Suit Yourself

Locker Rooms to Fit Your Facility

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Creating the right locker room for your facility can make users fall in love.

It's the reward after a worthy workout, a place to get in the right frame of mind for the game, and a clean, convenient (hopefully) spot to get kids ready to play and then ready to leave.

It's also likely one of the most complex and expensive (per square foot) portions of the facility, whether that's a community recreation center, a college sports complex or a fitness club. So, it's safe to say the locker room is an area worthy of some thought and planning.

"Historically, locker rooms were pretty formulaic," said Stephen Springs, AIA, LEED AP, a principal at Brinkley Sargent Architects in Dallas, Texas. "You'd seen one, you'd seen them all. But now we're seeing more attention paid."

Perhaps this is because we're a society that likes convenience—and enjoys a little pampering from time to time. "There's always a conflict between making things nice and pretty versus making them durable," Springs continued. "At one extreme you have a white-tile, hose-down-able room that a janitor would love, but it may not be the most friendly to be in. On the other end, you've got carpet, wood, music playing and a nice place to hang out—but a lot more maintenance."

The goal is to find where you fall on that spectrum in terms of target audience, budget and maintenance staff. And even if you're feeling pretty practical, don't despair. "There've been lots of advances in the last ten years," Springs said. "It's not just white-glazed tile anymore."

With these inspiring words in mind, the following guide will help ensure you've included all the locker room essentials, as well as provide a roadmap for the latest trends and amenities that will take your facility beyond the basics, making it practical, attractive, durable and maybe even a little luxurious.

Start by Thinking

You may be ready to leap into action—comparing tile samples and thumping on a variety of locker doors—but the place to begin is actually much quieter: Think about your facility and how it's used or will be used: by whom, at what times of the day and for what activities. At the most basic level, locker rooms have to meet certain legal and comfort requirements (more on those in a moment), but knowing how to create the right space means knowing your users and their goals and intentions for the time they spend at your facility.

Springs suggested visiting facilities of similar size and amenities and getting some feedback about what works and what doesn't work with their locker room setup.

"One thing that can drive [the design of your locker rooms] is who you're serving," he said. "If you're geared toward families, you'll need more cubbies. You'll have lots of kids and moms who are day visitors."

If your users are all coming at once—on their way to work or when the swim team practices—you'll need to have enough showers, mirrors, sinks, electrical outlets and electricity to accommodate a rush.

"Sometimes including the maximum possible number of lockers is the owner's biggest goal," said Christopher J. Rollhaus, AIA, LEED AP, a senior associate at Hastings & Chivetta Architects in St. Louis. But someone coming in to work out before heading to the office won't want to cram their suit jacket or nice shirt into a 12-inch-by-12-inch locker, he explained.

Careful consideration is also key if you're planning a multiuse building, such as one that might be used for public games and events, as well as for private individuals to exercise. With the right planning, you could create locker rooms that can be closed and locked during public events, while still providing spectator access to the attached toilet facilities, Rollhaus noted.

Finally, determining your target market will guide you toward the appropriate finishes and amenities for your locker rooms. At a country club, the locker rooms might be used by all age groups—seniors to children—but the target market is adults who've paid for a membership, so the space should be tailored to their expectations and ability to care for it, said Greg Houston, AIA, a partner at Marmon Mok Architecture in San Antonio, Texas. In contrast, at a municipal recreation center "the target is a wider demographic, which may include unsupervised children, so the locker facility has to be designed a different way, with more durable finishes," he said.

Beginning Considerations

With some ideas in mind about your facility's uses and users, the next step is to look at the practical components a locker room needs to include. This is also a good time to get the right professionals on board to assist you, if you haven't done so already. From knowledge of federal laws and state/local building codes to a wealth of past project experience to draw on, an architectural or design firm that specializes in recreation facilities will more than earn their keep by helping you end up with a locker room that fits your facility, meets legal requirements, and keeps consumers happy.

