangular benches and more mirrored grooming areas throughout the locker area.

They're also addressing privacy concerns by providing more varied facilities for different user groups, such as family cabanas for parents with small children. Finding the right mix of these facilities is important. "We've explored the idea of not having a men's and women's locker room, but going to all family cabanas," Hayes said. "We found that retaining men's and women's locker rooms is a good thing because you can move more people through, particularly if you get large groups."