Feature Article - March 2016
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Lock it Up

Locker Room Design Trends

By Rick Dandes

Careful attention to the design, cleanliness and maintenance of a locker room can make all the difference to the people who frequent your health club or swimming pool—after all, the first place they'll go before jumping in the pool or hitting the stair climber is the locker room.

It should be no secret by now to recreation facility operators that modern locker rooms play a critical role in increasing participation, streamlining operations and enhancing the customer experience. A poorly designed, ill-kept locker room will turn off patrons and, in the case of health clubs, aquatic centers or private recreation facilities, likely lead to declining membership revenue.

The design of modern locker rooms is trending away from the traditional locker room of the 1960s and '70s, "… a locker room that was a cavernous, uncomfortable, smelly public space whose functional design focused less on personal space and more on efficiently serving a large number of people," said Mick Massey, Texas regional director for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "In those days," he continued, "the typical recreation center locker rooms were modeled after high school athletic locker rooms, serving the masses for personal hygiene and dressing after a vigorous sport or workout. This 'old school' locker room model was accepted as status quo and adapted into recreation centers for decades."

No more. Today the trend is to customize the locker room space to your "users." Up until the mid-1980s, you had separate men's and women's options, meaning you would go into your club or facility and there was a gender choice, a vanity area, a few lockers and some showers. Some facilities were nicer, like the New York Athletic Club, some more utilitarian. At high schools, there were gang showers and exposed ceilings. When budget and durability were issues, such as in school districts, you saw metal lockers installed because they are cheap and can be repainted, but metal wasn't your first choice if you were concerned about noise or rusting.

Over the past decade, and particularly in the last five years, that's all been changing, particularly at community recreation centers. "They are different because they have the widest range of customers, from the very youngest kids to the oldest adults, and every ability, from those who are super jocks to people who are there just for community reasons, to people who are recovering from an ailment and may have mobility issues," explained Mark Keane, senior associate, project designer, Hastings & Chivetta Architects, St. Louis. "That is why facilities at community centers have to be able to adapt to the widest variety of people, and that is why real changes in locker room design began in those recreation facilities."

As managers or owners, a key question to ask yourself is: What are the barriers to participation at your facility? What can you do to show people that what you offer fits with their needs and lifestyle? This is not different from what you might find in the private sector, but the private sector is usually after a certain demographic or a certain market sector. You don't have that luxury when running a community center; you are typically providing a facility for everybody. So then, what are the barriers in all the various ages and abilities, and what can you do to take those barriers down, open those doors and create and maximize space? That's a mission all community centers have.

The design of modern locker rooms is trending away from the traditional locker room of the 1960s and '70s, … a locker room that focused less on personal space and more on efficiently serving a large number of people.

"When looking into it, one of the things that came up in survey after survey as a top barrier was locker rooms," said Craig Bouck, CEO, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. The bottom line, he said "is this: If you have no aquatics at all, you can probably get away with a traditional locker room and with only a couple of gender-neutral, family, or cabana-type changing rooms." Cabana rooms are a trend not only at colleges, but also in facilities everywhere. This situation accommodates an occasional family that comes into a fitness facility, as well as accommodating gender issues and maybe some mobility issues.

"Yes, the new trend we've come across recently is gender-neutral lockers and how they might play a role in all types of facilities that require locker rooms," Keane added. "We've been working recently with a few clients in a new kind of open and shared locker area, which has a central core locker storage area for the lockers that is wide open with good visibility. Here, nobody actually changes within that locker area. Around that perimeter you have private dressing rooms that may just have a bench and showers included in them. We also might have a full-blown family changing room, which might have a sink and shower. Then, off of these changing areas, there could be a restroom."

This design model has been used for years in Europe, Keane said, "but we're only starting to see gender-neutral rooms now in our locker rooms. It's something that is gaining awareness. That is the biggest kind of change I've seen, and it's going to take time for people to get used to it here in the U.S., but it serves both that family and gender-neutral for men and women."

This is not necessarily a reaction to concerns about safety, Keane noted, although there are certain things that you do in these cases to provide safety: You provide a private dressing area, and the lockers are more open and visible, so that that there is less availability to steal something or change where you are not supposed to be changing.