Finding Synergy

Collaborating & Combining Functions in Multipurpose Designs

By Rick Dandes

When financial and natural resources became stressed during the Great Recession, many municipal recreation programs had to become creative to fund new venues and projects. For some, the need to collaborate with partners to finance a project became a necessity, and even now with increasingly better economic news, partnering is still widely in use by recreational authorities. Whether the collaboration is a joint-use agreement between two public entities like a recreation district and school system or a public-private partnership between a nonprofit or for-profit organization and a municipal recreation department, cooperation is becoming increasingly common. It is not surprising, therefore, to see the rising popularity of multipurpose, multigenerational facilities.

"In our experience in designing community spaces, such as recreation centers," said Julie Nelson, a partner at BKSK Architects, New York City, "we often talk about the idea of the 'Third Place.' This is not home nor work, but still a place that becomes an integral part of people's daily lives. Given the variety of fitness opportunities available in most communities, recreation centers must not only support athletic activity, but must also be nurturing, invigorating and restorative."

Successful recreation centers offer state-of-the-art equipment and amenities, but also encourage interaction and community building, Nelson said. "It is a place one wants to go to every day. The design of a community recreation center will include workout spaces, but designers must also carefully consider the in-between, interstitial spaces. These are where conversations occur, or where one finds a quiet respite from the busy-ness of everyday life."

Contemporary recreation centers also have much to gain when designed for long life/loose fit, a fundamental principle of sustainable design. When specifically considered in relation to fitness facilities, this means that the spaces created today must be flexible enough to accommodate future fitness trends, unimaginable today, which will be accompanied by new infrastructure, spatial configurations and expectations of comfort. Well-designed fitness facilities are facilities that can evolve, and that will continue to thrive as these evolutions occur.

A few years ago, the designers at BKSK, Nelson's firm, built an addition to a 1970s community center with fitness facilities. In many ways, the existing building was unyielding in its design: For example, all walls were load-bearing, and the HVAC system was a single zone, despite the center having different room sizes, orientations and uses, and there was no access to natural daylight. Much of the work on the existing building consisted of surgical interventions that made the building more flexible, comfortable and user-friendly. "Our addition to the building provided open, reconfigurable, daylit spaces that serve preschoolers to seniors," Nelson said.

Now Trending

There is no one-size-fits-all in the case of community-centered multipurpose or recreation centers. Trends can be regional or even local in their origin, but, said Traci Carusi, of Collins Cooper Carusi Architects, Atlanta, Ga., "We have seen some commonality in recent years with a few important design drivers that seem to be gaining ground. One important factor is the heightened degree of interest that our clients are giving to the well-being of the whole person."

Here are some of the directions that Carusi is seeing in design:

  • More space for gathering and connecting: Recent research points to community connectivity as one of the factors influencing people's overall health and wellness. YMCA clients, in particular, are interested in making sure that their centers not only provide space for active programming, but also comfortable gathering areas for members to meet and connect in an informal or serendipitous context.
  • Visual and physical links to the outdoors: As the public becomes more aware of how the built environment affects our health, Carusi explained, "our clients have asked that we respond with designs that blend the indoors and outdoors. This blending might take the form of giving access to exterior views even in spaces that are traditionally less open, such as gymnasiums, or access to the outdoors might be in more direct form such as the provision an exterior deck for yoga or other activities or development of an exterior vegetable garden."
  • More attention to an inviting environment: For member-driven organizations like the YMCA, amenities and finishes provided used to be fairly basic. Now, they are recognizing that good design and nicer finishes can drive membership numbers up. Customers are looking for environments that are less institutional and more sophisticated, Carusi noted. An example of this trend is the direction toward a more spa-like environment in locker rooms.
  • Do more with less: Municipalities don't want to see rooms sitting empty for hours every day and are looking for ways to make more spaces multipurpose in function. "Examples in flexibility," Carusi said, "include community rooms that can double as meeting space or exercise studios. Another strategy we've incorporated is to allow spaces for child and youth programs to expand and contract with operable glass wall systems the can enlarge or close down space as the need for child focused area changes during the day."

Increasingly, architects are understanding the inextricable link between design and wellness. This is seen in questions such as: Is the building made of healthy materials? Is the air clean and the humidity level appropriate for the activity? Does the space connect to nature? Are spaces quiet when one wants silence and acoustically lively when one wants to be energized? Is taking the stairs an easy, inviting experience, rather than taking an elevator to the Stairmaster? Is there ready access to clean, filtered water? Are healthy snacks available? Does the design of the building contribute to improving the health of the planet?

