Fit by Design

Getting More From Fitness Facility Design

By Kelli Ra Anderson

More is more.

We've all heard the saying, "less is more," but for many of today's fitness facility designs, "more is more." More flexibility. More integration. More sophistication. More community. More specialization. More partnerships.

Of course, some things have hardly changed. "The core features for fitness and wellness facilities are basically the same—gymnasiums, running tracks and so on," said Brian Beckler, senior principal with Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative (OLC) from Denver. "You may have those core spaces, but how those spaces are used and integrated with each other and the users in those spaces—that's what's changing."

It's all about motivation. People are motivated to do what they really want to do. Something they like. Beyond the obvious desire for better fitness, some users are eager for community experience, some are looking for intergenerational connection, some want exclusive, high-service specialization and everyone wants an environment that is energizing and enjoyable.

Depending on the needs and wants of the community, facilities serve a variety of functions, ranging from jack-of-all-trade behemoths, to exclusive high-service specialty boutiques for the urban sophisticate. The key to getting it right involves thorough planning, experienced designers and, for many, whose budgets are still stinging from the smack of a punishing economy, smart funding.

Through the Looking Glass

When Chelsea Piers Connecticut opened their doors in 2012, the 400,000-square-foot facility in Stamford couldn't have been more about classic sport. Regulation ice rinks, massive gymnastics center, tennis courts, squash courts and an Olympic-sized pool are just a sample of the many sporting venues from which their members can choose.

"We will do the latest in aerobics and equipment, too, but basics like gymnastics, ice skating, running and lacrosse haven't changed much over the years," said David Tewksbury, co-founder and executive vice president of Chelsea Piers Management. "But, it was important to come up with a proper design for overall use of the space and flow of people within the space and into the athletic facilities."

In years past, such buildings were a virtual labyrinth of corridors and hallways to connect one segment of activity to the next. But, for today's more sophisticated users, who want a more integrated experience and more fluid, seamless transition from space to space, interiors are opening up in a big way. In Chelsea Piers, glass walls throughout the column-free interior allow users to view multiple areas at once, such as from the pool into the gymnasium or from the pool to the ice rinks. And while all the athletic areas are separate and distinct, the viewing areas and mezzanines are designed to be shared.

Transparency from space to space also allows natural light to penetrate into the deepest interiors, a key element in the successful design of the Choice Health & Fitness facility in Grand Forks, N.D. "Winter in North Dakota can be pretty harsh, so it's a great opportunity to bring in some natural light, warmth and color," Beckler explained.

Jim Rogers, founder and lead principal of JGR Architects in Norwalk, Conn., who are responsible for the Chelsea Piers project, agrees, saying that they like to introduce enormous amounts of natural light in many of their projects to create vibrant spaces.

Creating views from within interior spaces creates a sense of energy and anticipation, as do views from the outside in. "We had a lot of social spaces and overlooks so that from virtually any vantage point you can see from the wonderful lounge spaces, retail shop, juice bar café, views into the gymnasium, indoor pools and access to outdoor patios. Having everything consolidated like that, there's a real synergy," Beckler said, adding that anticipation, energy and even salability at Choice Health & Fitness also was created by large-windowed views from the outside in, giving pedestrians and passers by a round-the-clock glimpse of inviting activity within the building.

The designer's challenge is to take such large square footage, like the 164,000 square feet at Choice Health & Fitness, and make it both accessible and intimate at the same time. "It's a huge building with big volumes, so as part of the design team, it was about breaking those volumes down so it didn't feel like a big box."

Community 101

Another design "do" for many fitness facilities today is creating spaces that foster community, interactivity and even intergenerational connection. "There is a demand for interconnectivity," said Tom Poulos, principal and vice president with Williams Architects in Carol Stream, Ill. "And that's basically the interconnection of spaces within the facility." Fast-fading are the days of separate-but-equal senior centers or the divide-and-conquer utilitarian approach of each age group going their separate ways to do their own thing in their specialized spaces.

Fitness is no longer just strength and endurance; it's more holistic. It's wellness. So in addition to spinning, weight lifting and yoga, we are seeing things like classes in nutrition. "They're trying to be much broader in their appeal and want you to feel comfortable there," Rogers said. "When you come to a community space, it's more than just a place to work out."


With studies underscoring the important role community and socialization play in human wellness, it only makes sense that fitness and wellness centers are adding social areas to their menu of healthy activities.

Inviting entries or "free zones" with welcoming furniture, tables, juice bars or even fireplaces encourage patrons and visitors alike to slow down and enjoy. Adding healthy cafés and eating areas, as well as connecting the facility to outdoor walking trails with additional seating outside are just some of the many ways people can enjoy a social moment along with their fitness programs.

Flexibility and Multiuse

In order to cater to such a wide variety of users, however, one element of fitness design has become essential: flexibility and multiuse. "A trend is families are now wanting to recreate and exercise together in a program and it's a good thing, so as we look for potential for expansion, how do we accommodate that?" observed Randy Auler, director of parks and recreation in Westerville, Ohio, and 2013 gold-medal award winner by the NRPA for best department.

