Comfort & Joy

Modernize Your Locker Room to Boost Satisfaction

By Rick Dandes

A locker room area that is thoughtfully designed, modern and properly maintained can make all the difference between people joining your recreation center or fitness facility or taking their business elsewhere. And that's true even at a time when some experts contend that locker rooms are being used less and less by patrons who prefer to change clothes at home (or in their dormitories at college).

Most fitness centers offer more or less the same elements: cardio and weight equipment, group exercise, and men's and women's locker rooms. So, a thoughtful design and added amenities can help you stand out from the rest of the competition.

It wasn't always thought to be that way.

Locker rooms used to be an afterthought for most recreational facilities, which focused much if not all of their attention and budget on providing the best and most advanced equipment and programming available. Locker rooms were almost neglected as clubs regarded them as simply a place for members to change and shower. That's not the case anymore.

"One of the things we are seeing a lot of, even when our client clubs are operating on a tight budget, is that locker rooms still need to be warm and inviting so that there is more of an upscale feel to it," said Howard Blaisdell, senior associate architect, Moody Nolan, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio.

In designing locker rooms, Blaisdell said Moody Nolan has learned that this space is a very important part of the fitness center experience for users. When someone is looking to decide what place to go to, what club to join, or what recreation center to bring their entire family to, they look at the general nature and cleanliness of the locker room and some customized areas, where appropriate. "We are starting to see concerns about privacy for changing for people with either body image, or religious privacy concerns," Blaisdell noted. "While many of these people will use the family changing area, we are investigating private changing spaces within the locker room areas."

Cubby areas are also increasingly popular, particularly where security is not an issue. When it comes to cubby holes versus full lockers, "what we've been designing is a mix of the two," Blaisdell said. "It boils down to a culture of use. While we may not provide as many formal lockers in a locker room as we used to, we are building cubbies outside of the locker room. These cubbies might be distributed throughout the building, such as in weight fitness areas or near the group exercise room."

This is a convenience for those people who are not interested in taking a shower, and come to a club dressed to work out, but need a place to keep their valuables during that workout time.

It is, however, important to note that even as designers, manufacturers and facility operators adjust to people's changing habits and expectations, patrons still want to know the locker room is clean, should they ever want to use it. This can be a key factor when it comes to member retention and attracting new memberships.

Adjusting to the New Reality

"It's true that the most persistent trend I've seen in locker rooms for the public, whether that be municipal or educational recreation, is that they are being utilized less and less by exercisers," said Richard Shaffer, director of global business development for a Murrieta, Calif.-based locker manufacturer. "People are arriving at a facility ready to work out."

Designers and facility operators are adapting to less utilization in a couple of ways, he said. "We are not seeing the complete abandonment of locker rooms, but we are seeing additional lockers being spread throughout the recreation centers. Some facilities are allocating less space for the locker room."

An even better way to deal with less utilization is to reconsider the size of the lockers themselves. In the past, it was all about meeting capacity demands by installing smaller lockers. "Maybe this is part of the reason they are being used less," Shaffer suggested. "Twelve-inch wide two-compartment lockers are by far the most common, and the most disliked. In any case, since locker room capacity demand is shrinking, this has made room for larger capacity lockers, which are universally appreciated by virtually all users."

Another way to achieve a nicer, higher-end look is to use modern materials, Blaisdell said. "Quite often, the use of larger tile with fewer grout joints, which are still relatively inexpensive, can give an area a higher-end look. We're finding that people are using different materials for lockers, plastic lockers for example, or something with splashes of color to it. Even if they are using a metal locker, they are using ones with different color patterns to break up the space and make it look less institutional."

Lockers made in a variety of styles to break up the monotony is certainly a trend at clubs, said Mark Finkernagel, president of a locker and locker-room fixture manufacturer based in Columbia, S.C. "I am seeing more use of colors, and it's much more than getting away from basic colors and metal lockers. Maybe now you'll see different colors on alternating doors or alternating end panels. It's all intended to give the locker room a better appearance.

"No more do you walk into a locker room where every locker is two tiers, the same color, or the same sizes," Finkernagel continued. "What customers are asking for are some full-tier lockers, two-tier lockers and four-tier lockers. We are definitely noticing the desire for a mix of locker sizes, because there are people who bring coats or larger bags and want a larger locker, but there are also people who want to stuff something into a smaller locker. A mix of the two is valued."

Overlay doors are also an option. The width itself of lockers hasn't changed much over the years, Finkernagel said, "but now, with plastics you can get an overlay door, which is like a cabinet door in your kitchen. It means that on a 12 inch wide locker the door is 12 inches wide." Compare that to the old fashioned lockers, he said. An old fashioned metal locker that was 12 inches wide might have a door that is just 9 inches wide. With an overlay door, you might still have a 12 inch frame, but it's more accessible for storing equipment. You can get that 12-inch-wide bag into the locker, whereas before, you couldn't fit it through the opening.

From a depth perspective there hasn't been much change, he explained. "Typically lockers will be 15 inches deep, and some as wide as 18 inches. Those standards seem to be holding."

Making the Space More Inviting

Of course, there are always durability and maintenance issues for these post-modern locker rooms, added Mark Keane, senior associate, project designer, Hastings+Chivetta Architects, St. Louis. "We have seen a trend toward using materials that will leave the locker room feeling more wide open and inviting—spa characteristics that bring out the warmth of the space and make people feel more comfortable. Some special detailing could be part of a re-design to almost hide the old locker room feel: built-in benches, vertical lighting around the grooming mirrors, and indirect or softer lighting."

