Natural Wonders

Trends in interior design, whatever your budget

By Kelli Anderson

The lobby of the HealthPoint Fitness and Wellness Center in Waltham, Mass., showcases the use of natural lighting through windows to conserve energy costs. It also has an interesting example of tile flooring that offers a natural stone effect.

Current interior design trends for recreation facilities are pretty much all about bigger and better—bigger, voluminous size and better comfort. In general, designs tend toward large, open, multiview spaces that shy away from the narrow confines of the long corridor or the stingy-spaced locker room. Much like the great outdoors and the natural elements that go with it, health and fitness centers are bringing in the feel of sunlight, open space, and very often, the warm, natural colors and materials one would expect to find in the comforting arms of Mother Nature.

The seemingly endless array of programming choices these days mean that designs must take on multipurpose functions requiring flexible spaces that can go from the equipment-laden, roll-and-tumble of Pilates to the intimate, simplicity and serenity of yoga. Designing to the variety of programming needs is essential while also making room for the public's growing expectation of more value-added amenities like spas, eating areas and, for the truly well-rounded, hair salons.

Health and fitness facilities have become one-stop shopping for a multitude of needs. To accommodate demand, interior design has gone multisensory in an effort to turn a once 40-minute rushed workout into a three-hour destination hot spot.

"It's a place to meet, a place to socialize," observes Greg Randall, principal with DeStefano Keating Partners design firm of Chicago. "A social club versus just a place to throw some weights around."

But regardless of the trends, some elements of good design and updating looks never change and can be achieved even on the tightest budget. Paying attention to effective uses and placement of color, lighting and materials are key to achieving the look you want and the experience your patrons long for.

Holmes Place Health Club at River East Center in Chicago makes good use of natural light to flood a large space.

Perhaps no other element changes a space more dramatically than lighting.

"The first place to start is opportunities for daylighting," says Andy Barnard, vice president and 10-year principal with Sink Combs Dethlefs Sports Architecture of Denver. "You can do a lot with colors and materials, but to us, there's nothing that warms up a place and makes it more inviting than daylighting."

Opening up your existing facility with more windows and skylights is one way to let the sun shine in and to break up the hospital-esque feel of a long, confining corridor. Sunlight is not only beautiful and heartwarming, it is economical in the long run, too.

Newer facilities such as the Holmes Place Health Club in Chicago, for example, are designing their larger-than-life spaces to take advantage of all that the sun has to offer.

"We use a lot of daylight," says Randall, architect for the project. "We want to avoid the feel of the industrial."


Assessing light quality in a facility at various intervals of the day will help best determine the changing lighting needs of a space. But once those needs have been identified, there are some basic rules of thumb.

Keeping the "color" of light consistent within a room is a must. For example, fluorescents tend to be cool and blue while incandescents tend to be warmer or yellow. To mix these light colors in one room is an absolute designer don't. The use of reflected light on high or multidimensional ceilings, thrown up against a textured wall, or to accent a special decorative feature adds a great deal of interest to an otherwise unnoticed area.

The use of natural materials, warm colors and defined spaces within the entry area all give the lobby a comfortable, residential feel at the Wheat Ridge Recreation Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo. Porcelain flooring tile, limited use of stone, indirect lighting, warm paint colors and public art are integrated into the design. The sandstone tiles over the arch and circling the lobby walls are carvings done by local children.

The aesthetic, relaxing power of reflected light makes it a very popular tool in the designer's efforts to enliven a space. Avoiding the downward hard-light effect of a single sodium bulb is a step in the right direction. Patrons of both public and private facilities no longer tolerate the warehouse-feel of yesteryear in their health facilities; they want welcoming, comforting and attractive decor that make them feel they are an appreciated, valued member.