"One of the keys is multi-use space. It used to be that one room would be arts and crafts only, and another for billiards and so forth. Now we're looking at spaces that have the opportunity to be multiuse. At 10 a.m., we might have a chair exercise program, at noon, a Zumba class and at 3 p.m. have something else for preschool."

For the 38,000 residents in Westerville, whose community center has 600,000 visits per year and growing, according to recent surveys (especially in the senior population), expansion has become an urgent topic.

Currently in the planning stages (although not yet approved), their expansion designs will most likely rely on multiuse space to accommodate the wide range of users and activities and will incorporate their senior center into their main structure in reaction to what Auler described as the "silver tsunami" of aging baby boomers increasingly attracted to fitness and the opportunity for social connection their center offers.

The beauty of multiuse space is that it can also morph into a specialty space, temporarily segmented or closed off via moveable, translucent panels or walls. This is especially ideal for sensitive members of the fitness population who require privacy. Then, when other groups want to use that same space and equipment, dividers can be removed for a more open, communal experience.

Special Needs

Not every fitness facility these days, however, is about multiuse or providing something for everyone under one roof. For some it is just the opposite. It's about doing one thing well. Very well.

"In the last 2 to 3 years specialty centers have exponentially taken off. With the advent of small group training there is a huge explosion in boutique studios," said Rudy Fabiano, design principal for Fabiano Designs, an award-winning architecture and interior design firm in Montclair, N.J. "Where a few years ago the big trend was low-cost fitness, what's happening now is people are taking parts of the big box idea and creating cross-training centers, functional training centers and spinning-only centers. And doing it at a very high level. I think that's the biggest change right now."

Inspired by the truism that people are motivated to do what they are comfortable with and enjoy, health clubs comprised of 85 percent boutique studios are springing up in dense urban areas like Chicago or on the coasts like Los Angeles and New York City. And people are willing to pay premium prices for the high-service experience.

Swing Your Partner

But another significant change Fabiano sees is the rise of partnerships between hospitals and fitness and wellness centers—a result, he explained, stemming from the changes in national health care and health insurance laws. For many, it makes sense to move into the health maintenance business. "Usually going off site, the new model of retail wellness centers still carry the hospital name and credentials," Fabiano said. "Usually they're the large multifunctional facility with aquatics and some rehab component, integration and commercial fitness."

The Westerville Community Center certainly attributes much of its recent membership growth to new policies from health insurance companies they are calling "Silver Sneakers," a program that pays for senior citizen wellness center fees as an incentive to improve and maintain their health. It has been a win-win-win for the Westerville Parks and Recreation department's goal to engage people to live a healthier lifestyle, for senior citizens who can afford to go to the Community Center on a regular basis, and for reducing medical claims to the insurance companies.

But for some, partnering with insurance companies or hospitals is only the beginning. As budgets still feel the squeeze from the economy and taxpayers are less willing or less able to pay for new projects, partnerships have become critical.

For the Choice Health and Fitness Center in Grand Forks, partnerships were so successful taxpayer dollars were not needed. Instead, the entire $23.4 million project was funded by a variety of partnerships, grants and donations. As a result, some of those partnerships lead to such unique services as on-site physical and occupational therapy with health and wellness specialists, dietitians and chiropractor. And they are home to a federal-funded human nutrition research center focusing on the subject of obesity.

The Right Stuff

It all begins with good planning, with directors like Auler attributing much of their gold-medal winning success to taking plenty of time and being thorough. Once the market is accurately identified, including needs and wants (being careful not to duplicate services provided by others in your area), long-time designers like Fabiano underscore the importance of being honest about the budget. Knowing numbers up front allows designers to help create a master plan that can evolve as funds allow while making sure the most important elements like quality mechanical systems, ventilation systems and lighting—one of the most important parts of a project—are not needlessly sacrificed.

Key areas of cardio, resistance and free weight, for example, should always include areas for stretching. Always. And even if a facility can't include square footage for every kind of activity, placing some elements like cardio equipment or free weights on pods located to the side of an athletic space, or using express lockers instead of investing in larger locker room area, are great ways to incorporate some features, even if entire rooms can't be dedicated to their use.

One of the most underrated but important aspects of design has to do with what Fabiano coins "the glamour of sweat. "It's less about the lipstick glamour and more about that dreaminess of the imagination that can capture someone to think about what life can be," he explained. "It builds up a desire so fitness centers are perfect for that. Lighting and material are critical for that."

Thankfully, indirect and direct lighting are less about expensive fixtures and more about intelligent placement. Something anyone can afford. And even for tight budgets, a few high-end materials placed where people are most likely to come into physical contact—counters, desks, vanities—can create the illusion of more with less.

No matter large or small, multipurpose or specialized boutique, a well-designed fitness facility sparks the hope that there is something better for those who enter its doors. Better health, yes. But also better relationships, a better self, and ultimately, a better life.



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