"We work closely with our clients to understand the impact our buildings have on the natural environment, as well as the impact they have on the health of inhabitants," Nelson said.

Isn't it ironic, then, that "a trend that we haven't seen yet as much as we expected to, but will someday see, is more and more healthcare providers coming into the mix," according to Stephen Springs, senior principal, Brinkley Sargent Wiginton Architects, of Dallas. "That is happening to some extent, but I think the uncertainty in the healthcare delivery process over the last several years has probably hindered the growth of that as a trend. A recreation center seems like a perfect place to have programs on nutrition and rehab and wellness."

It makes too much sense for it not to happen, Springs continued. "Having a small clinical storefront at a recreation center, using it as a rehab center, maybe as an attachment to a rec center, makes a lot of sense. There is a lot of natural synergy there, I believe. We're even seeing the healthcare industry providing sponsorship in some recreation centers."

Curiously, said several designers, going green is no longer a highest priority. "Of course," he said, "everyone wants an energy-efficient building. But the idea of having a plaque on the wall announcing you are green is not something of upmost interest to many of our clients."

Innovative Designs

Within multipurpose facilities, four basic categories have to be addressed and are trending in very innovative ways, explained Steve Blackburn, principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture, of Denver and Dallas. "Fitness certainly has always been a force. Second is aquatics, the use of indoor and outdoor pools. Third is intergenerational facilities; think of all the demographics in a community coming together under one roof, the very youngest of a community to the most mature. And the fourth is wellness, which is mind, body, soul and how that might translate to facilities in education, fitness and social areas. As architects, we are now tending to give equal emphasis on spaces that support each of these aspects in a quality-of-life big umbrella.

Blackburn's firm has come up with several innovative designs worth noting in the area of fitness facilities. "Things are different from what we saw a couple of decades ago," he said. "Instead of designing one space for a fitness center we think about it in separate areas: There are free weights, dumbbells barbells and benches. Another is the circuit area, with cardiovascular training, treadmills, elliptical machines and bikes, generally in demand by 24- to 48-year-olds who want their heart pumping; and a group training area, a place where you might do intense PX 90-like training. We believe in creating areas for each one of those."

Studies show that fitness activities peak at three times a day: before work, around lunchtime and after work. One innovative solution to running activities concurrently is to build different-sized rooms: for example, a large room for Zumba class, which might attract 60 people, midsize rooms for yoga and other movement classes, and smaller, more intimate rooms for a spinning class of 20 people. Just be sure you know which types of activity are most in demand among your users before determining which activity goes where.

"One thing we have done is create personal fitness 'on demand,'" Blackburn said. "These are small rooms—think of a space that can accommodate only you and your best friends. We are using technology in these rooms. The room is set up for anything that a small group would need to create a one-hour class that they might not have at home. Like ropes, chin-up bars, barbells, mats and all equipped with high technology, like giant screen TVs, projection units and on-demand fitness modules that they can either plug their iPhone or iPad into and project whatever kind of instruction they want."

People reserve this room, like the old days when you might have reserved a racquetball court. This idea of fitness on demand, Blackburn believes, is going to be a huge hit for those people who want to fit their exercise program into their schedule vs. fitting their schedule into their facility's schedule.

Blackburn and his colleagues have also created downsized athletic spaces for the older population, such as smaller basketball courts at 72 feet long vs. the standard 94-foot court. Shorter indoor soccer fields are also more common. "The older population still wants to play, still wants to compete, but our bodies don't perform as they used to," he said. "These smaller athletic fields address that reality."

Meanwhile, one trend in older, adult fitness competitions is pickleball, a paddle sport that combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping pong. "In Colorado," Blackburn said, "we cannot build enough pickleball courts. They have overtaken all of our community centers. So basketball courts are not only used for basketball, volleyball and badminton—they are used for pickleball. We are now building outdoor pickleball courts as well."

In aquatic design, architects realize that anytime you put a pool inside a building there has to be something for everyone in the community. Aquatic natatoriums should offer something for every age, from nine months to 90 years.

For little ones and older adults alike, consider having a zero-depth beach entry. This can duplicate the beach experience where mom can hang out at the edge of the water or the first six inches of water with her babies. It's a first introduction for babies to swimming. It also makes for a more gradual entry for older adults and people with mobility issues.

