Maintenance & Operations: Fitness Facilities

Green in the Gym

By Tammy York

Are you in the market for a new or renovated gymnasium? Thinking of sustainability could save you thousands in maintenance and operating costs. Whether you are seeking LEED certification, Net-Zero, or just want to be a little more environmentally conscious, there are a myriad of steps you can take.

"In several jurisdictions, it is written into the codes that the building needs to meet specific requirements for sustainability," said Kari Frontera, regional practice area leader, Sports and Recreation; IIDA (International Interior Design Associate); LEED AP BD&C (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Accredited Professional, Building Design and Construction) with Gensler, a global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm. "Ultimately, the goal of sustainability is to protect the environment and to not deplete our natural resources, but at the same time to design a building that meets the end users' needs."

Gensler recently completed a major renovation at George Washington University's 100,000-square-foot Charles E. Smith Center. The LEED NC Gold facility hosts varsity and intramural athletic programs, cultural events, concerts, convocation and graduation. A few of the enhancements included redesigning interior spaces, upgrading building systems, improving accessibility and adding high-end alumni club lounges.

Before your gymnasium building committee starts on the green pathway, there are several key points to keep in mind. The most important is that your goals might exceed your budget for the project. Many design firms will provide three different levels of commitment, and it is up to the committee to determine which one suits the LEED certification or Net-Zero design goals and budget.

Buildings are expected to last at least 50 to 100 years or more, and that longevity gives planning committees some wiggle room. The long-term investment of constructing a sustainable building will pay off in operating and maintenance savings, as well as increased productivity for people using and working in the building.

What Is Your Building's Fuel Mileage?

"The first thing we look at is the fuel mileage of their building. Almost no one knows how much energy their building consumes on a square foot basis," said Bill Maclay, AIA, LEED AP and principal of Maclay Architects, which designs buildings and communities that are models for healthy, inspired living, advancing to a carbon neutral and ecologically sustainable future. Maclay Architects designed The Putney School's Net-Zero Field House.

Confused on how to find your energy-per-square-foot mileage? Take the energy loads of electricity, natural gas and oil and convert your consumption into kWh or BTUs. By taking the fuel consumption and putting it into the same unit of measure, it will be easier to compare usage and identify patterns. Benchmark your building against other similar buildings by researching energy usage for different types of structures on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star web site.

Since a robust green design optimizes the reduction in operating costs and maintenance costs over the long term, sustainable design is a wiser investment that can be proven in dollars and cents. For example, a $3 million building might cover just the basics of what you need for the location. However, an increase to $4 million for the building to be sustainable could pay off in a 20-year time span depending on energy prices. Once you are not paying for energy, the operating costs for the building decrease significantly.

By looking at the long-term goals, it is easier to see the forest. Which would you rather do: raise an additional million dollars to create a sustainable building that will reduce your long-term operating costs or continually raise money to cover your operating expenses? Will it be easier for you to sell to your benefactors on creating a building that has a zero or negative balance on the energy produced vs. energy used? Or would it be easier to sell them that you need more money to pay for rising fuel costs?

Progressing design firms can provide cost comparisons for sustainable building design levels and materials, as well as data on the return on investment so you can make informed choices rather than guessing about what the energy-saving product might do for you. However, any firm that strongly promotes a specific product is suspect.

"Be realistic and understand what you want to commit into the program and how much effort you can put in based on a maintenance and operation standpoint," Frontera said. "Look at the lifecycle of the building rather than just the costs."

"The cheapest options might be lower today, but if that material isn't durable you are going to have to replace it every couple of years and the replacement costs are going to be higher," said Amanda Thomas, sustainable design specialist; AIA (American Institute of Architects); CDT (Construction Document Technologist); and LEED AP BD+C with Gensler. Determine the real cost by having your design firm provide an analysis of LEED credits to upfront costs to the costs over the life of the building including daily or weekly operating and maintenance costs.


With the volatile price of fuel, one of the most important things that you can do for your facility is to increase the amount of insulation well above the standard. An air barrier will reduce the amount of airflow between the inside and outside of the building. Both of these tactics will lead to less fuel needed for heating and cooling the building.

"It is smarter to do energy conservation because you are building something that is going to be there for 50 to 100 years. It doesn't cost a lot more to add insulation now, whereas trying to come back in after the building is constructed to add insulation is very expensive," Maclay said. "Adding an air barrier in the design phase will reduce energy loss to air movement through the windows and the roof which is typical in most buildings."

At The Putney School Field House, the air control was the highest recorded, and the return on investment was achieved within one year. "One of the great benefits, when you insulate really well, is that you do not need a big expensive complicated mechanical system," Maclay said. "With the heat turned off the building might lose four to six degrees over the entire day."

Healthy Building Healthy Peeps

Healthier building materials such as carpet and paint with no violate organic compounds will lead to a better indoor air quality. Several manufacturers create carpet from recycled carpet and plastic. At the end of its lifecycle, it can be removed and recycled into new carpet.

"Fresh air, especially with recreation centers where you have a lot of people coming in, is important for good air quality," Frontera said. "You don't want stagnant air in the building. In a new building or renovation, it is also important to flush out the air before people move into the space."

Lighting is also a key element to a healthy building and healthy people. Windows with views of nature increase the ambiance of the building. Plus, how natural light is introduced to the room is important. At The Putney School Field House, the windows on the south side of the building are high on the walls and have a blind that bounces the light up to the curved ceiling. This simple lighting technique allows for the changing patterns of natural light inside of the building. Automatic lighting controls adjust the strength of the artificial light to adequately illuminate the space.

