Beyond Fitness

The Evolution of Multipurpose Facility Design

By Brian Summerfield

In a retrospective published recently in Men's Journal magazine on the early years of Gold's Gym and the rise of "Muscle Beach" in Southern California, writer Paul Solotaroff described the gym scene in the 1960s as both spartan and sparse. In his article, "The Dawn of Huge," he wrote, "Gyms in the 1960s were scarce and vile, most of them unfit to train a dog," and pointed out that when Gold's Gym opened, there were only three other similar clubs serving the 7 million people of the Los Angeles metro area.

And the first Gold's Gym, which would one day become one of the premier brands in health and fitness, wasn't exactly raising the bar (no pun intended). According to Solotaroff, founder Joe Gold "built a two-story bulwark of concrete blocks that had all the amenities of a morgue—a place exclusively for hardcore lifters." It was innovative in one important way, though: "The gym was big for its day, 30 feet wide and 100 deep, and consisted of a single, large, double-height space, unlike the rabbit-hutch layouts of other gyms," Solotaroff wrote.

Fitness centers evolved significantly over the next few decades from the austere, basic offerings of yesteryear. Now they're frequently referred to as multipurpose facilities, as they offer many more activities to members, many of which have little to do with exercise. Additionally, they have proliferated to the point where many suburbs have more fitness options today than entire metro regions had 50 years before.

Design also has been a major difference. "There has been a tremendous amount of change, and all for the better," said Colleen McKenna, associate principal for Cannon Design, who has worked on these types of buildings for 15 years. "If you look at the design of buildings from back in the mid-1980s, they didn't have a lot of daylight and were very utilitarian. Now facilities are bright and welcoming."

Steve Blackburn, a vice president and principal at Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture who has 26 years of experience with these kinds of facilities, agrees, and added that improvements in areas such as lighting, ventilation and flooring have dramatically enhanced the experience for the people who use them. However, he also said that a combination of factors is producing—and will continue to produce over the next couple of decades—changes in fitness centers that will be at least as substantial as the ones witnessed since Gold's Gym hit Venice Beach. Here are some of the most important.

New Offerings

Up until just a few years ago, when a fitness center added features—no matter how new and unusual (e.g., rock climbing walls)—they were still mostly centered on exercise. "Where you may have seen a multipurpose facility with a wide range of activities, they didn't have a lot of amenities," McKenna said.

Up until just a few years ago, when a fitness center added features—no matter how new and unusual (e.g., rock climbing walls)—they were still mostly centered on exercise.

The core of these facilities remains fitness, but as they have sought to attract new members and keep the business of existing ones, they have augmented their offerings with amenities related to leisure, education and general health and wellness. "The building's existence is based on generating revenue, and these businesses have to look at getting all sources of revenue," McKenna explained. "And when you're able to provide new services and expand your business, you're going to get members you wouldn't have before."

"[Municipal multipurpose facilities are] getting a lot of pressure from city managers and city councils to bring more revenue in to cover a certain amount of costs," Blackburn said. "There are very few that totally cover their costs, but there's more pressure to move the dial up to earning 70, 80 or even 90 percent of their operating costs."

Some examples of these new services include:

  • Member lounges
  • Restaurants and cafes
  • Offices for doctors and health professionals
  • Libraries and computer centers
  • Demonstration kitchens for healthy eating
  • Salons and spas
  • Meeting spaces and classrooms

Additionally, party rooms have become practically de rigeur for many multipurpose facilities because they're a cash cow. "Those have more potential to generate revenue than any other room in the building," Blackburn explained. "If you're doing a dozen parties a weekend, you're generating a lot of revenue."

These are just the beginning. Blackburn is working on multipurpose facility projects that target youth in interesting ways. One is a production studio that allows young people to work on audio-visual projects. "With this emerging trend of YouTube and kids taking their garage band online, if you create this space, that might be something special," he said.

The second involves creating spaces for "exer-games," akin to the virtual athletics experiences provided by the Nintendo Wii. "We're trying to reverse childhood obesity in America by getting them to come to the recreation center instead of playing video games in the living room," Blackburn said.