Basically, there are two components to be considered when constructing a locker room: the "bodily functions pieces," which include toilets, sinks, lavatories and showers, and the "storage and grooming" components, such as lockers, benches, shelves and mirrors, explained Keith Hayes, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, a principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture in Denver. But based on the thinking you've already done, you can probably imagine that the ways to implement these elements are nearly endless. Here are a few quick-hit tips from the pros:

Don't skimp on lockers. "Try to avoid using lockers as a place to save money unless you absolutely have to," Hayes said. But this doesn't mean you must have the wood-grain, gold-plated models either. "In a hockey or gym environment, metal lockers can be perfectly good, and maybe even desirable," he noted. Be sure you choose lockers large enough to hold the items users are likely to have with them, whether that's hockey gear or business suits. And, if you're looking to maximize the number you can provide, consider selecting several sizes—some large, some smaller.

Provide plenty of places to put things. "There's the dance we do when showering," Hayes said. "You go to your locker, you have to dry your feet, you dance around looking for a dry spot to set things. This is why hooks are good, shelves and places to set things." He also suggests plenty of benches, some fixed in place and some moveable. "Often people just need a place to sit," he said.

Include some room to move. Rollhaus said his firm has a rule that when placing lockers in a U shape, the bottom of the U is always at least six lockers wide. "Anything less and people start to feel cramped," he said. "It's just for comfort and personal space." After all, there's nothing worse than an unintentional booty bump with the person at the locker behind you.

Consider lines of sight. Your locker room layout may be a study in perfection … until someone opens the door. Make sure there's a wall or some other screening agent to shield those using the locker room from the eyes outside, Houston said. But another sight consideration is the ability of your staff to see all parts of the locker room quickly. "You don't want a maze for personal safety reasons, and it needs to be easy to cycle through on a regular basis to see that all is in order and clean," Hayes said.

Lighting is not a luxury. "I don't think you can put too much attention on lighting," Springs said. Low ceilings and harsh lighting immediately create an institutional feel. "No one wants to look bad naked, and a change to warmer light can dramatically change their perception of the room," he added. Houston suggests upgrading light fixtures or using indirect and natural light in the locker room, and he added that the level of light is also important. "You want enough to see while you're changing, but not so much that you feel on display," he said. Except where grooming is concerned, of course. At the vanity, patrons need more wattage, but warm, face-friendly tones will again be appreciated.

The nose knows. Proper ventilation is both a health and a comfort consideration, and also affects the longevity of your locker room's equipment and features, Houston noted. This is not just air volume, but air temperature, humidity and the number of air changes per hour—all of which should be carefully calibrated based on the size and layout of your locker room, as well as the users it serves (wet or dry, showering or not showering, laden with stinky equipment or dressed and ready to go). "Ventilation and air conditioning are the main elements of [indoor air quality], but there are some other things you can do," Houston said, "for example, scenting the airstream and incorporating plants in the locker room, plus mechanical air purification." Springs added that keeping "negative pressure" in the locker room will help contain any odors there, and bringing more natural, outside air through the space can also be a big boon for air quality.

Fitting Your Function

With these key components in play, the way you format your space, select the hardware and features you'll include, and put it all together should be determined with special consideration of your users (once again) and the activities your facility will offer. While the basics are the basics, some situations merit particular additional attention.

Aquatics: Whether your facility is exclusively dedicated to water activities or the pool is just one of your offerings, this has an impact on the locker room. In some cases, local health codes will dictate how the locker room must be arranged—so that patrons pass through a shower area as they enter and exit the pool deck, for example. You'll also want to devise strategies to keep wet patrons and dry patrons out of each other's way. "Wet and dry people need their own territory, but there can be common space, such as the vanity area, so there's still some efficiency with square footage," Springs said. One suggestion? Make sure you can get from the water to a toilet without traipsing through the whole locker room, Rollhaus noted.

You'll want to steer clear of carpeted floors and wooden or metal lockers in "wet" locker rooms, as perpetual dampness can wreak havoc on these finishes. Opt for a sturdy plastic (score some green points here by choosing recycled materials) or phenolic locker (available in an array of colors and even wood grain) and perhaps some sort of tile and antimicrobial mat flooring that minimizes slipping and helps keep feet (and anything that falls on the floor) out of puddles, Springs suggested.

