Welcome to the Neighborhood
Balancing Inclusivity & Exclusivity in Fitness Center Design
By James Braam
I come not to praise the big-box clubs or to bury them. Gold's, 24 Hour Fitness, LA Fitness and the like serve a distinct market and have enjoyed long and successful runs as fitness centers and fitness brands. A lot of young people come to college using these types of facilities as the yardstick against which they measure their school's recreation center.
That said, we're noticing that the college students with whom we work during the early design phase of recreation centers are asking for something very different than what they would get from their local health club franchise. Some of the students (typically women) are uncomfortable exercising in full view of everyone. Some (typically the hardcore lifters) would prefer to be seen—but at the same time, to control access to "their" space. Some want to disappear into their iPods, while others see the center as representing the larger collegiate experience—the ultimate space for socializing.
Divergent needs among users isn't new, and sensitivity to these needs is far from universal—in fact, it's still taking root. For years, the prevailing attitude in college rec departments fell under the heading of "If we build it." People did come, but the vast collections of fitness equipment housed in vast equipment rooms almost certainly kept a lot of students away. Increasingly, we see ourselves charged with finding ways to create a built environment that is welcoming to a wider swath of the student population.
A 'Small School' Feel
There are three very valid reasons to build a warehouse-style fitness floor: Doing so is cost-effective, it is easy to supervise, and it allows users to fully experience the energy of exercise. Ideally, though, one should be able to build a fitness center that is both economical and breaks up what could be a cavernous room into friendlier spaces. Two advantages—people do not get "lost" in smaller spaces, which also help control the transfer of sound—ought to be obvious from my use of "cavernous" to describe the alternative.
Embarking on the design of the new Wellness and Recreation Center at Auburn University, where "the Auburn family" is a common expression, we heard students as well as administrators express a preference for spaces that somehow "felt" like Auburn. Touring the campus, we were struck by the way in which the different dormitories and academic buildings each had their separate quads, but the quads were nonetheless connected through different axial relationships and pathways. This public university of 25,000-plus students still had a kind of quaint, small-school feel, and we set about trying to conceive the fitness space in that same spirit.
Fitness equipment sits on two floors of the new facility in a large atrium, as well as within a five-story "cardio tower" that serves as the building's point of entry. The upper floors of the tower are the place for truly separate spaces: Above the covered entry and an open mezzanine level arrayed with cardio equipment are a third level programmed for suspension training, a fourth-level group-cycling studio and, on the top floor, in a symbolic gesture of wellness, a yoga studio.
With the group-fitness studios thus vertically captured within one small footprint, the larger two-story fitness area focuses just on the "collective yet individual" experience, utilizing various design touches that either provide physical separation of spaces or merely suggest it.
How do you go about creating neighborhoods within a large city grid? Urban planners strategically deviate from the grid through the addition of winding roads, parks and cul de sacs. We added the ultimate winding road within the Auburn facility, a jogging track that meanders through the fitness center and two gymnasiums, and which has gotten a significant amount of press for two unique features—its apparently unprecedented one-third-of-a-mile length and its signature figure-8 crossover (the "corkscrew") that encircles the climbing wall in the fitness atrium. But the track's greatest strength is the way it helps divide the space at the same time that it is, visually, the building's single most unifying element. The track divides by helping define the spaces around it, while our decision to highlight the track using the AU color of burnt orange helps to make it the skeleton that supports the body of the building.
We also used a standard design move for unifying (and dividing) multilevel facilities—cutouts that provide views from floor to floor. As with the track (and climbing tower), the result is physical separation but visual unification, with the key being deft use of the atrium's communal space. On the second level of the Auburn facility, the cutouts separate the floor horizontally into a cardio loft and a strength-training loft, while connecting these spaces vertically to the fitness areas below.
Many different elements can be used to similarly suggest separations between spaces, for example, changes in flooring materials or colors, graphics on floor or wall surfaces, strategic use of ceiling soffits and even pendulous light fixtures hanging at different heights. The object is for these disparate elements to provide definition but, at the same time, to use a common architectural language that helps knit these different areas into a common user experience.
Breaking Down Barriers
"Inclusion" is the watchword of Laurie Braden, president of NIRSA and director of university recreation at Louisiana State University, where we are in the midst of an expansion and redesign of the school's Student Recreation Complex. LSU's administrators want to ensure that the new center is welcoming to people to all different levels of activity and interest in wellness. While we've opened up the fitness center to more views and natural light, we've designed dividers within the fitness areas to help make up for the loss of mirrors resulting from the specification of more windows. The mirrored dividers are user-scaled, 6 feet tall by 8 feet wide, and incorporate built-in storage for cleaning supplies and towel drops. Because the dividers don't go all the way to the ceiling, the space reads as continuous, and the dividers are turned perpendicular to the space's primary circulation path, maintaining the fitness center's open feel. At the same time, exercisers working out between the dividers experience space that feels more "personal."
Other designers and institutions have opted for completely separate workout spaces, which can be perfectly valid depending on the institution's goals and students' desires for the facility. For example, we've seen a glassed-in "quiet" workout space that effectively accommodates exercisers with a different workout sensibility, and any number of renovated racquet courts that serve as successful group-cycling or suspension-training rooms. In general, though, the future of fitness centers will revolve around collective spaces that feel somewhat individualized, and individual spaces that nonetheless provide a sense of openness.
If there's one thing we're learning, it's that while good fences may make good neighbors, they don't necessarily make for good fitness centers. If exercise for many remains a solitary pursuit (symbolized these days by long white earbud cords bouncing around on every treadmill), college administrators have a particular interest in helping students become more connected to the community, not less so. Architects can help break the iPod syndrome by providing students with collective spaces that are comfortable enough for them to unplug.
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