Feature Article - May 2020
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Create Community on Campus

Fitness & Wellness in College Recreation Facilities

By Rick Dandes


When the American economy kicks back into gear and universities safely welcome back students, many of the cost-saving concepts and forward-thinking industry trends that have guided the design of on-campus recreation centers will be more important than ever, according to architectural design experts.

"People who have been self-quarantined, students who attended class remotely, I believe will want to reconnect with others after coronavirus, and there is probably no better place to do that than in a relaxed community-type atmosphere," said James Braam, director of recreation and wellness, HOK, a global design, architecture, engineering and planning firm. "We were trending in that direction before the pandemic. I think that trend will be even stronger whenever the economy starts picking up again."

The facility of the future, suggested Troy Sherrard, partner, practice leader, sports and recreation design, Moody Nolan, an architectural firm, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, will strive to be a part of a hybrid approach incorporating nutrition, wellness, meditation, counseling and physical therapy.

Tom Ohle, project manager for RDG Planning and Design, added, "What was once a peripheral or support building—the recreation center—has become a core element of a campus' culture."

Across the timeline of campus planning, where once designers focused on an administration or religious building, which was replaced by the library or academic core, and then by a student union, is now where the recreation center exists, Ohle said. "The recreation center is now rebranding by an institution to include a vision of wellness. Recreation centers now are an assembly of parts, a cross-pollination of activities with other campus constituents."

Literally and figuratively, he continued, recreation centers can be a melting pot of diverse university programs, a synergy of recreational, health and academic activities. For example, where a student might feel uncomfortable about the stigma of seeing a counselor regarding their mental health, they could be comfortable going to the recreation center to work off some stress. Or, someone might have body image challenges and might not feel comfortable working out. Within a shared-use wellness center they could find themselves in a less threatening group setting, or walking by the counseling suite in the recreation center they might see and want to participate in a yoga class where the barrier is removed and is therefore more welcoming.

Activity begets activity, Ohle believes. "We have users who would not typically be in the recreation, academic, or health space now perhaps watching someone else perform an activity, and that could remove a belief that the activity is inaccessible or unattainable to them. A public space that looks onto a recreation control desk that rents shoes to climbers can give a student access to a tool that could otherwise be a limiting reason to not participate. Seeing a wellness seminar about nutrition in the lobby could help someone who is in training support their body better. Folks can move from climbing to a study space to a dental cleaning to a swim more efficiently and effectively."

Another advantage of having a hybrid wellness-recreation facility is that it can be activated 24/7 to meet a campus' vibrancy.

The hours of a recreation center typically run focus on early and late high-demand peak-activity periods, while a health center or academic function can bring students into a facility throughout the day.

"The public space could be open throughout the entire day and give the students a space to socialize and study outside of their planned activities, keeping the program elements secure," Ohle said.

Moreover, Ohle said, this design trend offers a sticky space to promote serendipitous intellectual and social engagement. "Throw in a food—even coffee—and everyone will want to visit the space."

The term "sticky space" requires some explanation. Colleges around the country have bought into the benefits of peer-based learning, and so have devoted spaces for students on campus to study in groups. Designing these spaces so they actually attract students—making them "sticky"—requires providing the right mix for solo students and small and large groups; the furniture to accommodate them; amenities like ample white boards and well-placed coffee bars; floods of natural light; and ubiquitous access to power for recharging smartphones and laptops.

A sticky space, Ohle said, fosters flexible retention of students in nooks and crannies for individuals and groups both large and small. Wellness centers have an enviable mixture of space, user types and scales performing a multitude of activities that can be combined into a public realm with the rough edges of private space, drop-in furniture, Wi-Fi, caffeine… Do all that, and you've got sustaining peer-generated engagement.

At Wake Forest University, he said, "we had the opportunity to give them a well-being space through a series of facilities, old and new, for their program called Thrive—their motto was, "… to give you the skills, knowledge, and perspective to maintain a healthy, balanced life—wherever life may take you.

"It was a three-phase project for the Sutton Center, turning Reynolds Gym into a hub for campus-wide well-being, with 46,000 square feet of space for fitness programming and campus activities connected to Reynolds Gym by a floor-to-ceiling glass atrium, state-of-the-art fitness equipment, a 3,000-square-foot open living room, and a bouldering and climbing wall," Ohle added. "There was a fitness space for weight training and other activities, and an eight-lane indoor pool, which replaces the original 1956 pool. In addition, it included more than 50,000 square feet of enhanced fitness, recreation and social spaces, including group fitness studios for students, faculty and staff; multipurpose rooms for intramural and club sports; and a varsity court for the volleyball team."