Troy Sherrard, partner at Moody-Nolan, sees all of these new programs, services and spaces as meeting a rising demand for a more social recreational milieu.

"There's a large social aspect to recreation," he said. "Some people aren't individually motivated to be fit. Group exercise can get people more engaged. And we're all more connected today, and we all want to take that connectedness to our fitness facilities. That attracts younger generations."

As multipurpose facilities seek to boost membership and revenue by focusing on more non-traditional, group-oriented features, though, the resources devoted to some fitness activities have been reduced. Blackburn cited racquetball courts, which house a sport that's less popular than it was a couple of decades ago and take up quite a bit of space for just a handful of people, as an example of this.

The broadening array of offerings has led to a generally acknowledged need for a reclassification of sorts. And multipurpose facilities, while an accepted industry term, doesn't exactly capture the public's imagination. "That nomenclature has really drifted," said Blackburn, who added that they're typically called something that involves the terms "community" or "center," depending on the organizations involved, with variations such as "recreation," "funplex" or "sportsplex."

The Great Outdoors (and Indoors)

Not all of these offerings are under the building's roof—and sometimes they're not even on the campus at all. Several activities have moved outside.

Many facilities now have outdoor playing fields for organized youth sports, and they aren't just empty lots. "The explosion of soccer has created a tremendous amount of demand for field space, and the old approach of having a simple grass field and striping it doesn't cut it anymore," said McKenna, and added that these fields often have the latest, safest turfing solutions and lighting for night events.

Having that kind of state-of-the-art field provides more flexibility with scheduling games and other events, because there isn't really a time when it can't be used, Sherrard said. "The direction is toward more turf fields because they can be played on all day long, and it takes weather out of the picture," he explained.

For adults, many multipurpose centers offer off-site trips for activities such as long-distance running, crossfit training, camping, kayaking and hiking.

For adults, many multipurpose centers offer off-site trips for activities such as long-distance running, crossfit training, camping, kayaking and hiking. And as many members don't have the equipment for some of these activities, the facility has to supply them. That can create a need for a great deal of storage space, McKenna said.

Additionally, some indoor activities can be moved outside when the weather is nice. Some facilities now provide creatively designed outdoor venues for activities that traditionally happen in a studio, such as yoga and tai chi. This has the added benefit of advertising the services to people who pass by the facility, Sherrard said.

The inverse of this trend is that an effort is being made to bring the outdoors "inside." This is done by installing lighting and ventilation systems that give interior spaces a more outside feel. For instance, Sherrard has worked on facilities that let hot air rise and draw in cool air lower down without the aid of mechanical systems. "We want to give a connection to the outside, not only through lighting and windows, but also through the air that's brought in," he explained. "We're trying to do more natural ventilation where the buildings 'breathe' by themselves."

Another important way in which these facilities are changing is in the expansion and enhancement of both indoor and outdoor aquatic activities. Blackburn points to a project his company is working on now in Olathe, Kan., a large suburb of Kansas City, as an example of what's in store.

"Every few years, a municipality comes along and says, 'We want to do something that's never been done before,'" he said. "This is one of those clients that says, 'We want to incorporate the latest thinking about recreation into this project.' For instance, in the aquatic center, they're looking for something for everyone, from the 2-year-old toddler to the 90-year-old senior."

A couple of unique offerings this new facility will feature are a rock wall with ropes that also has a diving perch at the top, and a zip line that allows people to glide down into the pool. Blackburn said this is an example of a burgeoning "watertainment" trend, and he expects more facilities to adopt features in their aquatic areas that are similar to what you might find in resort areas such as Pigeon Forge, Tenn., Branson, Mo., or the Wisconsin Dells.

Sharing Spaces, Finding Efficiencies

Another important way in which these facilities are changing is in the expansion and enhancement of both indoor and outdoor aquatic activities.