A crowd-pleasing finishing touch is a "suit spinner" or swimsuit water extractor. It's much nicer to pack up and go if you don't have a soggy suit to put in your bag—especially if you're off to work or school.

Ice rink: Anytime ice skates are involved, you'll likely want a rubber floor, rather than any sort of tile. If your facility will host hockey teams, think big, suggested Hayes. "Ten or 20 people with bags of gear take up lots of space, and they're hard on the space. They have sticks," he noted. Go for jumbo-sized lockers to hold gear—perhaps even the kind with extra ventilation, a pull-out stool or a built-in seat—and extra-wide doorways and walking paths. In consideration for the spirit of competition, providing separate locker rooms for opposing teams, as well as for the officials, is a good plan if space and your budget allow. And at the opposite end of the ice-use spectrum, figure skaters will need "counters, mirrors and lots of power when they're getting ready," Hayes said.

To be successful, most ice rinks have to cater to a variety of users, Houston noted. Pro or high-level club hockey teams might use the rink, along with coaches giving figure skating or hockey lessons, and public skating sessions. This means you may need two or three different locker rooms to support these various audiences. Any pros will likely want their own restricted space, and club skaters will need a locker room and access to showers, while recreational users just need a spot to change their shoes and skates and a lockable place for their valuables.

Gym or fitness center: The latest trend in these sorts of spaces is less reliance on the locker room. Many people come to work out already dressed, and then they shower at home, so they can get by with just a safe spot to stash their stuff. Known as "express lockers" or "cubbies," these smaller, easy-access spaces can be tucked into an open section of wall right on the weight room floor, near the track, or in an aerobics room or the lobby. Depending on the situation they may be open slots for shoes and a duffle bag or smaller lockers that can be closed to contain keys, phones and purses. This can even be done at poolside, Springs noted. Patrons can put their shorts and towel in a cubby on the deck for convenient safekeeping while they swim. "This is also a good tactic if you're getting complaints about your locker space," he added. "You can serve [visitors] outside the locker room."

Family focus: "This is an example of an area that didn't used to be a code requirement but is now," Houston said. Providing family changing areas or locker rooms—also known as cabanas—has long made good design sense and been a great way to please your users, but it could also be a legal obligation, depending on your local laws.

"It feels good to visit [these kinds of] facilities," Hayes said. "And special needs users can also take advantage of them." Not only do these cabana-style changing areas allow an opposite-sex parent to care for their child without impacting others' privacy, they allow a special needs user to work with an assistant of the opposite sex, such as a spouse.

The best sorts of family changing areas usually include a toilet, sink and shower, plus perhaps some hooks, a bench and a diaper-changing table—all contained behind a closeable door (which is great for both privacy and child containment!). Houston has even installed iPod docks and stationary toys to entertain a baby or toddler while the adult gets dressed. And rather than placing lockers within this small space, consider having several changing rooms open into a common room or hallway lined with lockers. The trick is to keep these family areas small enough that they don't become space hogs, yet still have all parts you need—including room to maneuver.

The pros point out that these family areas should be accessible via an entrance separate from gender-specific locker rooms, and they should include their own access to the pool or other activity area.

Extra Embellishments

You've met code requirements, listened to the needs and requests of your potential users, and considered the special demands of the activities your facility will offer. What's left now is all bonus—little ways you can add oomph to your locker rooms and make them something special.

If your locker room will be home to an athletic team, here's your chance to help them succeed, Houston said. Boost team spirit by integrating their colors, logo and mascot into the décor that surrounds them as they prep for practice and to take on opponents.

The pros also report that a notable trend in locker rooms these days is that they're just nicer. "We've invited cameras into pro sports locker rooms, so people see that clubhouse environment," Hayes said. If it's good enough for those guys, why not all of us?

Hotels and restaurants are also an inspiration, he noted. From them have come trends like hexagon tiles and wooden doors, as well as in-counter tissue dispensers and complimentary toiletries, Houston added. Obviously these sorts of high-end finishes and freebies won't be the best for a general-purpose public locker room, but perhaps some clients would pay a bit extra for these amenities? (See sidebar for the way University of Missouri has made this work.)

