Magnificently Multipurpose

Managing all-around facilities

By Kelli Anderson

From decathletes to the champions of the Ironman racing series, we place a high premium on doing many things well. So too with our facilities. What does it take to create a recreational space that can be all things to all people? Unfortunately, the answer to that doesn't begin with the latest über-product or sound-bite solution—it begins with an investment in thorough and time-consuming planning.

Set a strategy

Many of the most common problems with multipurpose spaces can be avoided by careful planning. Knowing who is going to use the space and what programming and events will occur there, you can determine the key factors of size and materials. Small thinking often results in small spaces with insufficient square-footage, ceiling height or both.

"The size of the room is foremost when planning," said Mark Keane, project designer of Hastings & Chivetta Architects in St. Louis. "Make sure it can perform for each thing—fencing, aerobics, whatever. Make some flexible-sized rooms, which can be a different size for different groups."

Taking the time to identify which groups and activities will use the space may seem like an obvious step, but it is critical to get it right. Shortsighted vision will shortchange the design. The tendency is to build around a specific sport rather than around core sports supplemented with other activities.

Overbuilding—creating unnecessary specialized spaces—is a direct result of nearsighted planning that doesn't carefully consider the creative possibilities of multipurpose spaces. "Don't think of what you want your facility to be. Instead, think of how people will use your facility," suggested Rob Grundstrom, senior associate with KKE Architects of Minneapolis. "By framing the idea in this way, one can find overlap in space needs, prioritize your core clients and don't overbuild."

Asking yourself what activities you already have that can share a recreational space is one way to get started. Asking yourself to think outside the box and imagine other future possibilities—perhaps hosting meetings, home-school groups or shows, for example—is another.

After listing the functions of the space, prioritize the uses so that the most important functions can determine essential sizes and materials needed for the area. Identifying a priority might involve recognizing those activities performed most often or those that cannot function without certain materials or square footage.

Just say no

There's also knowing what you don't want. When a vocational high school in Massachusetts took 14 months to plan and research an ambitious multipurpose project, they not only did a feasibility study, but also identified what they wanted to avoid.

"It's good to have a holiday shopping list and take a good hard look at what you want to accomplish and to know what you can live without," said Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, superintendent of Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School in Upton, Mass. "But it's also good to list what you don't want. We didn't want a practice facility whose floor was beaten up so badly that it showcased the fact that we didn't protect our taxpayer investment."

Research-go the distance

Once do's and don'ts have been identified, finding the right materials and products for the space will require some dedicated researchers willing to go the distance to test for the best. In the case of Blackstone, testers literally threw themselves—and their sample products—into their work. After convincing manufacturers to put their products' durability to the test, Blackstone building committee members hurled pieces of furniture off the roof. That's thorough.

And they were willing to go the extra mile.

"It's best to see a sample of a product, not just a swatch," Fitzgerald said. "See it and see its real wear and tear." Putting miles on the odometer is especially necessary when products are large, like flooring or dividers.

Not only do such excursions allow you to see the real McCoy, but it is the perfect opportunity to ask questions of those who've been there and done that. How has the product held up to real wear and tear? How does it handle kids or tracked-in elements like dirt or snow? How has custodial staff rated it for ease of cleaning or maintenance?

When the time finally comes to look at designs, it also pays to bring knowledgeable players to the table.

"The composition of the building committee is really important," said Arthur Jackman, Blackstone school district technological director and member of the building committee. "It's not usually experienced people."

Comprising committees of people who can bring technical expertise to the complicated process of understanding blueprints and design proposals not only makes for great brainstorming sessions, but is financially savvy too. Costly change orders resulting from misunderstandings by well-intentioned but less-equipped committee members can wreak financial havoc on a project or derail it altogether.

Of course, a crucial ace-in-the-hole is having a project manager at the design stage employed by the facility or owner to interpret all material and paperwork. Knowledge is power.

Divide and conquer

Ultimately, the goal is to get the most activities out of the same space—what could be more cost-efficient? For most field houses, gymnasium spaces or even smaller multipurpose rooms, choosing dividers to break the area into designated zones is an effective, logical solution. Dividers break up the space both visually and acoustically.

