Multipurpose Means Healthy Living

How Flexible Facilities Promote Community and Wellness for All

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Turns out, it's not just your doctor who wants you to exercise more. It's more than your mother who wants you to eat healthy. It's not just your spouse who wants you to stop being so stressed out all the time, and it's more than your kids who want you to get up off the couch and play!

At this point, the very society you live in could be plotting against you. Across the board, recreation professionals, healthcare providers and educators of all kinds are looking for ways to lure people of all ages toward health and wellness. And because of these goals, the very nature of recreation facilities is changing. On college campuses and in communities around the country, thinking is evolving about how best to encourage healthy lifestyles.

"Recreation and the way we view it is in a constant state of change as professionals attempt to find better ways to get people moving and in shape," explained Michael Thrailkill, AIA, CSI, LEED AP, an associate at Yost Grube Hall (YGH) Architecture in Beaverton, Ore.

And these efforts have effects not only on the activities offered, but on the spaces they're offered in and the way they're combined and integrated. It's not enough to have lots of possibilities available. These days, the most effective multipurpose facilities are carefully planned and beautifully designed to be welcoming, inclusive spaces that encourage all kinds of visitors to get involved and hang out a while.

What's driving this trend, and what does it mean for your community? Read on to find out!

Focus on Flexibility

Although a multipurpose facility might seem flexible by nature, these days the trend is toward making sure each part of the building can be used in many ways. This is a complete change from the structures built in the 1950s through the 1980s. Back then, spaces were built with very specific activities in mind, Thrailkill said.

He noted that racquetball was big in the '70s and '80s, but has fewer devoted followers now. These days, many health clubs, YMCAs and recreation centers around the country have narrow, extra-tall spaces with an air conditioning system that can keep up with only four people: racquetball courts. If they reinvent this space as a spinning studio, that means a lot more people at a time in the room, and the A/C can't keep up. Plus, the leader in the front is quite a ways away from the spinners in the back. "You can't use the room as effectively," he said.

So, today, when a community asks for a spinning studio, YGH creates "a multipurpose space with enhanced HVAC for high heat-generating activities," Thrailkill explained. It's perfect for spinning, but can also be used for ballet and gymnastics—and likely for whatever new exercise trend is on the horizon.

What's more, beyond this emphasis on flexibility, an assortment of other related trends is having an impact as well:

More than just jocks. Years ago, athletics were for, well, athletes. Practices and workouts were conducted in no-nonsense—and often no-frills—facilities that spared little expense for features like lighting, ventilation, privacy and so on. "But with a growing awareness of the benefits of fitness and healthy lifestyles, as well as more choices [in the marketplace], we need to make these places more attractive and more comfortable," said David Larson, AIA, senior vice president, design director and head of the sports/recreation design group for TMP Architecture in Bloomfield, Mich.

In addition, we non-jock types may be more interested in a little fun with our fitness than your average gym rat. In many cases, college campuses are at the forefront of the fun trend—adding rock climbing walls or volleyball in the swimming pool and LED lights for night swimming, noted Matt Ross of Moody Nolan Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio. Zip lines also up the entertainment factor at a multipurpose facility, as do pools with a resistance current, which can be used for a broad range of exercise and rehabilitation activities. "You want to use the space as much as possible, so provide lots of options and classes," he suggested.

Although a multipurpose facility might seem flexible by nature, these days the trend is toward making sure each part of the building can be used in many ways.

Accommodate all ages. Along with inviting those who are not dedicated bodybuilders and marathon runners, today's multipurpose facilities are looking to include activities and amenities for a range of ages. "It's the notion of inclusion," Larson said. Communities want to get their members on the path to an active lifestyle as young as possible, so the facilities they build include the whole family, from children all the way through seniors.

However, this can be tricky because not all these groups necessarily want to be included with one another. David Sprague, AIA, senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative in Denver, Colo., pointed out that in some communities, seniors are drawn to hospital exercise facilities because they know there will be lots of other seniors there. "It's not Gold's Gym, and it's not a fitness center with lots of kids," he explained. But don't despair. There are ways to bring the community together while still providing some personal space for various groups.