You might also consider services as a way to bump up the luxury. Include a sauna or steam room among the lockers for a little extra relaxation, if space permits. Perhaps hot towels or manicures or massages (for a fee, of course) would make your locker room stand out. Why not offer snack service or a juice bar in a lounge area so users can socialize a bit? Country clubs and private facilities have been moving this direction for some time now, reported Rollhaus and Houston. And the private sector is "a vanguard, so [these things are] probably coming soon to public projects," Springs said.

The Payoff

When you have great locker rooms, those using your facility will be impressed. They might even tell their friends. And if you've gathered information and planned in advance, your final product will likely save you time and money on maintenance, as well as perhaps even generating a little revenue—either via services you offer or indirectly by keeping business coming through your doors.

But whatever you do, don't get stars in your eyes and forget the basics. No matter how fabulous your finishes are, if they're scratched, perpetually soaking wet, or slightly stinky, the glamour will be lost. "It all goes back to cleanliness," Hayes said. "That can make or break an experience."


Case Study
Tom Muehlenbeck Center
Plano, Texas

In 2007, the city of Plano, Texas, worked with Brinkley Sargent Architects on a new 82,000-square-foot recreation center that features indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a gymnasium, a weight room, a cardio room, a track, a group exercise area, a game room, a preschool area, multipurpose classrooms and locker rooms. Since it opened in November 2007, it's been visited by more than 600,000 people each year.

"Locker rooms are often targets for 'value engineering' to bring cost estimates in line with the construction budget," noted Amy Fortenberry, director of Plano Parks and Recreation. "While they're easy reduction targets, the outcome of a poorly functioning locker room is huge." Plano opted not to skimp on locker rooms at the Muehlenbeck Center, and they've been pleased with the results.

The parks department knew public input would be crucial to their design process, so they conducted focus groups, as well as drawing on previous experiences. "The heavy use of our swimming facilities creates periods of heavy traffic in the locker rooms," Fortenberry explained. "On a prior project we had asked for mirrors and shelves to go along a whole wall in the locker room with outlets to allow for hair dryers and curling irons to be plugged in. What we didn't say is that we wanted the power to be available for every outlet to be used simultaneously. As a result, the plans looked good, but when we opened and the swim team was getting ready to go to school in the morning, the breakers kept tripping. It's important to articulate exactly what you want and why you want it so the plans can be designed to fully accommodate the use," she said. At the Muehlenbeck Center, all the swimmers can blow dry at once with no problem.

The parks department also learned that time and convenience are valued by their customers, so they incorporated "express lockers" into the new center. These "allow people to lock up their car keys and wallet without going into the locker rooms," Fortenberry said. "For those who want to shower or lock up [larger] items, we have plenty of large, deep lockers. Each shower has an area for drying off with benches and hooks to keep bags and clothes off the floor and dry."

Although men's showers had traditionally been designed as "gang" showers, discussions with potential users of the Muehlenbeck Center revealed that men felt strongly about having individual, private showers. Locker areas also include family changing rooms, which Fortenberry described as "a must for any facility."

From a behind-the-scenes perspective, Fortenberry said that "storage closets for paper products, trash liners, disinfectant and mops need to be located near the locker rooms. Keyed water outlets should be designed for quick and efficient cleaning in between groups," she added. She also urged planners to pay attention to the dimensions of lockers and even do some testing with various bags to be sure they'll fit. "Lockers are all made differently, so make sure the one you select will actually lock and secure your guests' items," she said. "One brand of lockers we purchased only worked with an odd size of lock that most people didn't carry with them… If your customers are bringing their own locks, make sure the mechanism is universal and will accommodate a wide variety."

Finally, she noted that all public restrooms must be designed to withstand vandalism and stay in good shape for years. "We want them to be easy to clean and care for and durable," she said. "Durable and tough does not have to mean they look institutional." During the selection process, Fortenberry had her employees "test" materials by attempting to destroy them. "Some items scratch and look terrible, while others have color that permeates throughout the product. A little extra time selecting good materials will pay off in reducing your maintenance efforts and costs down the road."




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