Whether dropping nets or curtains from the ceiling, raising them from the floor, rolling out partitions, or setting up a contained space like a batting cage, dividers come in a lot of forms, from solid structure to sheer netting. For the most part, floor-to-ceiling varieties are your best bet for acoustic control and for visual delineation.

When dividing the space for athletic activities, lightweight (netted or fabric) dividers will usually do the trick to allow simultaneous game play and clearly delineate the boundaries. When recreational spaces give way to social events—meetings, receptions, ceremonies—dividers should have a more visual impact and provide acoustic control.

For the Lower Sioux Community Center in Redwood Falls, Minn., the multipurpose gymnasium is also the site for funerals and lock-ins.

"We lay out a floor mat so tables and chairs won't scratch the floor," said Pete Nez, recreation director. "We then use a divider curtain that drops down from the ceiling to visually divide the space for one side to be a reception area and the other for the funeral."

Although the curtain is not intended to be an acoustic barrier, it does separate the room for the purpose of privacy.

Breaking the sound barrier

For others, acoustic control is a big deal.

"Acoustics, especially in rooms where dividers partition it, are a very important factor," Keane said. "Make sure the partition has wall-to-floor seals for better STC (sound transmission coefficient) ratings. You still never get up to the sound quality of a regular wall. You need to know you can't have booming aerobics next to a yoga class."

So, what can you do to control acoustics in a space that would normally echo like the Grand Canyon—fine during a raucous game, but not-so-fine during a graduation ceremony? The answer is, "lots."

Whenever a multipurpose space will have to serve as a venue for music (think yoga, aerobics or a battle of the bands) or speakers for meetings, seminars and ceremonies, architects usually look to the walls and ceilings for solutions.

Walls that have to withstand the pounding of balls and projectiles are probably not going to be well-suited for soft-textured, sound-absorbing wall materials. But acoustic cinder blocks, filled with sound-absorbing fiber and designed with slitted openings to reduce reverberation, are one tough-as-nails option.

Deflecting sound with angled walls and ceilings can also reduce noise. Then there are acoustic panels. These not only work great, they can look great too, breaking up walls using large planes of color and texture. However, they do need to be strategically placed to avoid damage by athletic equipment.


Measure twice, cut once. We've all heard that one. But what are some of the other common mistakes recreation facilities make when creating a multipurpose space?

According to Rob Grundstrom, senior associate of KKE Architects of Minneapolis, there are quite a few.

  • Building unnecessary specialty rooms
  • Not enough storage
  • Not programming your building's space needs properly
  • Not specifying high-abuse materials
  • Poor mechanical systems
  • Not asking who it is for—teens, seniors, homemakers, general wellness, etc.
  • Not considering safety or suitability of all activities for flooring choices
    (e.g., rubberized great for cleated shoes but unsafe for other sports like basketball)

Speaker of the house

Designing the multipurpose space with sound in mind also means having to consider the sound system.

"We see a lot of sound systems going in cabinets in the front of the room," Keane said. "Wireless microphone systems so an instructor is free to move around and transmit are pretty common, and speakers are typically in front of the room or in the ceiling to disperse the sound."

When it comes to designing a sound system, Blackstone's is one for the textbooks. Their 11,000-square-foot gymnasium, named the Competition Center, not only had to meet the high standards of competitive sports play, but also had to be the ideal venue to host regional and national events such as training seminars, Lego team competitions, robotic challenges, fashion shows, public speaking events and more.

"We have speakers in the ceiling to take care of audio," Jackman said. "We have five different arrangements for sound. One for the large room, and when divided up into smaller areas, we have sound broken up into zones so we can separate by different configurations with separate mics in each zone."

The result is that music can be enjoyed without distortion, and the same level of sound is experienced throughout the space, whether divided into smaller rooms for multiple meetings or left open for larger events.

Lighting the way

Breaking a space into its zones of activity not only allows sound systems to be fine-tuned to specific needs, it also helps determine the different lighting solutions.

For example, stage lighting with colored lights or gel lights may be needed at the performance-end of a space. Natural light might be great for overall play, while incandescent is best for setting a warmer tone, and fluorescent can be great for flood lighting. Many lighting solutions are not "either/or" but "and." Mix and match to get the best solution for your space.

"Gyms for competition play require high levels of light with no shadows," Grundstrom said. "But they give a color and intensity not suitable for seminars. You can control lighting with dimmers or through strategic switching. If you have 30 fixtures, zone them. In a divided gym, zone them so that half can be fully on and half can be fully off when you're only using one side of the gym."