Lighting in the yellow end of the spectrum is preferred because most people find the warmth of the yellow light more comforting.

Power Usage

By incorporating energy consumption reduction strategies, you can save on energy costs. "General strategies are simple and low cost, such as turning the lights and computers off," Thomas said. "Just little things done on a daily basis can quickly add up."

Park, community and college buildings are by default education centers, making these buildings the perfect venue for showcasing sustainable design. "Only 5 percent of the costs of the building are needed to get major energy conservation savings," Maclay said.

Energy can be produced by the building by adding a photovoltaic system. When the costs of the photovoltaic system are paid off, the building might actually produce more electricity than it can use. The excess energy can then be stored in batteries for a later use or sold to the power company.

A heat pump can transfer heat rather than producing it from burning fuel. A ground source heat pump requires complicated equipment, drilling wells, maintaining pumps and more. This means if something goes wrong, it will take a while to figure out what is broken and fix it. Plus, a ground source heat pump system consumes square footage in the mechanical room. An alternative is the air source heat pump.

"With the air source heat pump system we saved $100,000 from the ground source system," Maclay said. "The air source isn't as efficient and we had to put in $35,000 more in photovoltaic system but the net result was the building owner saved $65,000."

Measuring is extremely important in reducing energy consumption. Incorporate metering systems for lighting, computer usage, mechanical systems and water during the design phase. For large buildings, break metering into zones so it is easy to track the usage in each area. By being able to track the usage, you can readily adjust the amount of energy used and immediately identify and eliminate energy vampires.

Water Consumption

At the Putney School, one of the goals was to be highly environmentally conscious. This went so far as to include a composting toilet system. The Field House's composting toilets obviously reduce the amount of water used and the amount of water leading into the sewage system.

Conventional toilets use water to move the waste and in the process pollute 1.6 to 5 gallons of water per toilet per flush. By switching to a composting system, you can save money on water and sewage treatment. Smells can be eliminated by using solar-powered vents including a simple passive solar design. The air inside of the restroom is ventilated down into the toilet, the collection area and then out of an exterior exhaust pipe.

If composting toilets seem a bit extreme, simple changes such as motion-activated light switches, sink faucets and toilets as well as towel dispensers will reduce the quantity energy, water and product used, decreasing your operating expenses.

Where a composting toilet will save you 100 percent of the water used for flushing, low-flow restrictors on the sinks and showers will reduce the amount of water used per minute without the user noticing. Plus, a clever way to save on heating the water is to introduce a heat exchange on the drain pipe.

Make Recycling Easier

Even in today's age of recycling getting people to actually recycle means making as easy as possible for them to do so. By having one central recycling area that is a highly visible collection area for aluminum, steel, plastics, paper and cardboard will help people to recycle more. To encourage future recycling, post information in the form of graphics about how much recycling has been collected. If the recycling is sold, post information about the profits made from the recycling collected and how those profits benefited the people using the gymnasium.

Renovation Innovation

Renovation to improve an existing gymnasium's sustainability is more of a challenge because you have to deal with what is already there.

At George Washington University's Smith Center, the renovation resulted in a 30 percent reduction in energy consumption by improving the building shell, air barrier, lighting loads and HVAC equipment. "Look at what properties you have and how you can improve them. The process of becoming sustainable is also an educational tool," Thomas said. "Be responsible about materials and the use of materials in the design."

"Working from the outside in on the Smith Center, we decided to re-skin the building. We didn't add insulation because it didn't need it," Frontera said. "We just needed to change the look of the building and left the structural elements alone."

During the reconstruction, 92 percent of the waste, which was concrete, sheet gypsum board, metal studs and aluminum from studs and wood substrate, was diverted to a recycling facility.

"The key to the renovation was being creative with the existing space and, with a couple of modifications, make a whole new facility," Frontera said. "At the Smith Center we added an entire club area by adding a level to the squash courts. The club area is now generating revenue for the university."

Active Design

Don't overlook the health of your staff when you are designing the gymnasium. "One of the most recent active design initiatives is determining how to encourage people to get up and move around," Frontera said. "Interconnecting stairs within the space rather than taking the elevator; activities zones, such as a stretching station, that encourages people to take a break, move, stretch and increase the blood flow; and walking meetings using pre-defined mileage maps around office parks are all ways to incorporate active design."

Active Design is one of the key components to The Putney School Field House. "The idea was to integrate the field house near the dining hall to get kids exercising after they eat," Maclay said. "The mission of the building in health and exercise and the location and design entices the kids to be active rather than forcing it on them."

Other ways of increasing the health of the users is having desks that people can stand at rather than sit, an exercise ball to sit on instead of a chair or a walking desk, which is a treadmill and desk combination.

Planning Ahead

"A simple 10-degree change in the direction the building is oriented can save on the energy consumption," Thomas said. "It doesn't cost any more to build it that way, it is just smart design."

"When you are applying for LEED, overshoot the amounts you are seeking because there might be some you are trying to get, but you simply can't because of the schedule," Frontera said. "Adding a little cushion with the amount of credits you are aiming for will help you out."

With new buildings in the design phase, it is important to think about all the things that you might want to do in the future and make sure that the elements for those components are put in place when construction begins.

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