Design For All Times

Trends in Sports Facility Design

By Dawn Klingensmith

Upon completion of an intramural sports building at the University of Michigan, Elmer Mitchell, the man whose vision drove the facility's design, said it would be a place "where a thousand students can enter daily to congregate, and to mix their exercise with sociability."

Hundreds of miles away in New York, the Wellness Center at the College of New Rochelle features not only athletic facilities but also a meditation garden, a chapel and classrooms, bringing together competition, contemplation and conviviality. Built on the same principle, the two facilities are separated not just by miles but by decades: The Wellness Center was completed in 2008 while the University of Michigan building was completed 80 years earlier in 1928, and it was way back then when Mitchell expressed a vision embraced by so many sports facility designers today as though it were a new concept.

"Particularly on campuses, there's been a trend toward including social spaces" in sports facility design, said Colleen McKenna, associate principal, Cannon Design, Boston.

For example, instead of corridors connecting spaces designed for programmed activities, you might find a series of lounge areas with Wi-Fi where students can do homework or chat with friends. "It's not just about the pool and the gym but spaces that connect and enhance the overall experience," McKenna said.

Three years ago, Cannon Design renovated a fieldhouse into a fitness center at Principia College in Elsah, Ill., in keeping with the institution's "Whole Man" educational philosophy that physical, spiritual and intellectual improvement are all intertwined. Besides accommodating varsity athletics and physical recreation, the goals of the $7.6 million renovation, completed in 2008, were to "create an inviting center for thoughtful activity" and to "provide active and passive socialization and learning opportunities."

Though not new, the idea that sports facilities should be multiuse and inviting with some architectural flair has lately taken hold in a way that Elmer Mitchell perhaps would have appreciated. Facility design today is also shaped by the green movement, compliance issues, safety and liability concerns, and economic realities.

Sunny Days Ahead

"There have been trends and changes in sports facility and gymnasium design and renovation of late. A lot of them are obviously cost-driven," said Grant Warner, CEO, Sports Facilities Group, Riverside, Calif. "One thing that comes to mind is changes in lighting, which has been going on for a while."

Gyms in the 1960s relied on inefficient fluorescent lamps that produced poor lighting along with a buzzing sound. Then came other types of lighting (metal halide, high-pressure sodium, halogen), which are brighter but have other drawbacks. Some have cool-down and warm-up times, for example, so if the power goes out in the middle of a sporting event, no matter how briefly, all action comes to a halt for as long as 15 minutes.

New products on the market offer superior lighting, as well as energy and cost savings. High-intensity fluorescent lights are "extremely bright," Warner said, yet have compact fixtures. They are the norm for new facilities and offer a relatively quick return on investment as a retrofit to existing buildings.

Whereas gyms of a certain era tended to be windowless, newly constructed facilities make use of natural lighting for purposes of energy efficiency and occupant comfort. Standard windows can produce unwanted glare, and where there are bodies and balls in motion, there's the potential for breakage. A safer option is a translucent fiberglass wall panel, which allows diffuse natural lighting into the gym. Skylights are another option.

With the advancement of fluorescent lighting technology come other energy-saving innovations, such as Solatube, a solar light tube that passively harvests sunlight from a rooftop to illuminate a facility, without the heat gain associated with traditional skylights.

Ground-Level Design Changes

For gymnasium flooring, "wood is still the predominant preference," Warner said, "but there are so many design options available now."

"Floor technology has changed," he continued, so even if you opt for traditional maple, it might be milled in such a way that it provides greater durability and less environmental impact.

Where Warner works in California, floor varnishes are water-based as opposed to solvent-based to comply with stricter code requirements. "It's better for the environment, but water-based varnishes wear out faster and can be more difficult to apply, although they do dry faster," he said. "You have to refinish more often. In high-use or dusty climates, you may need to refinish the floor two times a year. Sooner or later, I expect they will reformulate water-based varnish to make it more durable. It does not necessarily offer a cost improvement for now, but it's an answer to environmental regulations."

Synthetic gym floors previously were a low-cost option for budget-conscious builders like the YMCA or church facilities, but improved technology makes them suitable for a wider variety of applications. Synthetic material often is easier to clean and requires less maintenance than wood. Options include floor tiles that snap together and poured urethane products.

Factors like climate and wear-and-tear expectancy need to be considered when choosing flooring.

Bleacher manufacturers "are reacting to changes in flooring," Warner said. Newer retractable bleachers offer optimal traction on the different types of flooring and finishes as opposed to just wood.

The biggest changes in bleacher design are driven by liability, consumer safety and code-compliance issues. But patron comfort and aesthetic appeal are increasingly important as well. "Bleachers as a general rule are this big chunk of ugly things that move in and out," Warner said. However, "Manufacturers now offer plastic modular ones that look better, resist vandalism, and are easier to clean and maintain."

Bleachers can be designed in such a way that a school's mascot or initials appear when they are retracted, so the bank of bleachers "kind of turns into signage instead of a boring slab of gray or pine," Warner said.