Big picture health. On many college campuses, and in communities as well, health is a holistic concept. More than just exercise, it means nutrition, social interaction and healthy living. And when recreation activities are co-located with health and wellness services, this helps constituents make the connection as well. "All of this looks to be part of a movement to break down some of the social stigmas and barriers that often keep people from attempting to get fit," Thrailkill explained. "It's a desire to get that next group of people involved." If students come to a recreation center for tutoring or financial aid, or if members of a community find the library or local mental health resources in the same building as a fitness center, they'll see what else is there, and perhaps be interested, he said. "There's a lot of learning [between these programs] and trying to cross-pollinate each other."

Reaping the Benefits

In many cases, improved health and wellness for people of all ages is both a goal and a benefit of this new flexibility-focused approach to multipurpose facilities. But it's not the only benefit those who have embraced this approach are discovering.

Save money and resources. Stephen Springs of Brinkley Sargent, based in Dallas, said that many of their clients are interested in aggregating their programming for financial reasons. When compared with having several different facilities around town, building one central multipurpose center saves on operations costs, he noted. They're likely managing less staff and perhaps even less square footage if the building is designed carefully. Plus, new buildings are more efficient and can save on energy costs.

Colleges are also turning to "fusion buildings" as a means of saving money, said Colleen McKenna, associate principal with Cannon Design. She cited increased use (fewer empty rooms to heat and cool) and a way to share financial burdens between departments as examples of a trend she believes we'll continue to see in both educational and municipal settings.

Create community. Although it may not be a primary driver, many municipalities are discovering a wonderful sense of togetherness and an opportunity to connect with others as a great byproduct of these combined multipurpose spaces. "When you have multiple generations and uses together, they can mingle in the lobby," Springs said. "You go work out and see another program you never knew existed. You meet someone you wouldn't otherwise." TMP's Larson agreed that fusion architecture feeds "society's primal urge to be social. This is a great opportunity to create a sense of place and belonging we all crave."

Collaborate with new partners. With so many lovely potential outcomes, a new multipurpose recreation facility probably seems appealing, but maybe also daunting. This much flexibility and broad scope means there's lots of programming work to be done and lots of space to be planned, created and maintained. But, another benefit of this new style of project is that you don't have to do it alone. Sprague reported seeing communities and facilities looking for partnership opportunities with groups they might once have been competing with. Municipal community centers and hospitals could join forces to provide wellness and rehabilitation services. Particularly with an aging population on the rise, the need for rehab services and exercise opportunities catered to seniors is growing, he added. "Hospitals [may not] want to be in that business, but they can partner with a recreation district to provide programming."

And more than just programming, service providers in the areas of fitness, wellness and rehabilitation can share equipment as well. Patients doing physical therapy will benefit from the pool or fitness equipment, and those seeking therapy for mental ailments may benefit from exercise and recreational activities.

Some collaboration even goes beyond these to include other public and community services, Springs said. A library branch might fit nicely into a multipurpose recreation building, as well as organizations that provide health screenings or a Meals on Wheels program. "By creating different alliances, [such as] library or retail or more sophisticated food offerings, it invites people who would be otherwise intimidated to come to a place where physical activity occurs," Larson said. "It's a Panera-ization," he said, referring to the oh-so-inviting and wifi-equipped restaurant chain. "They want to stay longer, and that's encouraged."

Creating the Space

So, what should this fantastic multipurpose recreation and community center that's bursting with excitement and engaging activities and healthiness look like? Fortunately these experts have a few additional guidelines and ideas that may be helpful as you plan.

Physical features. Flexibility once again takes center stage when it comes to creating space for fitness and recreation. Many of the designers consulted for this story suggest you can never have too many group exercise rooms (which may be used for everything from meetings to tai chi to dance to yoga to Zumba). And while you want them to be multipurpose, do pay special attention to the flooring. Hardwood works for many activities, but those doing gymnastics or aerobics will appreciate a springier, matted surface, so consider some of each. Be sure these rooms are also equipped with extra fans and sound systems to maximize their potential.