Incandescent and fluorescent lights can be mixed and zoned to meet the needs of both athletic and non-athletic activities in the same space. Different lights, different moods. Dimming incandescent lights will also create a different mood ideally suited for low-key activities like yoga.

Another great cost-saving measure is the use of natural light. Be sure that windows are not designed to allow direct sunlight to flood the space and blind its users.

A north-facing window or the use of translucent window material can prevent any problems with glare.

Getting comfortable

Sight, sound, touch and smell—pretty much all the senses are a guide in designing a multipurpose space. Having good airflow with properly sized and designed mechanical systems and individual temperature control is part of the sensory equation. A poor ventilation system not only will be a turnoff for the aerobics class sweatin' to the oldies, but also won't make a great impression on the home-school group trying to use the space afterward.

Even seating requirements can change from group to group depending on the number of people involved or the atmosphere you are trying to create. Bleacher seating can comfortably accommodate a larger group than auditorium seating, but bringing out the comfy padded chairs for smaller groups is ideal for more upscale or intimate events.

Sure footing

For many facilities, choosing the best floor to suit multipurpose needs is the most daunting task. With every sport having different movement needs or using different equipment, from basketballs to cleated shoes, choosing a playing surface can be difficult.

Add to that the durability needed to withstand tables, chairs, food spills or, in Blackstone's case, trucks, and you've got your work cut out for you. So where do you begin?

The most important determinant is budget, but second is most often maintenance. The sad truth is that no matter how much money a facility has to throw at a flooring product, if they are unwilling or unable to properly care for it, it's money down the drain.

"It really comes down to how a facility is going to maintain and operate," Grundstrom said. "We can push the most cutting-edge product, but if they don't have the ability or expertise to care for the flooring, they'll have to rip it up anyway. Basing your flooring on likes and dislikes is a good measure. In other words, don't buy a stick shift when you want an automatic." Honestly assess what you can and can't or will or won't do.

At the Hynes Athletic Center at Iona College in New Rochelle, N.Y., which opened earlier this year, ease of maintenance ranked high for its 15,000 square feet of flooring surface.

"The biggest thing is that it's easy to clean and maintain," said Matt Thompson, co-director for recreation and intramurals. "It's easy to clean up spills."

The college's flooring choice has been a win-win for its wood-like quality with low maintenance effort and no need for refinishing.

Another critical factor in flooring selection is understanding the users. Know what the most important activities are and their frequency.

At Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., an athletic rubberized surface was selected based on the importance of athletic practices requiring cleated shoes.

"We had to have spikeable surfaces," explained Terry Rivers, recreation director, "and be long-wearing."

In addition, they were willing to go the financial- and maintenance-distance, purchasing and providing storage for riding scrubbers and cleaners required for the flooring surface.

For those multipurpose facilities looking for a more traditional flooring surface that will need just occasional protection from non-athletic uses, storage space might be the best answer.

"You also have to design for the most common everyday use," Grundstrom said. "Build a contingency plan for those once-or-twice-a-year things—roll out a rubber sheet, mats or floor cover."

Storing protective floor coverings for those rare events might be the solution to an otherwise more costly or less welcome flooring compromise.

In some situations, the frequency of non-athletic activities is high enough that taking the time and energy to roll out protective coverings or to seam them together for large spaces is simply not practical. Be thorough and diligent in your flooring search. There is a flooring surface to meet almost every need.

"The most amazing thing is our flooring—it's phenomenal," Jackman said. "It's great for playing basketball, but so rugged you can drive trucks on it—and we do. It's attractive but doesn't have to be refinished. A lot of research was done."

It's Elemental

Elements of design to plan and equip a multipurpose space don't differ so much from the usual considerations of a facility, but they do differ in how we think about what gets priority, what has to be compromised and what can be shared. It's a puzzle. It's about overlap and common ground. Here are just a few necessary considerations for the planning process:

PROGRAMMING: active or passive, sports, non-sport
    (meetings, education, arts and crafts, etc.)