Indoor sports equipment has not evolved much in the past few years, except new construction projects now have the option of incorporating telescoping volleyball poles that retract into the floor or poles that fold down from the ceiling.

Sports facilities are being designed with flexibility and multipurpose use in mind. As such, "Scoreboards that are portable and have wireless controllers are more and more common," said Reed Voorhees, vice president, Cannon Design.

Triggering ADA Requirements

The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 pertains to the design, construction and alteration of buildings and facilities. When an older facility is renovated, the project must include alterations and updates to make it accessible and ADA-compliant. It is a noble goal that sometimes has unfortunate consequences, such as putting off needed upgrades and repairs, Warner said.

For example, "School districts with tight budgets may need to make upgrades to address problems, but instead they do nothing because there's a grandfather clause for old gyms," Warner explained. "If the school starts renovating, though, it usually triggers the requirements for ADA to become part of that project."

ADA requirements state that if "existing elements, spaces, or common areas are altered, then each such altered element, space, feature, or area shall comply" with the same provisions as new construction projects. And, "If alterations of single elements, when considered together, amount to an alteration of a room or space in a building or facility, the entire space shall be made accessible."

Hence, a fairly straightforward renovation can start to look like a Pandora's box of added costs and responsibilities. "It holds people back from doing anything. Suddenly, fixing a leaky roof becomes this huge expense with other projects" rolled in, like reconfiguring restrooms and building ramps, Warner said.

If alterations are limited to the electrical, mechanical or plumbing system, or to hazardous material abatement or automatic sprinkler retrofitting, it typically is not necessary that the space be made ADA-compliant.

Not 'Just a Gym'

Although the economy continues to force budget cuts, people's expectations of what a sports facility should offer has grown, even for what would rightfully be called a gymnasium versus an arena or a "wellness center." Particularly on college campuses, "There's more of an effort to be architecturally interesting or unique," Warner said. "Gyms in the past have usually been pretty blah-looking. Now, they tend to look more integrated with the rest of campus."

Instead of cement-looking cubes, gyms and other sports facilities might feature "a grand entrance with a trophy room," he said.

Warner has seen an "ultra-modern" high school gym with a corrugated steel fascia: "Heading up to it, you feel like you're going into a facility that could be an art museum."

In general, "The public has higher expectations for openness and quality of light," McKenna said.

The Wellness Center at the College of New Rochelle was designed to meet all NCAA requirements, but also to provide "a spiritual and intellectual experience," according to architects at the Princeton, N.J.-based firm ikon.5.

Among the athletic facilities are a fitness center, a gymnasium with arena-style bleachers for 1,500 spectators, competition-size basketball and volleyball courts, an interior running track suspended above the gym floor, and a six-lane competition-size swimming pool with seating for 200. The center also houses classrooms and space for conferences and seminars.

Other highlights include the meditation room and a rooftop "contemplation garden."

The first new building on campus for 40 years, the Wellness Center was designed to complement its surroundings, including the campus's existing gothic architecture, while serving as a getaway in its own right. Inspired by narrative and pictorial depictions of the Garden of Eden, the center is "a sheltered meditative precinct removed from the urban distractions of metropolitan New York," according to the architects. Primary building materials include granite, bluestone trim, concrete, and 30 different styles and colors of glass. Parts of the building are meant to evoke natural landscape elements: The natatorium is a grotto, the gymnasium is a rock outcropping, and the lobby concourse is a crevasse built into the gently sloping site.

Principia College's fitness center was designed to include vistas to the exterior landscape and to "incorporate graceful transitions from exterior to interior," McKenna said.

Set in a historic town on the Mississippi River, the college fitness center has been described as "naturalistic," "organic" and "integrated with the landscape." Natural lighting was incorporated wherever possible.

Athletic facilities include a mezzanine over half of the fitness center to accommodate two large multipurpose rooms for dance, aerobics and other group exercise programs. The project also included fieldhouse renovations to accommodate new team and guest locker rooms, a racquetball court convertible for squash and exhibit space for a Hall of Fame.

Thinking Outside the Box

When little thought is given to architecture, a gymnasium can be reduced to a "big cube," often with an exposed ceiling. Not only is this design uninventive, but it also is not conducive to efficient indoor climate control, Warner said. Nowadays, gymnasium designs might call for insulated ceilings and more efficient HVAC systems for sustainability and patron comfort.

New gyms are bigger and less boxy. "Bigger gyms have become the norm," Warner said, in part because there's a push to accommodate "multiple athletic events going on simultaneously."

Arguably, Elmer Mitchell planted the seed for the development in recreational sports facilities back in 1928: The University of Michigan facility that was his brainchild featured a moveable wall separating the swimming pool from the gymnastics area. Today, gym curtains and dividers commonly provide newer facilities with the ability to host multiple events and tournaments as a source of additional revenues, Warner said.

It is necessary for sports facilities these days to plan for ample parking and seating. Today's code-compliant bleachers have wider aisles and larger decks for safety purposes, resulting in fewer seats in the same amount of space. "You need to build a bigger building to regain that seating capacity," Warner said.

