Design Corner

Enhance Your Rec Center's Quality of Life

By Steve Blackburn

With most every community across the country forced to pinch pennies while awaiting recovery from a sluggish economy, it is no surprise that numerous plans for new, state-of-the-art recreation centers have been either abandoned or shoved to the back-burner.

Nevertheless, that does not mean communities need to accept the status quo and continue operating outdated recreation facilities that are either overcrowded or underused due to wear-and-tear and a lack of popular amenities and activities.

Many of today's older recreation centers can be successfully renovated or expanded at a fraction of the cost to build a new multigenerational facility. Indeed, the economic slowdown may be a blessing in disguise. Not only are construction prices recently coming in at multi-year lows, a renovation also forces a thorough reevaluation and examination of a center's physical condition, programs, services and community goals.

Two recent examples of successful renovations include the Golden Community Center in Colorado and the Shawnee YMCA in Oklahoma. The Golden facility was originally built in 1994, and has been a sensation for years within the community. In order to accommodate the newest trends in recreation, the city hired Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture to design a $2.5 million renovation and addition. Refreshed spaces within the building included a new entry, family changing rooms, locker rooms, preschool area and reception desk. The existing weight room was renewed into a wellness room, spinning area and dance room with storage. The addition included a new weight room and cardio area, new entry with party room, indoor soft play area, vending and game area.

For the Shawnee YMCA, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture conducted a programming and site selection study for the YMCA to determine the need for an indoor recreation facility, define the program and prepare budgets for project development. It was determined a $9.5 million project was required including an addition of approximately 27,500 square feet and renovation of approximately 21,000 square feet of existing space. A new entry was designed that welcomes visitors and enables them to glimpse the many activities that they may participate in during their visit. A new leisure and lap pool, including a lazy river which doubles as a resistance channel for exercise, therapy and rehabilitation was added, creating family fun and fitness. New locker rooms and a fitness area were also added. Renovated spaces include the gymnasium, child care and aerobics areas.

There are many inefficiencies in older recreation centers that, when corrected, can significantly increase revenue or lower operating costs. For example, the replacement of antiquated mechanical equipment and lighting fixtures with new, energy-efficient technology can significantly reduce operating costs and pay for itself in a surprisingly short period of time.

As it is with building a new recreation center from scratch, the key to accomplishing a successful renovation is thorough planning. There must be a clear process established for making decisions and adequate information generated to make those decisions.

A recommended first step is a fresh look at your market in order to evaluate what changes may have occurred since the center was built. What demographic changes have there been? Has the demand for youth activities diminished and the need for more senior activities increased with the aging of the baby boomers? Have average annual income levels changed significantly?

Next, take a look at how your facility compares with other recreation service providers in your area, both public and private. Determine what services and amenities are being offered and how much is being charged to use them.

It's also helpful to research the latest trends in recreation facility design and program management, both regionally and nationally. From cabanas with private showers and fitness assessment rooms to climbing walls and warm water exercise and therapy pools, there have been plenty of changes in recreation centers in recent years.

Once a market assessment is done, it is time to take a close and comprehensive look at your existing facility. Begin by reviewing any existing information, such as master plans and customer surveys, operating budgets, fee schedules and maintenance and marketing plans. This may seem like overkill, but it is essential to obtain an accurate snapshot of your existing condition in order to persuade others that changes are necessary.

Every recreation center is different and has its own unique ties to the community. You want to identify what is working particularly well at your center. Are there special elements, including those of historical significance, that give the center identity and character that should be preserved, highlighted or expanded?

Next, you need to consider what may not be working so well, and that includes a comprehensive look at the center's overall physical condition. The results of this review may very well determine whether or not a renovation is feasible. Therefore, it can be money well spent to hire outside specialists with experience in auditing recreation centers to assist with the building analysis.

Two important areas of focus during your building inspection are the swimming facilities and the mechanical components such as lighting and heating and air conditioning units. If a renovation includes little more than replacing antiquated equipment, it may be well worth the effort in energy savings alone.

Recreation centers with their long operating hours, large volumes, water pumps and multiple uses are huge energy hogs. Mechanical systems, particularly those serving the swimming area, account for nearly two-thirds of the total energy use in an average 60,000-square-foot center. Adding new energy-saving technology can reduce a recreation center's annual energy bill by as much as 30 percent or more.

In addition to reducing costs, identify areas that will increase revenues and membership, such as fitness centers, aerobic, dance and spinning studios, leisure pools, community room/events halls, indoor playgrounds, multi-activity courts and party rooms.

Remember, the more bodies using each square-foot of the recreation center, the more revenue potential is possible. That means that some areas that are expensive to build and maintain may produce relatively little revenue, such as racquetball courts and competitive swimming pools. On the other hand, spaces such as fitness centers and warm-water family-oriented leisure swimming pools with waterslides, lazy rivers and therapy pools are expensive to build, but their popularity generates considerable use and revenue.

Possible savings in staffing levels is another important consideration in your planning. For example, a well-designed and located control desk that offers sight-lines into adjoining activity areas can reduce the need for additional supervisory personnel.

Also, to avoid a disconcerting patchwork look to your renovation, use visual connections, wayfinding, color and light to tie the old with the new and give the center a pleasant unified appearance.

The final keys to a successful renovation include developing master plan options that include funding alternatives for two or three preferred courses of action. If you have done your homework, the final result will be an enhanced, exciting remake of your recreation center that is enthusiastically embraced by the community.


Steve Blackburn, AIA, is a principal and LEED accredited professional with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver. BRS has assisted more than 160 communities across the country in the strategic planning, master planning, programming, design and construction of their community recreation facilities.

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.