Feature Article - May 2018
Find a printable version here

Everyone's Welcome

The Latest Trends in Sports Facility Design

By Chris Gelbach

As school districts and universities acknowledge the benefits of physical activity for enhanced academic performance, they're striving to get more students involved. This, in turn, has changed the face of sports facility design to create warmer, more welcoming spaces that place a growing emphasis on attracting non-athletes and new audiences as both spectators and participants.

A Focus on Inclusion

"What we're seeing in K-12 and university recreation facilities is more inclusiveness in the approach," said Dave Larson, senior vice president of TMP Architecture. "Educational systems are providing facilities that are a destination for students of all capabilities. Not just the ones that are naturally talented at running or throwing the ball, but people that are actually intimidated by that. … Providing an atmosphere that welcomes people of all sorts of abilities and welcomes them to try things out is a really big thing in our profession."

To achieve these goals, design features such as more transparent, open, visible spaces that make sports seem less intimidating are becoming more prominent. More importance is also being placed on including lobbies and lounge areas that function effectively as social spaces.

A greater focus is also being placed on personal attention related to health, wellness and even things like basic instruction on how to use exercise equipment. "You get a prescription for how to use that facility so you're not just flailing around by yourself," Larson said. "That's something that the athletes have—they have coaches. But just an awkward, non-athletic kid, they don't have that, so having some of that is important."

The architectural firm Perkins + Will also implemented some of these concepts in its recent work on a sports facility for Phillips Academy Andover, an independent high school north of Boston. This includes a sports medicine clinic in a glass box off the main access. "Everybody sees it, everybody knows where it is," said Stephen Sefton, Perkins + Will's sports and recreation practice leader. "It's inviting, it's well-lit—it's just a different way to showcase the elements that are a part of it."

Design features such as more transparent, open, visible spaces that make sports seem less intimidating are becoming more prominent.

Within the new sports facility that features an indoor 200-meter track and squash courts, even the graphics created for and used throughout the building emphasized inclusion. "The school wanted to be sure that the graphics were about everything that could happen in there and were inviting to all," Sefton said. "The graphics were about basketball, tennis and dance and jogging and all the different activities that could take place, and we used icons that literally had every little sport activity that could happen there make up this grid and pattern throughout the building in the main spaces."

An emphasis on inclusion is also extending to locker-room and restroom options, which are trending toward the use of more gender-neutral facilities in designs from elementary school to the collegiate level.

This spirit of inclusion is often additionally extending beyond students to the community at large. "We see a lot of taking into account not only the game-day experience, but also communities' recreational use of these buildings," said Bill Baker, principal for MSA Sport. He noted that the trend is being spurred in part by the increasingly diverse mix of public and private sources that are funding these new sports facilities. "They're always looking beyond just Friday or Saturday night games or meets to what community uses the facility can have," Baker said. "Do we have concerts? Do we have band competitions? Festivals? Youth sports?"

Baker noted the example of a sports complex his firm is working on in Marysville, Ohio, that includes a high school stadium for multiple sports, a track-and-field venue for sports and community recreation use, and a middle-school multipurpose facility that's for community and school use. "They're really selling it to their community as a community benefit. It's not just for Friday night games," Baker said. "It's for everything else."

Scott Klaus, senior design architect for Stantec, is seeing this trend attain particular prominence in Texas, where he works on district sports stadiums that are shared by several high schools. "A lot of that has to do with just getting more community involvement to pass the funding to get the facilities built. So the communities are asking for more things," Klaus said. "For instance, they'll have band competitions there, so fine arts gets involved. There's also choir competitions so we'll have a building for that, and for board meetings."

A recent facility in New Caney, Texas, also included a community room that was badly needed for the community. "They didn't have a place where 300 people could get together. And now they have an event in that room probably 250 days a year—it's constantly in use," Klaus said.

Related to this trend, Klaus is seeing these new facilities also create an enhanced spectator experience with large scoreboards and two-story pressboxes that have a business level and an entertainment level, with the latter featuring individual suites that can be rented out to the community as a revenue generator. He is also seeing the bar being raised on concessions.

Laura Casai, director of interior design for TMP Architecture, is likewise seeing more facilities opt for revenue-generating opportunities. "Revenue generators are all the rage," she said. "When you're working with donors and they're looking for revenue streams, clients want those public spaces where you could do anything from hold a cocktail hour to a wedding."