While creativity is encouraged in building design, "Being creative with the shape of a gym is not a good idea. Avoid nooks and crannies that can be disruptive to a variety of games or activities" or that make it difficult to supervise the entire gym, architect Joel K. Sims urges on

Green Giants

Concern about environmental impact is another unabated force that is driving sports facility design, from "peewee" types of organizations primarily interested in saving money through improved efficiencies to professional sports arenas hoping to leverage their green credentials into positive publicity.

The Far Hills Country Day School gymnasium, completed three years ago in Far Hills, N.J., is part of the school's 10-year Pathways to Excellence campaign of sustainable campus-wide modernization and expansion. Designed by Butler Rogers Baskett Architects of New York City, the 19,000-square-foot facility makes the most of the school's location in the hills of Hunterdon County. Part of the gymnasium is actually built into the side of a hill, reducing its overall mass and allowing the facility to "self-regulate" its temperature throughout the year due to the surrounding soil's constant temperature. Translucent wall panels in the gymnasium flood the interior with natural daylight. The floor consists of a concrete slab covered with recycled rubber tires and a polyurethane coating.

The College of New Rochelle's Wellness Center achieved LEED Silver certification by incorporating green features like skylights, which reduce the need for artificial lighting; a heat-recovery system that recycles heat coming off the pool; and structural concrete composed of recycled material including fly ash and slag.

Green sports facility design considers the architecture, site, region and climate, building envelope, construction materials, building systems and other variables. Support for green construction across all sectors remains "nearly unanimous" at 92 percent, while at the same time, support for LEED certification slipped 4.7 percent in 2009 to 62 percent, according to a 2010 green building survey by Allen Matkins law firm, Constructive Technologies Group and the Green Building Insider. Cost is a major driver for green building in these tough economic times, which helps explain the gap between support for LEED certification and its associated costs and green construction in general. The top reasons cited for using green construction methods and materials were to save on operating and energy costs.

Recycling Takes a Turn

When the economy gets tough, the tough get creative.

A school in the United Kingdom was honored as the "Best Small Building Project" at the 2009 Building Industry Construction Awards after erecting a new sports hall and gymnasium made from recycled shipping containers. The construction reportedly took just three days from start to finish.

Designed by Container City, SCABAL Architects and Furness Engineering, the gym cost about half as much as conventional construction would have cost. Besides saving money, the brightly colored facility provides the Dunraven School in the South London borough of Lambeth with an opportunity to teach students the importance of recycling and sustainability. Other green features include energy-efficient lighting and indoor climate controls, plenty of natural light and ventilation, and shower water that is harvested and reused for irrigation.

Across the pond, work continues on the $53 million Student Recreation Center at California State University, Northridge. Designed by Irvine-based LPA Inc. to qualify for LEED gold certification, the project boasts an eco-friendly and publicity-garnering innovation: A "ReRev" system will transmit power generated by students on gym equipment into the university's electrical grid.

Other green features include solar panels, recycled construction materials and solar tubes.

Athletic features include an indoor mezzanine jogging track, fitness equipment, sport courts, a three-story rock climbing wall and an outdoor lap pool.

Attention to Detail

One deficiency that indoor sports and recreation facilities often end up addressing in renovations is lack of storage space. Even newly constructed facilities often find before too long that their storage space is insufficient. Having one large storage room is not the answer; rather, it is best to have a dedicated space that provides easier access to balls, carts and smaller equipment that is frequently used. As Sims pointed out last year on, if community groups use the gym as well, there should be separate storage specifically for their use: "This storage room should even be keyed separately so they only have access to their storage room and not the other ones."

The smallest details can make the difference between user-friendly sport facility design and an ongoing "maintenance nightmare," Warner said. Seemingly superficial details like the placement of fire-protection system components and security cameras are important. When poorly situated and not properly protected, these can be tampered with by "kids on adrenaline highs" or broken by errant balls, Warner said.

"Little details end up being maintenance hassles and nightmares which schools then have to address in all kinds of makeshift ways like borrowing components from a shopping cart to protect a clock on the wall. We are constantly seeing these types of things in new buildings," Warner said.

"The details are a critical part of the gym design," Sims agreed. "Don't design exit doors below the main backstop so that your star basketball player does a lay-up and ends up in the lobby. Don't forget to add wall pads to increase safety. Add drinking fountains in the lobby so that, if they should break, they do not overflow onto the gymnasium's wood floor. Locate the gym so there is direct access to playgrounds and playfields."

Looking Forward, Looking Back

Eighty years have passed since Elmer Mitchell helped usher into existence a sports facility designed to combine "exercise with sociability." Today, his vision shapes the design of sports and recreation facilities the world over. Environmental and economic concerns, safety and compliance issues, and economic realities also affect sport facility design, including renovations and retrofits. The trend is toward bigger facilities with a smaller carbon footprint. And gone are the days of boxy, boring sports facilities: Today's buildings are architectural standouts as well as team players that work well with the natural and built environment that surrounds them.

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