Feature Article - May 2021
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The Community Experience

Engaging Multipurpose Designs Lead to Long-Term Rec Center Success

By Dave Ramont


Back in February of this year, when Texas was dealing with a paralyzed electric grid brought on by prolonged frigid temperatures along with ice and snow, the city of Plano came up with an idea: They opened up their four recreation centers to residents who didn't have water due to burst pipes, so they could come in and use the showers. This highlighted the important function that community and college rec centers can perform, which is not only to offer places for fitness, wellness, education and recreation, but to offer spaces that patrons feel connected to. And designers of these spaces are keenly aware that the programs and the buildings themselves need to evolve and be flexible to keep pace with current trends and desires.

With so many rec offerings these days, it can be a challenge in the planning phase to prioritize features and amenities. "You want to make the space multipurpose but not multi-useless," joked Keith Hayes, principal and business partner at Barker Rinker Seacat, a Denver-headquartered architecture firm. "How do we anticipate new trends that are coming up, make a space that's flexible but still meets the needs of the key activities that will take place?"

"Incorporating flexible spaces that can transition through time is always a goal regardless of the client," said Dan Sullivan, associate and leader of client development services at Hastings + Chivetta, a St. Louis-based architecture firm, "and that extra space became even more important in response to COVID and the additional social distancing that will be prudent always. Learning spaces like demonstration kitchens and nutrition centers are allowing recreation staff to enhance lifestyle education as well as sustainable education. Offerings for seniors continue to expand as baby boomers age into retirement and are increasingly more active than previous senior generations. Group meeting rooms with finishes to accommodate exercise, dance, public meetings and childcare break-out activities will never go out of style."

Howard Blaisdell and Kris Cochran are architects at Moody Nolan, an architecture firm headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, and they said there's been a major focus on the 'experience' of these facilities, requiring designers to be more engaged with end-users throughout the design process. "Through robust stakeholder and community engagement, we understand their expectations and leverage data-driven results to promote innovation."

They pointed out that space is finite, so how best to design the space to allow flexibility in programming to maximize use throughout the day? "For example, gyms can be used for preschool during the mornings, teens after school and adult basketball in early mornings and evenings. There are many synergies between diverse program offerings, so designing a space for multi-functionality is a priority."

"Hybrid" buildings are becoming more common, according to Blaisdell and Cochran, where two or more partners own one common facility. "There are mutual business benefits to shared operations, so we see owners continuing to explore partnerships."

On the programming side, they said overall health and wellness is supplementing physical activity. "Users prefer bouldering walls over climbing walls as (they) require less supervision and equipment. Functional training allows modifying equipment as needs change, and multiple types of equipment. We're finding that facilities are adding kitchens for teaching healthy cooking, but also being able to serve seniors lunch and kids during before- or after-school programs."

Wellness has taken an expanded role in the building industry, agreed Sullivan. "Rarely is a gym, a cardio deck and one multipurpose room going to satiate the community appetite for a center's offerings." He described a rating system put forth by the International WELL Building Institute addressing how buildings should positively impact our physical and mental health. "The eight components of a WELL building are air, water, nourishment, light, fitness, comfort, mind and innovation. These components contribute to the success of a building as much as the sustainable carpet and wood flooring selection, or the number of low-flow plumbing fixtures."

Outdoor passive recreation spaces, whether social gathering spaces for things like BBQs, meditative butterfly gardens, urban farming or herb planting beds, are another trend that Blaisdell and Cochran mentioned, citing the Oklahoma City Health and Wellness Center as an example. "We're also seeing a trend of teaching classrooms or fitness areas that can open up to the exterior to connect to the outdoors."

As many rec centers were shut down due to the pandemic, yet trying to keep revenue coming in and add value to their constituents' lives, they moved into some outdoor and virtual activities, according to Hayes. "So how do we design things more creatively in turn? Is there a way to deliver exercise classes to the community over the web? How does that impact your building; is it a recording studio or just a camera?" He said they'd already been discussing putting more monitors in some rooms so if a person couldn't make a class they could come in and select a disc or call up a class from the website and participate that way.