Feature Article - May 2021
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Emerging Trends in Sports Facility Design

Basic Design Principles With a Post-Pandemic Twist

By Rick Dandes


'Wow' the Athlete

At universities, sports facilities are designed for the student athlete. "For young athletes coming in from high school, they (and their family) are trying to understand where they are going to play, and how the staff is going to keep them healthy, or recover from an injury, should that happen," explained Trevor Bechtold, a director of sports, recreation and entertainment at international design firm HOK's Kanas City studio.

Within the sports field complex, Bechtold suggests integrating into the design innovation labs from the equipment side of things, quarterback performance labs and other ways to enhance the opportunities for training, both individually and as a team. "We're seeing these enhancements are happening inside and outside the building, and even on the field," he said. Amenities, like barbershops, are being built into facilities because athletes are spending so much time training, so much time on the field, so much time with coaches and staff, learning about the game, that having some of those amenities on hand makes life a little simpler when the athlete has few minutes to spare.

There are two sides to the spectrum, Bechtold noted: the star athletes and the students at the club level. The student athletes play on an organized competitive team and competes within their conference. And then there are those students who play on the recreation side of things. They will also use sports facilities, such as gymnasiums on campus, or an outdoor field or track. Providing for both sides has become incredibly popular in the past decade in terms of having the right amenities built into the structure.

"If I was a high school student looking for a college," Bechtold suggested, "I would look at their sports and recreation facilities, even if I wasn't a star athlete. We do some high school design, and particularly in the southern region of the U.S., schools are elevating their facilities, oftentimes almost to the collegiate level, to prepare those students for becoming collegiate student athletes as they move further into their lives and careers."

Colleges are setting the bar for high schools to learn from, said Jonsson, of Populous. "And sports facilities are being used as a recruiting tool." The sports complex is often one of the first things an athlete will look to as a factor in deciding what school to attend.

Back to Normal, With a Twist

As the world slowly begins to emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, the fallout will have produced far-reaching effects in nearly all facets of life, and certainly in the development of new sports facilities, according to our design experts. And while these facilities may look different in a post-COVID-19 world, they will remain integral parts of our lives as athletes leave the "bubble" and spectators return in-person to the stands.

During the worst days of the pandemic, Klaus noted, facilities were not used so much for sports. They were used for holding graduations. The larger football stadiums gave schools a way for people to spread out safely, with the kids in chairs on the field with given masks, and families required to stay six feet apart and wear masks in the stands.

During the February cold spell in Texas, many stadiums transitioned to serve as places to distribute water and food.

Some stadiums have served as virus testing and vaccine sites.

"These facilities have been used in ways that we might not have imagined a few years ago," Klaus said. Most of the facilities he and his team are designing now include a community room that can serve 300 to 500 people, and these rooms are used throughout the year. The school can rent the space out for wedding receptions or birthday parties, or they can be used for school events and board meetings. These are functional, multipurpose rooms, actually built into the sports facility. Another plus is having and using the parking space that is already there.

What will the new normal look like?

"One thing we see coming is a real focus on the wellness component for student athletes," Klaus said. "Not just a training facility but the actual health of the person. And how the facility responds to that. This will only increase as athletes will be looking for a place that they know is going to respond and appreciate the importance of the wellness side of things."

Also, expect to see the square footage per athlete increase in locker room space, Jonsson said, and overall in training facility settings. That was already happening, but it is happening now even more so as a safety protocol.

Look for designs incorporating cleanability and sanitization, using materials that are non-porous and that are durable and easy to clean, such as fewer carpets and more hard surfaces. You'll need to think about increased cleaning of the space.

"One thing we've seen," Klaus noted, "is a transition from a group shower to individual showers. The trend is moving toward single partitioned out shower areas. In common areas where athletes walk through areas, there will be increased width in those spaces and hallways."