A Collegiate Complement

Designing College Fitness to Fit Collegiate Culture

By Curt Moody

ith increasingly diverse student bodies, college and university campuses are home to abundant backgrounds and lifestyles. While still embracing and being sensitive to the individual cultures of students, a university often develops its own culture and sense of community. Helping a dynamic student body more easily assimilate and take part in a unified college experience, an institution invests considerable time and money to the process of creating and reinforcing its own unique traditions and customs.

As athletic traditions—accompanied by mascots, cheers and distinguishable colors—are often prevalent at a large majority of colleges, fitness and recreation centers can be a central component of easily and effectively communicating a campus' culture and camaraderie to the student body. With this in mind, school administration needs to pay special attention to several items—from a school's history and architectural aesthetics to brand imagery and student demographics—when designing or refurbishing these facilities.

Laying the Foundation

A school's graphic identity, including logo, color scheme, emblem and mascot, often defines its image, whereas architectural aesthetics refer to the actual constructed appearance of a building. These two separate yet intertwined elements can be at the crux of radiating collegiate culture through recreation and fitness facilities, and are essential in both effectively portraying an institution's culture to potential students, and maintaining it with current students and alumni.

Taking into account the needs of students, administration and the campus infrastructure, significant thought must be given to a number of influential factors when developing a fitness facility:

STUDENT CULTURE: What are the prominent cultures represented, and how do they interact with each other? Is it a high- or low-contact environment—do students often meet in groups, requiring furniture in lounges and meeting rooms to be easily movable?

STUDENT DEMOGRAPHICS: Does the institution have both resident and commuter students? If a high population of commuter students exists, fitness centers need to provide facilities that allow these students to shower after a vigorous workout or a fast game of "2-on-2," and locker areas in which to store personal belongings.

APPEARANCE OF PHYSICAL INFRASTRUCTURE: What is the current—or future—architectural character of the campus? If a fresh, modern appeal currently exists or is being sought, a building's design can be developed accordingly. If aged and pillared "Old Main" buildings and Georgian facades are appreciated, the design parameters might not be as flexible.

FOCUS OF INSTITUTION: What is the school known for? Academic excellence? Athletic achievement? Theatrical performances? A school's recognized identity—both academic and non-academic—is a key player in the research and design phase of a facility and certainly needs to be incorporated in the process. Also, does the campus engage in environmental initiatives? Is sustainability a priority? If so, materials will have to be appropriately specified and incorporated.

ABILITY TO ACCOMMODATE CHANGE: How flexible is the interior infrastructure? The advent of incorporating digital media in collegiate facilities has opened a new era of powerful and dynamic communication within the campus community. This technology allows for the dissemination of national headlines and news, in addition to customized campus event bulletins, presentations, concerts and athletic games to the campus, and also requires that buildings be adaptable to evolving trends.

Considering these issues will help ensure that the finished facility effectively serves the mind, body and soul of students, and also successfully emanates a campus' culture to help reinforce its brand and character.

Customizing the Architectural Image

As each campus is unique, each project is likewise inherently unique. For example, when developing its Recreation & Physical Activity Center (RPAC), The Ohio State University wanted to attract all students—not just "gym rats"—to use the facility. Offering classrooms, lounges and a juice bar, in addition to exercise areas, basketball courts, swimming pools and sundry other fitness components, RPAC was constructed to instill and maintain a strong presence of the university's traditions, but deliberately did not incorporate the scarlet and gray colors used by the athletic teams.

Conversely, Winston-Salem State University is currently designing a new student center that, although similar to RPAC in incorporating fitness areas as well as lounges and meeting areas, will be strongly connected with the school's sports presence. Prominently displaying the Rams mascot and colors of scarlet and white, the facility will be infused with an athletic-tradition image.

Another prime example of using a fitness facility to portray a visual image is the University of Illinois at Springfield. Although connected to the University of Illinois system by name, the Springfield campus wanted to differentiate itself from the main campus' colors and themes. TRAC, Springfield's new student recreation center, houses both athletics and recreation and captures the campus spirit with interior finishes that reflect the university's navy blue and white colors, not the orange and blue colors of the main University of Illinois. Further establishing itself as a different entity, the University of Illinois at Springfield's new facility houses the Prairie Stars' performances in a multipurpose gymnasium that is emblazoned with the Stars' mascot.

Final Thoughts

When designing a fitness and recreation center with the intention of using it to embrace and portray a culture and image, it's essential to remember that every school, every student and every project is different. Student populations continually change and technological capabilities are ever-advancing, demanding that the brand and image of higher education institutions also adapt. Going against the old adage, many people do indeed "judge a book by its cover" when it comes to a campus' appearance. University personnel and planners need to ensure they consider these important factors as they continue to embrace and develop the culture of their collegiate community.


Curt Moody is president and CEO of Moody-Nolan Inc., an architecture, interior design and civil engineering firm specializing in higher education, sports/recreation, healthcare and public service facilities. Headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, Moody-Nolan is the largest African-American-owned and -operated architecture and engineering firm in the nation. For more information, visit www.moodynolan.com.

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