Feature Article - March 2018
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Inclusive and Multifaceted

The Ongoing Evolution of Locker Rooms

By Chris Gelbach

As recreation facilities seek to evolve to better meet the needs of patrons, many are taking a more multifaceted approach in providing different locker and changing-area options. This has been driven by a greater cultural emphasis on privacy and acknowledgement of transgender populations, as well as by an increase in new facilities that serve several distinct user groups. At the same time, cleaner, less labyrinthine layouts and the sensible deployment of new product and technology options are allowing for a cleaner, more comfortable and more convenient experience for patrons—despite an ongoing decrease in locker-room footprints in many fitness environments.

Cabanas, Curtains and More

In new facilities, more locker-room designs are incorporating a growing variety of cabana-style private-room options in lieu of or in addition to traditional men's and women's locker rooms.

"You can have more or less," said Stephen Springs, senior principal for Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects who works extensively in the municipal market. "At a minimum, it would be a changing area, almost like what you'd find in a department store. More often, it's probably a changing area and a shower and occasionally, like in the case of a family changing room, you often either have a shower and a sink or a shower, toilet and sink."

Springs noted that while family changing rooms were initially designed for people who need assistance changing and for parents who have small children of the opposite gender, one challenge is that they're wildly popular with a far wider range of users.

"Anybody who has kids will get this," Springs said. "If you have a choice between a regular locker room and a family changing room where you can close the door and quarantine your toddlers from running around, you're going to go to that space."

Because of their popularity, design choices that help indicate whether a cabana is in use without checking the door can help facilitate both turnover and a more positive patron experience. Melissa Ford, senior associate and design manager for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture has worked extensively on municipal recreation projects and has implemented several approaches to accomplish this in various projects.

At the Center of Recreational Excellence (CORE) under construction in Hobbes, N.M., light indicators tied to the hardware are being used to indicate when a changing room is occupied. In the recently completed Carla Madison Recreation Center in Central Denver, the family changing rooms feature frosted-glass doors that retain privacy, but also make it clear when the lights are on that someone's in the room. In some previous installations, Ford has opted for hardware solutions that keep the doors from latching all the way when they're open. "It just sort of speeds up the efficiency, because people don't try every single handle to see if one is open or not," Ford said.

Since the rooms are so popular, additional signage and design features can be helpful to differentiate specific rooms that should be prioritized for individuals with disabilities. Sara Boyer, senior project architect for Moody Nolan who works extensively in the municipal and collegiate markets, noted that her firm has found that providing at least a few family/shared/individual use facilities is a best practice, with more being offered for larger facilities.

"And then typically what we do is make one of those a little bit even more ADA-accessible," Boyer said. "So if you have somebody who's severely impaired and needs their caretaker to be in there with them, the door's a little bit wider, it might have an ADA opener on it, just to give them a little more space to maneuver."

Ford noted in some cases, her firm has gone away from calling the rooms family changing rooms to calling them gender-neutral. "Sometimes, like at Eaton [the Eaton Area Community Center in Eaton, Colo.], we separated some and called them accessible. So hopefully people will use the other ones first and leave those for people who need the accessible changing rooms."

Springs sees family rooms or cabanas as being almost like storage space—you'll never regret putting them in, but how much space you can devote to them is often budget-driven. The presence of aquatics in the facility also shifts the balance to a greater demand for showers. Square footage is an important additional consideration.

"The challenge for rec centers becomes fixture count," Springs said. "Because if you were to do all your locker rooms in that fashion, your building would become consumed by those kinds of spaces, and it's inherently less efficient than just putting a row of toilet stalls in."

Maintaining some men's and women's locker-room space also retains a faster option for individuals who arrive alone, who don't prioritize exceptional privacy and who don't want to wait for a family changing room. And while overall locker-room footprints may be decreasing in some facilities, there's a limit to how far you can go in that regard.

"We see locker rooms getting smaller … but there's a point where it's not going to work to keep getting smaller," Springs said. "Because your morning crowd is still going to be your showering crowd, and your peak is in the morning and then after work. And if you can't accommodate your peak, that's when you're going to cap your membership at some point."