Design Corner: Control Central

The Control Desk Can't Be Ignored

By Keith Hayes


t's an exhilarating time to be involved in the planning and design of community recreation centers. From mammoth climbing walls and spacious atriums to elaborate aquatic areas with private cabanas, the rapid emergence of innovative features has been remarkable.

But in the fun and excitement of considering the latest bells and whistles, proper attention to one of the recreation center's most important features—the control desk—is sometimes overlooked.

As its nerve center, the control desk sets the tone for the entire facility. As the first point of contact, a negative experience at the control desk can tarnish a customer's enjoyment of the entire facility. Conversely, a positive encounter reinforces the center's commitment to quality activities and efficient, friendly service. As the saying goes, you don't get a second chance to make a positive first impression.

There is no cookie-cutter design for a control desk that will work well in every recreation center. Each center has its own needs, customer base and culture. There are, however, basic principles and questions to consider when planning a new control desk or redesigning your current one.

Obviously, even the best-designed control desk is worthless if the people hired to staff it are perpetually rude and unpleasant. But, a well-designed control desk can reinforce a generally pleasant person's welcoming personality by making his or her job much easier and more enjoyable.

That said, the temptation to design a control desk specifically for the current staff should be avoided. They should certainly have input in the planning process. But the goal is to design a desk that best suits the needs of the customers and will also be adaptable to future staff members.

As in real estate, the first consideration in control desk design is location, location, location. For security and convenience, it is essential that the control desk have clear views of the front entrance and as much of the facility as possible. There is nothing more aggravating to a first-time customer than having to search for a control desk tucked away in some obscure corner of the lobby.

After determining the desk's location, it's helpful to consider the size and makeup of your customer base and the ways in which you will be interacting with them at the control desk.

Most recreation centers today serve a diverse community, from families with toddlers and teenagers to working men and women, retirees and people with disabilities. That means a one-size-fits-all control desk probably won't work very well.

For example, you'll need a desk with counters of at least two varying heights to accommodate adults, children and people in wheelchairs. The number of staffing stations will, of course, depend on the size of your customer base, as well as their particular needs. Within reason and your ability to staff them, it's best to err on the side of too many stations. Eliminating another time-consuming wait in line will be greatly appreciated by your customers. And your staff will welcome the additional workspace.

The major interactions between desk personnel and customers include inspecting membership cards, collecting rental and activity fees, and providing general information either verbally or through handouts and brochures. This interaction and communication generally works best when it occurs as close to eye-level as possible.

That means consideration to the "posture" of the desk personnel is important in designing the desk itself. Should the staff be standing, sitting at a standard office-chair height or at a higher level similar to bank tellers? Anything to enhance the personal touch should be the major consideration, but positioning staff to deal safely with a possible confrontational situation is also important.

Consultation with security personnel or risk managers and information technology directors is vitally important in planning and designing an effective control desk. Many costly errors can be avoided by bringing these experts into the process at the beginning.

Risk managers and security personnel can help with positioning video surveillance equipment, alarm systems and cash drawers, as well as identify secure locations for counting and disbursing cash. They can also offer advice regarding possible health-related issues stemming from staff use of furniture and computer equipment.

Today's rapid advances in computer and information technology demand the control desk design have the built-in flexibility to adjust to change. No one can predict with certainty where the next technological advance will lead us, but an IT specialist can help ensure that conduits and other infrastructure are at least adequate for the foreseeable future.

Where best to place computer monitors, keyboards, printers, credit-card swipes and telephones should be an integral part of the control desk planning process. If budgets permit, flat-screen monitors, laptops and wireless technology are space-savers that can add significant flexibility to control-desk operations.

Another primary consideration in planning control desks is the degree of control desired over the flow of customers into the facility. If "hard" control is desired, then turnstiles or some sort of gate will have to be factored into the design.

Even without hard control measures, it is increasingly important for recreation centers to plan for collecting data from customers as they enter the center. This data, often obtained through membership card swipes, can be used in reports to city councils and other funding agencies to verify levels of use and justify expenditures.

The type of control measures you choose will influence the shape and possibly the size of the control desk. Some centers prefer a completely enclosed desk area, while others choose a design with more open access.

Despite the best planning efforts, chances are the final design will have overlooked something and will need to be tweaked after completion.

For example, years ago our firm designed a recreation center for a Colorado mountain community that neglected to provide supplemental heating at the control desk. According to plan, the desk was strategically and correctly located near the entrance with excellent sight lines. Unfortunately, the vestibule was insufficient in preventing the staff turning blue from the flow of frigid air filling the lobby.

Finally, a considerable number of activities occur during a normal day at the control desk. And, as we have discussed, a surprising number of decisions need to be made about how best to design the desk. By all means, "sweat the details," but don't lose sight of your overall objective: to produce a relatively simple, flexible design that enhances human interaction and warmly welcomes your customers.

A well-designed control desk won't have the "wow factor" of many other exciting, innovative features in your recreation center. But, in the end, you will have created a seamless, welcoming entrance that—unlike airport security check-points—helps set the stage for a pleasant experience.


Keith Hayes, AIA, LEED AP, is a principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. Headquartered in Denver, Colo., BRS Architecture has designed more than a hundred recreation centers throughout the country. For more information, visit

© Copyright 2020 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.