The LED light source has allowed for sustainable long-lasting light that can withstand the humid atmosphere in a locker room. It can control the color of the light as well, so you don't have to be in harsh fluorescent lighting. LEDs are coming down in price and improving in quality, and although they are initially more expensive, they have the benefit of extremely low maintenance and longevity. And depending upon how they are used, they can provide more light than traditional fluorescent bulbs.

Sustainability and paying more attention to comfort factors in the locker room is key to customer satisfaction. More and more user communities, whether in municipal or educational (high school or collegiate) settings, are interested in their energy consumption and sustainable practices. That extends to using sustainable materials that will last, for example, the availability of sustainable hand dryers. As a club operator, you don't want maintenance issues, where you have to replace materials after a few years; you want the lockers, benches, floor tiles and shower fixtures to last longer than that.

Quality on a Budget

From high-tech lock technology to luxurious lounge areas, whirlpools, Internet access and private showers and dressing areas, it's easy to sink a significant amount of money into creating the ultimate locker room --- if you have the budget. Such amenities can really pay off if you run a college facility looking for a recruiting edge or a high-end downtown city club specializing in luxury. But for most owners of smaller clubs and recreational facilities limited by budget or space, such a design might mean sacrificing fitness area equipment or program spaces.

The challenge is to achieve an upscale look no matter what your budget is. It is possible to design and build a quality space with an upscale feel on a tight budget. Health clubs even on the tightest of budgets shouldn't compromise on the features they really want in their locker rooms.

To achieve a nicer, higher end look, one of the first steps is to use modern materials.

"The issue of tight budgets is something we face all the time, especially in the recent economy," said David W. Larson, senior vice president, TMP Architecture Inc., Bloomfield Hills, Mich. Color is inexpensive, so he suggested providing a splash of color. Don't invest too heavily in permanent materials because the owner and patrons might get tired of a certain color. Painting the wall isn't that difficult and even refinishing some lockers can be attractive, using different colors. That is one way to really brighten up a space.

Having a cheerfully lit, bright space is a must, Larson said. Don't skimp on the light level in the locker room. "And, if you can create a ceiling height that is higher than a typical office setting, say, 10 feet for the ceiling rather than eight feet, that makes a big difference in how the space feels," he said. It feels like you are not in a basement, because more often than not locker rooms are positioned in a windowless space.

If there is an opportunity to get natural light into a locker room area, that is the best situation, he said. But many times the locker room is in the core of the building and that might not always be possible. Larson said there are new products on the market that use fiber optics, which can be wall-mounted, and throw what feels like daylight into a closed space. This is how it works: a fiber optic cable absorbs the sunlight from an outside panel and transfers that energy 40 to 50 feet to a spot on the inside of the building where that fiber optic energy connects to a reflector. The result is something akin to real daylight indoors. The advantage here is that although it might be $5,000 to $10,000 to initially install, each one of those units can light up six light fixtures, so it's cost-effective in the long term as well as psychologically pleasing.

Living in the Material World

The materials you choose for your lockers all have pros and cons. Metal lockers are secure, but they can dent and chip, and their price has risen in recent years, Shaffer said. Wood products, either solid or MDF laminate, are still popular because they are economical, but durability might be compromised. These lockers also can have break-in headaches and a shorter service life. Plastic (HDPE) is increasingly popular, durable and waterproof. Phenolic is the most expensive option but offers pleasing aesthetics, and good security and durability. It's strong, scratch resistant, waterproof and Shaffer feels it delivers the best return on investment.

Meanwhile, there are a number of new European phenolic designs available that are more affordable than the old solid-phenolic construction, added Finkernagel. "These materials come in a wide variety of colors and wood-look finishes providing for many applications." Private clubs use these materials, too, he noted, but they also use wood lockers, which can be customized and typically have electronic locks.

All of these new materials help with maintenance. Old, traditional metal lockers are beaten over time. With breakage comes replacement and with rust comes replacement, so if you don't have to worry about replacing parts, your cost of maintenance goes way down.

Flooring material is also changing with the times, said Keane, of Hastings+Chivetta Architects. "Larger floor tile are replacing the 2x2 tile. The larger tile, while giving a fresh look to the locker room floor also means less grout to keep clean between the tiles."

When you think of floor materials, one of the key questions is, can you get something that is going to be long term, durable and easy for maintenance, so that it can appear clean longer. There is good news on this front. There are synthetic floors that are continuous, add color and texture to the floor, can easily be cleaned and are resistant to dirt. The larger the size wall tile, the easier it is to clean because the grout joints are typically what stains first. When it comes to floor material, use smaller tiles that provide better slip resistance.

Specialty Rooms

Family locker rooms are still important, said Blaisdell. "Particularly in community recreation facilities, it is important for families to use those rooms to change before and after an event. Specialty rooms are also available for adults with disabilities. When we design a facility," he said, "We will offer a blend of family changing rooms, and ADA compliant rooms, benches and showers. We try to save space with multiple rooms, small, medium and large spaces."

ADA guidelines are pretty strict. You can't have twisting motion on the lock; you have reach considerations, so if someone is in a wheelchair they have to be able to reach their shoes on the bottom shelf. Users need to be able to reach and hang up their coats. Even more important is the location of the locker, which has to be accessible to wheelchair-bound individuals.

The family-style locker rooms are increasing in other areas as well. They are being considered gender-neutral spaces and there is an increasing need to provide such rooms for all special uses. They are no longer just associated with the pool area.

There are some special considerations for locker rooms associated with aquatic centers. Aquatics is the one place where locker room use is holding steady as the users have to change and shower to swim. Gang showers are out. Some sort of privacy between shower areas is preferred, and the wall material need not be expensive. HDPE and phenolic partitions can do the trick. These are also the preferred materials for aquatic area lockers, because they are waterproof. With plastic-based lockers you won't have the rust problem that you have with painted steel lockers. Also key: having a non-slip floor.

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