Sports Facilities

Shooting Touch
Basketball Suite, Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H.

By Steve Nelson

There is a sense in which every construction or renovation project on a college campus is just one phase in a larger project. Especially on older campuses, the completion of some new or renovated space leads to a change in the way other spaces are utilized, and eventually the underutilized square footage becomes coveted by one or more user groups or departments.

Even at institutions with highly developed master plans, circumstances can change quickly, and the pull of making immediate improvements can prove irresistible. As an example, Dartmouth College completed the $19.5 million Floren Varsity House in November 2007, a building attached to the east stands of Memorial Field that includes a 10,000-square-foot strength training center intended to serve student-athletes on all 34 varsity athletic teams. One of the results of the new construction was the virtual abandonment of a 4,500-square-foot strength training center within the Berry Sports Center (it was already playing second fiddle to a larger recreational fitness center added during the 2005 renovation of Alumni Gym). Another was a feeling within the men's and women's basketball programs that since the football program had gotten its premier space in the Floren facility, now it was their turn.

Marketing the Program

A long, narrow space isn't always the most suitable to an adaptive reuse, but Dartmouth's underused fitness center, fencing armory and large classroom/lounge was the right shape to begin to visualize the basic elements of an administrative suite for the basketball programs. The fitness center also was well-situated in terms of giving the program a high profile—it sat across the main entry concourse from Leede Arena, flanked by two concessions stands. Windows in the flat wall gave passersby glimpses into the old fitness center.

One important aspect of a sports program suite is marketing—to supporters (donors and fans) and, especially, recruits. Ideally, the space telegraphs how the institution feels about its athletics programs, and how the athletics program feels about its staff, recruits and supporters. These spaces are showplaces by definition, but as designers we prefer a whisper to a shout. The object is for the space to be instantly "readable," and for it to make visitors feel welcomed as well as impressed. And with this iconic Gwathmey Siegel-designed campus building, we felt obligated to maintain the original design palette and intent for the space, and to maintain its openness by borrowing daylight to the lounge and concourse.

Dartmouth's welcome is in the form of a circle, a spotlighted lounge enhanced by plush couches, wood accents, direct lighting, a domed ceiling and bold lettering. Part of what makes this approach succeed is that the suite has been brought into the concourse—and the concourse into the suite—through the use of a curved glass wall and glass doors, all of which break the plane of the concourse wall. Using this device, the space both reaches out to visitors and draws them in. Openness around the circle is further achieved by inserting windows in the wall's interior curve, allowing views in and out of two offices staffed by student volunteers. Daylight from the suite's north-facing glass can thus more readily reach the lounge.

From this central circle, the suite plan stretches away on either side with the men's and women's programs inhabiting opposing hallways. Straight corridors leave something to be desired aesthetically in larger spaces, but in this case there's a practical symmetry. On the north side of each hallway are administrative offices, assistant coaches' offices, conference rooms, a kitchen and a copy room. The hallway terminates with the coach's offices on either end. On the interior wall are team meeting rooms, coaches' locker rooms and the central lounge, which is often used for enjoying pre- and post-game receptions. Each team meeting room features study carrels as well as comfortable seating arrayed around a flat screen to accommodate video analysis and TV.

The design of a coaches' office suite involves a few technical challenges. One primary concern in athletic program spaces is sound transmission—the spaces will host private conversations between coaches and recruits, between coaches and teams, and between coaches. Keeping the conversations private—and keeping the sound of team meetings and game videos contained—is a matter of bringing interior walls all the way to the underside of roof decks, above the ceiling; offsetting outlets; providing proper insulation; and layering sheetrock in the demising walls. One technique is the layering of different thicknesses of gypsum board so that one layer dampens the vibration of the next. Other measures include specifying gasketed doors, which feature a shoe that extends and presses tightly to the floor or threshold when the door is closed.

Another challenge in renovation is HVAC, especially in a space that has been adapted from other uses and which features a low ceiling structure. In the original fitness center, two window air conditioners had been used to augment the existing ventilation system, and existing mechanical rooms were remote from the space. Cool air had to be ducted to the basketball suite, where a VAV system was used to control cooling of disparate spaces such as small offices and larger locker rooms.

Using What You Have

Many athletic department donors believe they must spend lavishly. Cost-efficiency is thought of as doing things on the cheap. But, renovation projects don't have to break the bank to turn a nondescript space into a showplace. The cost of bringing an entirely new presence to Dartmouth's two basketball programs was $1.87 million. In the process, 6,800 square feet of program space was created out of underutilized space that occupied a prime location. What's more, spaces formerly occupied by the basketball programs that had been scattered among various campus buildings now have been made available for the college's next priority project.

Steve Nelson, AIA, is a partner with Wethersfield, Conn.-based Moser Pilon Nelson Architects. For more information, visit

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