Multiple light sources and lighting techniques in a room not only create a mood but define different spaces: task lighting such as small suspended pendant fixtures over a circulation desk, general lighting from recessed fixtures, firelight from a fireplace near the lounge, and reflective lighting over focal points like art that add a welcoming "wow" factor to important, high-use spaces like entries and locker rooms. Dimmer switches and lighting sensors are not only economical uses of energy but can adjust to the changing programming needs of a space as well.

Even more simple changes like investing in new light fixtures or adding sconces to locker room mirrors can quickly transform a room's look and feel. Avoid the temptation, whether in designing a new facility or jazzing up an existing one, to put lighting on the financial back burner.

"Probably the biggest mistake facilities make is not investing enough money on lighting," says John Burchard, director of interiors and interior specialist at DeStefano Keating Partners. "That's not what you should be cutting."

There's No Place Like Home

From an operational standpoint, getting people to want to spend more time in your facility will most likely result in higher revenues. Making your facility welcoming and attractive with lounging areas is one way to help ensure that they'll want to stick around even after the workout is over. A retail kind of super-mall doesn't fill the bill nearly as well as the comforts of home.

"Try to make a place where people want to come together, a gathering place, a living room," says Craig Bouck, principal of Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture of Denver. "Promote the idea that it's warm, friendly—a place that appeals to all generations with no 'lowest common denominator' feeling."

Lobbies, lounges and locker rooms are taking on a more residential feel that makes people comfortable and enables them to use a facility for more than a workout. A residential-style facility becomes the place to meet for coffee, to take advantage of the other amenities offered, to spend hours instead minutes. A home away from home.

"We get comments all the time from our members that they wish their living rooms looked like our waiting areas," says Mike Brown, senior vice president of operations at Life Time Fitness of Chicago. "They wish that their bathrooms looked like our locker rooms. It's beautiful space that you see in the finer homes."


Another area of great impact is color. In keeping with the times, warmer tones that echo the colors of nature are popping up in facilities everywhere—but don't be fooled. Although warm colors rule the day, the term "natural" doesn't always mean brown and green. Mother Nature also has a wild side—vivid reds, blues and yellows.

Asking questions like, "Who are our patrons? Are we a high-energy facility? Are we a luxury destination? What is the history of our locale?" will help narrow the search for identity and the colors that best reflect it. Bold colors will energize and are great for clubs focused on the young urbanite—or for children's spaces for fun and high energy. Warmer tones soothe, relax and invite.

Holmes Place Health Club's cafe builds some of its style from accent colors and design used in the furniture.

For example, the Broomfield Recreation Center, currently under construction in Broomfield, Colo., will eventually cater to patrons of all ages and has looked to its local pioneering history and proximity to the plains and mountains to narrow down its theme to one word: discovery.

"This kind of broad theming is a way to organize our thoughts," says Craig Bouck, principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture of Denver. "And it became a way for them to decide on color palettes too."

Ultimately, a color palette can be as complex or simple as you want, but for the sake of fashion longevity (and the sanity of the staff responsible for maintaining it), it's best to keep the majority of surface areas simple.

"We aren't afraid of color—color is our biggest tool," Bouck says. "When you've got institutional materials like concrete block, color sometimes is the most affordable way to affect those. We use paint as our biggest ally."

But, he cautions, pick standard base colors for the majority surface areas and position complex accent colors in places where they're least likely to be affected by vandalism, damage or wear.

Base colors, canvassed on the majority of surfaces, can be accented with bolder or richer colors splashed in easy-to-change-and-update elements like furniture, signage or art. It can be introduced through more durable materials, as well, like tile flooring or images and geometric designs cut into linoleum. Be careful, however, that such colors and patterns incorporated into these permanent fixtures aren't too trendy. Choosing timeless styles can allow these durable materials to serve effectively in more ways than one.

Everybody Feng Shui Tonight

Whether intentionally subscribing to the tenants of Feng Shui or just picking up on the latest craze for all things natural, many health and fitness facilities are paying attention to more than just the visual design element. Interior design has gone multisensory in a way with an attention to sound quality and control, good ventilation, aromas, tastes, and touch.