USERS: seniors, children, families, teens, professional groups

ACOUSTICS: noise control or sound systems

LIGHTING TYPES AND LEVELS: natural, incandescent, fluorescent, dimmed or strategic

VISUAL SEPARATION: glass, movable dividers, hard walls

FLOORING: maintenance, user frequency and type, cover alternatives

MECHANICAL CONTROLS: ventilation and temperature

STORAGE: essential vs. rental options

SEATING: sport-event bleachers, auditorium, stacking plastic/padded

VIDEO: retractable screens, fixed screens, TV monitors

DURABILITY: identify high-abuse materials and consider wear and tear

MAINTENANCE: floor, equipment

Store it

Whether you've got protective floor coverings or mats for wrestling, multipurpose rooms, as the quick-change artists of the facility, will invariably need a lot of storage. Thinking through all the room's uses and listing the various pieces of equipment that will be required for programming and operational needs will help you estimate storage requirements.

Unfortunately, however, even when storage needs are finally determined, they are the first in line for compromise or elimination when budget girths tighten.

"I would be surprised if any manager says we have more storage than we can deal with," Rivers said. "A common request in business is crying out for more storage, and it's often cut by designers to save money."

One way to cut back on those storage needs is to consider what must be housed on site and what can be housed by someone else.

"I've seen owners rent instead of owning equipment if they only need it once or twice a year," Grundstrom observed. "If you have banquets only a few times a year, don't store tables and chairs, just rent. To build the square footage to house all that? It's just more cost-effective."

Even renting maintenance equipment sometimes can be a better solution than buying. Consider the lifts needed to change out light bulbs in high-ceilinged areas like gymnasiums. Renting them for the once- or twice-a-year change-outs makes a lot more sense for some facilities than buying and storing such infrequently used, bulky equipment.

Like rabbits from a magician's hat, virtually anything can be pulled from walls, floors or ceilings, including seating, electronics and room dividers. Storage-saving designs that produce seating out of the walls or pull video screens down from the ceiling will help lighten the storage load.

Or think small. Reduce the need for storage by choosing multitasking equipment like interactive white boards that can do the job of three or four pieces of expensive, bulky technical presentation equipment. Even thinking through the placement of outlets between multiple courts or around court perimeters can impact storage by eliminating the need for an unsightly and unwieldy spaghetti of wires and extension cords. Less is, well, less.

Screen play

These days, video and TV displays are a must-have for most multipurpose spaces where aerobics, Spinning, yoga, meetings, seminars and an almost endless list of possibilities make use of the magic screen. Size and position can include entire walls with a screen dropping from the ceiling or simple mounted monitors. For smaller spaces where instructors or classes will need frequent use of videos, monitors are often a permanent mounted fixture.

Retractable screens, whether coming down from the ceiling or up from the floor, are a common solution for larger gymnasium spaces where permanent display is not an option. Providing live-feed video to project multiple images of speakers during a conference is yet another popular screen use.


The final challenge after a multipurpose space has been planned, designed and built is scheduling the multiple uses that will take place there. For large recreation facilities, like the Carleton College Recreation Center, having good scheduling software makes a difficult juggling task much easier.

"We have very good scheduling software, which takes our activity spaces and divides them into immediate and long-term schedules of practices and classes and blocks them in place," Rivers said. "Then intramurals and recreational users are blocked in after that."

Rivers stressed the importance of augmenting software with meetings involving coaches and instructors to define uses of multipurpose spaces and to work out the conflicts of time and priorities.

Once scheduling is ironed out, there is still the issue of oversight—who is going to make sure setup and take-down are taken care of? Having someone in charge of those functions, whether doing it themselves or delegating it to ensure users get and then return the equipment they need, is essential to avoid embarrassing omissions during a conference or annoying messes for the next users of a space.

In cases where multipurpose spaces are scheduled by outside groups for events like conferences or competitions, learning what equipment and changes are needed for the space to perform well is an important part of the communication process. Likewise, being able to communicate what is available so that all parties are aware of all the possibilities also is key.

"You have to ask a lot of questions," Jackman said. "It's important to know what groups think they'll really need."

The beauty of a multipurpose space done well is that it is flexible. It can adapt to the changing recreational winds to be action-packed Spinning one minute and peaceful Pilates the next. It can accommodate new groups and adapt to their recreational needs. If done well, a multipurpose space will be constantly scheduled from open to close. Being all things to all people in the recreation world is no easy task, but when done right it conserves space, saves money and just makes sense.

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