Feature Article - March 2017
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Attention to Detail

The Ongoing Evolution of the Locker Room

By Joe Bush

The attention paid to locker room design and equipment is a 21st century phenomenon, according to one architect.

Ask anyone between the ages of 30 and 50 for memories of locker rooms of their past, and you may hear stories of weird locations, open-room showers, toilet stalls with no doors, and walls with no decoration or paint. Extreme examples from older schools maybe, but there's no doubt that trends of state-of-the-art commercial fitness facilities and campus recreation centers and municipal fitness palaces built and enhanced to attract students and residents are only about 30 years old.

Sam Elsheikh, architect and project manager with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative in Denver, said long gone are the days of back-burner status for the space where people change, shower, groom and use the restroom at recreational buildings.

"The lockers area is usually the members' first meaningful interaction with the facility after experiencing the lobby and check-in, and has a profound impact on the ongoing success or failure of the facility," Elsheikh said. "Owners and designers are now paying much more attention to locker rooms than they did 30, 20 or even 10 years ago. Locker rooms that are small, dark and odorous, with poorly ventilated lockers and open gang showers are no longer accepted by the users who are continually demanding more.

"The trend now is a lavish space with lounge-like atmosphere, rich colors, superlative ventilation and digital amenities including TVs, Wi-Fi, scales, swimsuit water extractors, hair dryers and towel service. Customers and members envision the locker room as a space where they can unwind after a good workout, enjoy a social experience with peers, and take a break to check their e-mail before leaving the locker room."

Some of what Elsheikh described is luxurious, for larger budgets, and some is standard, the bare minimum. Still, both are based on the idea that if a facility is competing for patrons, locker rooms can be a draw, or, if they are slighted and not maintained, a reason the public will choose a competitor.

Work With Your Budget

Even on a small budget, locker rooms can be a pro, or at least not a con. Keep it clean and take care of the basics. Fewer amenities doesn't mean sacrificing safety, functionality and longevity.

"For a new facility, your focus should be on an architecturally appealing but simple arrangement," Elsheikh said. "Less is always more. The layout should have less visual obstacles, fewer barriers, devoid of unnecessary walls and doors. If the space is opened up, it will cost less, and provide for a wonderful space that is easy to navigate. Then, invest in durable materials that are easy to clean and maintain, that will withstand the test of time."

Elsheikh said limited-budget projects that upgrade existing locker rooms should focus on the toilet areas and ADA compliance as well as wet areas.

"The showers can provide the most impact on the feel of the facility, but because of constant use, can deteriorate quickly if not constructed properly," he said. "Long gone are the days of gang showers and the small 3-foot by 3-foot compartment showers. Modern arrangements have a privacy and changing compartment and ample room within a 3-foot-4 by 6-foot footprint."

If there is more to spend, Elsheikh recommends replacing the floor in the dry area of the locker room, and adding vanities and grooming stations, followed by replacing or re-facing aging lockers.

"Additions of amenities such as gender-specific saunas, steam rooms and spas in a traditional locker room are always a welcome upgrade for customers who have not had such luxuries in the past," he said.

The trend now is a lavish space with lounge-like atmosphere, rich colors, superlative ventilation and digital amenities including TVs, Wi-Fi, scales, swimsuit water extractors, hair dryers and towel service.

Sara Boyer, a senior associate architect with Moody Nolan, said that if budget is the primary design factor, the bare necessities need to be addressed.

"The everyday elements that will offer the most durability and the best patron experience, like the lockers, plumbing fixtures and finishes," she said. "No one wants to use a locker room that has not been or cannot be maintained. Several manufacturers offer a solid-surface counter with integral bowl sink unit that provides durability and a clean aesthetic.

"The key is to define the priorities with the design team early in the process. It is much easier on the entire team to enhance a space, as opposed to the other way around."

Boyer said special considerations are needed at locker rooms adjacent to aquatic spaces to handle the potential for corrosion and to prevent opportunities for slip-and-fall occurrences. A durable and moisture-resistant locker material, such as phenolic, is recommended in most situations. Very much related to budget, she said there are also numerous sustainable features, such as water-saving toilets, urinals and faucets, that do not require ongoing battery replacement and can save dollars long-term.