"We add sound—we're introducing small, little water fountains in our spa areas to create that Feng Shui pool atmosphere," says Bill Doer, director of architecture for Life Time Fitness in Chicago. "We add things to enhance the overall experience. In our climbing walls, we've got these beautiful, cavernous, very natural-looking spaces to climb, and we've created sound inside of those so we've got motivational music playing in the background that keeps people interested."

Not only is adding sound important, but controlling it is also key. Spaces used for programming like yoga need good acoustical design, which require quiet environments to minimize distraction. Installing acoustical paneling and dropped ceilings in areas that tend to sound like cavernous basketball arenas—pools and gyms—helps instructors to be heard more easily.

Some elements, like air quality, are only consciously noticed when they're bad. Changing out the total volume of air several times an hour makes the smelly gym experience a thing of the past.

In keeping with the trend to provide more than just a workout, facilities now cater to the sense of taste as well. Calming teas, juice bars, cafes and even restaurants are designed to provide food for the stomach and the soul.

Massage therapy, spas, rich-textured surfaces and attention to comfortable temperatures that include details like heated locker room floors, all cater to the body's experience with touch.

It's not just about programming, which has certainly become more wholistic, but designing to accentuate and enhance those experiences.

Bold colors are good choices for high-energy spaces like this kids' gym at RDV Sportsplex in Orlando. For more information on this facility, check out the "A Magical Place" profile.

Whether your look is high-energy chic or earthy naturalism, natural stones, woods, metals and glass are some of the popular decorating materials being used by designers to communicate a facility's essence. It makes sense that quality materials matter most for the important first impression at an entrance or the spaces where people spend the most time, like locker rooms. Whether you have a Rockerfeller-sized wallet or are operating on a shoestring, the key to creating a successful environment is knowing where and how to place these materials for the greatest impact.

Natural stone desktops in the lobby, for example, can introduce an element of elegance and permanence but can be more affordably mimicked by their solid-surfaced counterparts or even by colored, poured concrete. Maple or cherry wood control desks can still say "elegance" with wood laminate substitutes, rich wood stains and wood paneling. If at all possible, desks should look custom-designed with such features as recessed niches that house the computer and minimize clutter. Neat, clean and well-crafted control desks shout volumes to patrons' impressions of professionalism.

Stone floors, like slate, are very popular, but for much less cost, stone-textured tiles and stained concrete can still convey the natural, luxurious feel of stone.

"For lobby and circulation areas, tile or concrete are about the most durable solutions there are," Bouck says. "And colored concrete, if it's done well, is a great solution and is becoming more popular. We also like to use quarry tile because it's super durable and inexpensive. You can create some great patterns and can get a great bargain on it. It looks fantastic. Porcelain tile is terrific as well."

However, he cautions, having a mottled texture for such surfaces and using darker grouts that hide tracked-in dirt are important details to consider. Don't fight it, hide it.

Linoleum, a high-traffic alternative to stone or tiles, has come a long way in fashion circles and has become an increasingly popular flooring alternative thanks to its versatile inlay design features, endless color arrays and ease of care. For children's areas, it can be especially ideal. It is not only water-resistant and therefore easy on cleanup, it also can add great fun to the space when inlayed with elements of bright color and fanciful designs, like super-sized paw prints or geometric patterns.

Carpet, though comfortable and cozy, is a less durable design solution, needing to be replaced about every five years. However, the expense can be minimized if a smaller area is inset among a perimeter of tile, if carpet squares are installed that can be changed out as needed or if a carpet service is hired that contractually replaces carpet without installation cost. Even an attractive area rug can be easily replaced when worn and can add warmth, luxury and definition to a lobby space.