Cardio equipment and space is also something you'll probably never have too much of. "It's like storage," Springs said. "You can never build it big enough." However, cardio's growing popularity also means a potential diversity of preferences among those using the equipment, so be creative in the way you arrange the machines. Not everyone wants to be out on a big floor, all watching the same TVs, noted Sprague. Many machines have their own video component now—and some are even like full-body video games—so they can be placed in smaller spaces or even tucked into an odd corner.

Speaking of tucking things away, rather than hiding your saunas in the locker rooms, consider a co-ed sauna with a glass front right out on the pool deck, or between the pool and the locker rooms. Seeing something in use may encourage others to use it, and the glass front takes away the mystery, as well as adding security to the situation, Thrailkill said.

Visual feel. The way these multipurpose spaces look is also a big factor in making them appealing to a broad audience. "Rec centers are becoming less compartmentalized and more open," Springs said. "There's a trend toward being able to see other spaces, not just being in the gym or cardio room or multipurpose room."

And the lobby is no longer wasted space, Larson added. It's a space for people to hang out, and if done with a degree of transparency, it can offer an instant snapshot of the different activities going on in the building. High ceilings and lots of glass lets in natural light and a view of the outdoors, as well as showcasing what's happening in the gym, the cardio room and the pool from a single vantage point.

Consider the sophisticated materials and finer finishes you'd expect in a health club, these pros suggest—though you'll also want to keep an eye on durability. And those new to exercise may be self-conscious and concerned about their privacy, so opt for individual shower stalls in the locker room and make sure there's enough space to maneuver comfortably. Even outside the locker room, frosted glass on some windows and walls in multipurpose rooms may be a nice compromise between openness and a bit of privacy while twisting yourself into a pretzel shape during yoga or spinning until you're ready to fall over, Thrailkill said.

Plan carefully. As you've likely noted by now, having lots of options and activities in one location can yield a bevy of benefits, but it has to be carefully planned and organized to avoid chaos and a situation where no one is happy—your staff included.

Before Cannon Design starts the design process on a fusion building, they read over the mission statement of the organization (or organizations) that will be part of the completed space, McKenna explained. What are their goals and objectives? Will they be sharing equipment or segregated in their own spaces? How many people will be trying to enter and exit the building during times of peak use? "Design is a response to [all of] that," she said. "Talk through the opportunities and make an educated decision about what will or won't work. Choose the best combination [of participants and features] to meet your goals."

Plan to make at least parts of the building very accessible—perhaps even a day or two when the fitness center is open all night, Ross suggested. But be sure you can control access as needed as well. "Think about what areas might need to be locked down since they're not just for one purpose." Sometimes it may be helpful to have access to the pool straight from the lobby, but other times you may want to funnel everyone through the locker room. And if parts of the building are open shorter hours than others, make sure they'll be securely closed when no staff is on duty. Will you have one main entrance or will there be access points for each area within the building? "Think about how people will move around the space," Ross said. "How will you keep them safe? How will they flow through?"

Also, remember the previously mentioned tension that can occur between user groups. Young children may need spaces designated particularly for them, and seniors may feel more comfortable in a space all their own, Springs noted. When there's a senior center as part of a recreation facility, some areas should be for them only, but then they can use the pool or workout facilities or whatever else they'd like to in other parts of the building. "You don't want people stepping on each other's toes," Larson said. At the Ford Community and Performing Arts Center, a project TMP Architecture worked on in Dearborn, Mich. (see sidebar), "each component has a discrete entry point, but there's also a central piazza that unifies the whole facility." You want to maintain control, he said. "Along with transparency and a friendly entry point, it's important that people feel safe. You want them to see what's going on and know it's safe and secure—without being a prison."

So whether you're contemplating new construction or looking to revitalize a structure already in place, look toward a healthy future and make your multipurpose recreation facility the heart of your community—a place that attracts people of all ages and all fitness levels and gives them a reason to stay.

"This trend is an outgrowth of societal evolution toward living better," Larson said. "Communities are embracing these ideas, and with that support, the buildings get better and better. They're an important part of the community fabric."

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