Feature Article - March 2019
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Creature Comforts

Ever-Evolving Locker Room Design

By Dave Ramont

Most of us remember a time when locker rooms were a space that you just couldn't get out of quick enough. Whether you were at a rec center, sports facility, pool or fitness club, you pretty much expected the locker rooms to be, well, less than pleasant. But over the years, the locker room experience has taken a sharp turn for the better, and facility operators realize that these accommodations play an important role in a visitor's overall experience. Therefore, whether renovating existing spaces or constructing new ones, locker rooms are a critical piece of the planning and designing puzzle, as well as an important consideration when it comes to revenue potential.

"Inherently, locker rooms can be perceived as utilitarian spaces, but they play a much greater role in the perception of a patron who uses them," said Kevin Armstrong, associate and project manager at Barker Rinker Seacat, a Denver-based architecture firm. "These are some of the most intimately used spaces in a recreation facility, where it's important for patrons to feel comfortable."

If the experience in the locker room is poor, it could be a potential barrier to users and could even turn away patrons, according to Armstrong. "Creating a welcoming environment eliminates this issue."

More Upscale

The locker rooms of today have taken on a more spa-like feel, according to Nathan Harris, architect at Iowa-based RDG Planning & Design. "An elevated level of finish and a higher quality of light in the locker rooms creates a much more welcoming and pleasant feel to what used to be a forgotten space."

He said the amenities in these spaces have increased as well. "Individual shower stalls with an associated dry changing space are now standard. Dedicated grooming space is allocated and dispersed within the locker areas so that patrons can have these spaces closer to their lockers. Towel service has been included in many locker rooms as an added amenity. Some facilities have even supplied soap and shampoo for their users."

Erik Kocher is a design principal at Hastings & Chivetta, a Missouri-based architectural firm working primarily in the college and university realm. He's also seen the trend moving toward higher quality locker rooms in collegiate facilities, and said it's trickling down to municipal venues. "It's in the finishes primarily, but it also includes the lockers themselves. We have nicer lockers now, nicer ceiling finishes, nicer floor finishes."

He explained that it's a trend that's matching what the private industry has been doing for a number of years, adding that the days of seeing miles of rusty metal lockers and concrete floors are long gone. "It's really about this upgrade in quality; you see a lot more monitors and flat screens showing ESPN, and some of the larger schools are doing nicer two-tiered locker rooms. And then there's a membership-level locker room, so you pay a bit more and you get a towel service, you get shampoo and soap, and the finishes are nicer. It's more like a lounge or a private club, so there's that trend."

Adjusting to Users' Needs

The busy, fast-paced lifestyle of today's user has caused a change in the need for large spaces dedicated to locker rooms, according to Harris, who explained that many rec and wellness center users don't utilize the showering facilities. "In response to this trend, we're seeing clients opt for nicer finishes over a higher quantity of lockers." Armstrong agreed, pointing out that many people come to the rec center ready to work out, bypassing the locker room and seeking out the smaller day-use and wallet lockers for their belongings. "This trend started a few years ago, and in conversations with facility operators/managers we don't see it slowing down. This has started to have an impact on the size of locker facilities, particularly when there is not an aquatics component to the center."

Kocher pointed out that many students have their athletic gear on all the time. "When they go and work out, very few of them will shower or even change in a rec facility—they'd rather go back to their residence instead. So that's another trend, which is changing even the size of the locker rooms; fewer students using them."

Inclusion is another industry trend that David Larson is seeing. He's senior vice president of TMP Architecture, a Michigan-based firm that has worked on many sports, recreation and health and wellness facilities. "The way to include people is to create an inviting atmosphere that is secure and comfortable with adequate open space, good ventilation, higher ceilings, proper lighting and designing with a focus on pleasing materials and ambience."

Larson explained that making locker rooms more comfortable includes adding more elbow room and more opportunities for personal space amongst strangers. "Locker rooms are no longer knock-around, Spartan environments where discomfort is tolerated by jocks as a badge of honor. These facilities are more inclusive by providing more creature comfort."

In response to the movement toward a more inclusive locker room environment, many facilities have been moving toward cabana-style locker room designs, according to Harris. This type of locker room consists of individual shower/changing rooms surrounding a central space filled with lockers that are non-gender-specific. "Each individual space offers a toilet, a sink and a shower, along with space to change clothes. The person then exits the individual room and stores their belongings in a locker. This type of design allows all users, whether male, female or those that do not identify, the same locker room experience," said Harris.

The cabanas are a take-off on the original family locker rooms, which have been around for more than 20 years. Kocher said the concept is gaining traction even in the collegiate rec centers, and he described three different types of cabanas. The basic version is the dry changing room, which is similar to a department store dressing room. A bigger version adds a sink and maybe a toilet, while a third version has a sink, toilet and shower, and maybe a baby changing station, hair dryer or other amenities as well. "And again—these are all single-user, non-gender-specific rooms," said Kocher.

Armstrong said that as they try to create facilities that are more inclusive, multi-generational and inviting to all users, private spaces are becoming the norm. "The private cabana plays an important role in providing locker facilities to patrons that may not otherwise use a traditional locker room. This includes families with small children, users that may have a caretaker or require assistance, etc."