These decorative fish heads in Wheat Ridge's aquatic area are a prime example of using simple materials in a creative and unique way. They were created using inexpensive computer sign cutting technology to cut 1/8-inch stainless-steel sheets into fish profiles. The fish appear to be supporting the heavy wooden beams when actually they were applied after the beams were in place. Also notice the limited the use of wood to the roof joists. The overall impression is that the entire ceiling is wood, which helps create a warmer, more inviting environment. Light painted acoustical deck spans between the joists, which helps reduce noise and provides a reflective surface for indirect lighting.

Using wood trims, wood chair rails, wood beams or wood-surfaced columns can convey the feel of a high-end space without the high-end cost. Beams and columns, in particular, if placed so that the eye follows their line into the distance—say, down a corridor or across a ceiling—can give the space the illusion of being much more wood-constructed than it actually is. Consider carefully if the light-colored tones of woods like maple or the richer tones of cherry, for example, will work best for the look you're after.

Current popular metals like stainless steel can be used as accents from everything from light fixtures and handrails to detail work. In one particularly successful use of economic material in a highly creative way—what Bouck calls a "MacGyverism"—his design company bravely took on its client's demand for fish. Taking sheets of stainless steel, they cut out fish heads to form whimsical brackets to hold the wooden beams in the natatorium. In a facility from an agrarian community, corrugated metal sheeting topped with a chair rail became wainscoting in a lobby trying to feel more urban and less Green Acres. It provided not only a visually perfect effect but was also highly durable and required no maintenance or painting.

Oasis Women's Fitness and Spa in LaGrange, Ill., uses indirect lighting in the locker room for a chic look.

"A major impact on members is the locker room," says Bruce Lutz, associate principal of Ohlson Lavoie Corporation of Denver. "It's a place where you can bring in some nice upgrades. It's making members more comfortable—it's not a minor expenditure but it really changes the member's experience."

Lavish details invoking a resort-like feel can range from wood-paneled lockers to heated floors, but it doesn't have to cost a fortune to let patrons know they're valued.

For the more limited budget, changing vanity tops to quality, solid materials (avoid seamed laminates); putting in larger mirrors or even framing them and leaning them against a wall for a more residential feel; updating lighting such as adding indirect lighting from the top of the locker base (very effective and inexpensive); adding a lounge area with amenities of telephone and television to provide a place to relax alone or with friends; changing ceiling and wall materials to better absorb sound are all ways to make patrons feel a little more pampered, a little more at home.

Picture This

North Boulder Recreation Center in Boulder, Colo., has just celebrated the opening of its new, large addition—a front lobby, the perfect place to showcase an equally impressive work of local art, "whirlwind" by Tim Upham. The sculpture is even interactive: It rotates when people touch it.

"It was a reaction to the plan," says Dave Hammel, vice president and principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture of Denver. "Different curves of whirlwind come together like the converging curves in the roof and walls. It's in total keeping with the lobby space."

Art should be viewed as an integral, connected part of the interior design of a facility, echoing its color schemes, themes and personality.

Entrance areas are ideal homes for such art, but once a piece has been selected, it needs to be displayed to maximum effect. Making it a permanent feature by placing it in a specially designed niche or highlighted with reflected light makes it become a part of the structure itself. It should be something that can't be anywhere else but there. Be careful, however, to pair the right size art to its display wall or area—a disproportionately small piece will get lost on a large wall. Pay attention to scale.

Art doesn't necessarily have to come in a frame. Branding or large graphic designs or just artfully placed swaths of color can transform a space. Even staff, appropriately dressed, can become part of the overall aesthetic look. Think: performance art.

"Attendants are all dressed in a certain fashion or with graphics on their shirts—they're like artwork," says John Burchard, director of interiors at DeStefano Keating Partners of Chicago. "It's all about setting a space."

Another ideal canvas for visual creativity is signage.

"Integrate the signage," says Craig Bouck, principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "It's part of the architecture that is purposeful—not just stuck on a wall."

Aside from locker rooms and entrances, little patrons also deserve the attentions of interior design. Whimsical art on walls, incorporated into the flooring or built into interactive furniture, can help make the space attractive to kids and result in happier parents.

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