New activities attract new revenues, but that's only part of the financial picture for fitness and recreation centers. They also have to manage costs, and one important way they've done that is by sharing spaces with other institutions. McKenna said she sees this frequently with collegiate multipurpose facilities, and offered her company's recent work for Northern Arizona University as an example of this.

"Initially, all of these entities were looking at doing these improvements individually," she said. "But these groups came together and decided to have all of their services in one facility. It's a very unique approach, but it's becoming more commonplace."

The university has housed its fitness, athletics, education, health and counseling services departments in a single facility. By taking this approach, it not only saved money, but also reduced redundancies in services, said McKenna, who added that combining fitness and wellness services in a single location can help facilitate a "sound mind, sound body" experience for members. "Anything we can do to facilitate the preventative side is going to improve people's physical states," she said.

This move toward sharing spaces has necessitated a shift in the mindset of management and personnel in these facilities. In the past, there was often the notion that a particular individual or department "owned" a physical space within the fitness center, but those days are over, McKenna said.

"One of the concepts that has gone away is, 'This is mine. This is my room and no one else can touch it, even if I only use it one hour a day,'" she said. "There's a much stronger openness and ability to be collaborative, for the good of all. There's also too much demand for space and financial pressure [to take that approach].

"What we're hearing from our clients is that the operational model is as important as the design response," she added. "Who's going to manage and operate the building? Where are the janitorial services coming from? Who's paying for utilities? Who has priority at what time? Who is responsible for maintaining particular spaces? The operational model is different."

Another way in which they're controlling costs is by finding efficiencies via smarter technology and design.

"Everyone wants to do more and more with less and less," said Sherrard, and added that automation could control things like building temperature, blinds and lighting to get the most optimal energy use.

However, a downside to the technologies that make buildings smarter and greener is that it can be difficult to scale them down to make them affordable and practical for smaller multipurpose facilities. Also, they change so often; today's cutting-edge solution is tomorrow's legacy system. "It seems like we're always chasing technology," Sherrard said.

Coming Together

With all of the complexity brought about by an expanded sense of purpose, financial issues, sharing of spaces and management responsibilities, and new technology, designing and building multipurpose facilities is only going to get more challenging. Coming to a final agreement about what a new complex should look like, what it should offer and who it should serve can be quite a process.

With all of the complexity brought about by an expanded sense of purpose, financial issues, sharing of spaces and management responsibilities, and new technology, designing and building multipurpose facilities is only going to get more challenging.

One of the biggest challenges involved with new multipurpose facility projects today is balancing form and function. "The ideal situation is that you have a beautiful, elegant building that meets all the functional requirements of what needs to happen inside," McKenna said.

Of course, that perfect balance rarely happens because of the varying priorities of all the individuals and organizations involved. "Directors are very utilitarian—they want the best use of the space," Blackburn said. "But their bosses want great design. They want something that reflects the community."

That's where a good design team comes in.

"Finding that balance is really our role as architects," McKenna said. "We're the neutral party who can facilitate that balance. What we try to do is talk to our clients about what's most important to them, so that at the end of the day, everyone's comfortable with the end result."

"We start with education," Blackburn said. "Sometimes we have clients who have been to lots of recreation centers and they know all the trends, and that's great. But most of them aren't like that. They may know very little about design, or working with construction companies and architects. There are thousands of decisions that need to be made between the start of the project and the grand opening."

To get the ball rolling on this process, Sherrard starts by asking the principal players these three simple questions:

  • What's your dream facility?
  • What can you afford?
  • What will you want to do in the future?

Agreements among everyone involved on these three key issues will guide design decisions. "Our role is to bring order out of chaos," Sherrard said. "The best way to gain consensus is to make sure there's a transparent process. When the design happens, you have to set priorities and goals, and make design decisions along the way based on that."

And while there will be debates, arguments and give-and-take along the way, it's important to stay focused on fun, as that's what will ultimately make a multipurpose facility compelling to consumers.

"Fitness is fun," Sherrard said. "The process of designing and creating these facilities should also be fun."

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