As children get older they need to be engaged. At 2 to 5 years, have zero-depth, but also perhaps shooting geysers from the floor, creating a bubbling effect. Slides, appropriately sized and placed in the pool, need to be safe. As children age, engage them in the pool with anticipatory events, Blackburn said. "Things like having a rain shower that comes out of the ceiling, not where you'd expect water to come from. And it could have some cool features like … different kinds of water streams, LED lights that light up the water. We do that for the amazement of the children."

As they grow up, youths from 9 years old to teenagers like adventurous opportunities like rope swings or climbing walls that start in the water, where you pull yourself out of the water. "There is a perceived element of risk, but the wall leans towards the water, so that if a kid falls off it is into an appropriate depth of water."

For adults and active agers, consider providing an area for low-impact water aerobics. Active agers, Blackburn said, also prefer warmer water and their fitness regimen might include resistance walking. "Technology is also helping active agers with hearing difficulties," he added. "There are Bluetooth hearing aids that allow an instructors to speak in a normal voice in a microphone, through a Bluetooth device so seniors can hear her clearly."

In locker rooms, family changing rooms are trending. Picture a father going to an aquatic center with his daughter, who is 7. She is too young to go to the women's locker by herself, and a bit too old for the men's locker room. So designers have created the family changing room, a modern comprehensive cabana with everything a young family would need: showers, toilet, lavatory, hooks on the wall, a child seat for infants. "Family changing rooms are having a worldwide impact," Blackburn said.

Technology in Design: Be Careful

Computer experts say that every 18 months you are cycling through a new IT planning horizon. So, when you think about buildings, where your planning horizon is 20 to 40 years, the key, from a facilities standpoint, is to accommodate what's going on technologically today, said Andrew Barnard, principal, president Sink Combs Dethlefs Architects, of Denver. But don't get overly focused, and make sure that whatever you are doing, whether it is architecture or IT infrastructure, make sure you are forward-thinking and building in the flexibility that you'll need.

"As designers, we always used to be so concerned about conduits and providing pathways to get infrastructure into rooms or around rooms," Barnard said. "Now, everything is wireless, so we have 10-year-old buildings with all these conduits when we tried to plan for the future and now the future doesn't require conduits. But maybe they'll be valuable for some other level of technology that comes in the future. Nobody has a crystal ball, so one thing we always stress is to make sure that you're not doing things that are unadaptable in the future."

Design Challenges and Solutions

Sink Combs Dethlefs Architects had an interesting challenge in Winter Park, Colo., which is a resort district. The goal for the Grand Park Recreation Center, Barnard said, was to fulfill the community needs, like meeting rooms, fitness and wellness areas, aquatics, gymnasium space and a gymnastic area, and also be able to make it incredibly popular for tourists and the resort community.

"We focused on the aquatics environment to drive business," he said. "The idea was to invite people through the door, and once through the door get them to experience these other pieces of the facility, whether open gym or meeting rooms. Because, ultimately, it is the tourist dollar that helps fund the building and its day-to-day operations. That was a pretty cool project for a smaller community."

Meanwhile, BKSK recently completed the Convent of the Sacred Heart's Athletics and Wellness Center in New York City. An independent girl's school that serves students pre-K through 12th grade, Sacred Heart's academics are housed in a former mansion on Fifth Avenue, which did not have its own athletic facilities. For years, students were reliant on rental spaces and city facilities to support their competitive sports programs and gym classes.

The new 53,000-square-foot center features a competition-sized six-lane swimming pool, a NCAA regulation-sized volleyball and basketball court, a dance studio, a cardio and weight room, and several multipurpose rooms, with space for regulation-sized fencing pistes. The project has applied for LEED certification at the Gold level.

"As the school had never owned and operated a fitness building previously, the project team was challenged to design a building that not only served its core constituents, the school's female students, but also could be flexible enough to welcome and serve the broader community, which was initially undefined," Nelson said.

During the design phase, the team remained unsure of the extent of use beyond the core curriculum of the school; they were challenged to design flexible space that still reflected the identity of the school, "… and we believe the project has been enormously successful in this regard," she said. Besides providing athletics and wellness facilities to its 700-plus students, Sacred Heart welcomes nine other independent day schools in its sports league into the building, shares the space with the Christo Rey School (an independent boys and girls high school) and their next-door neighbor the ABC School (for at-risk infants and preschoolers), and also provides a home for adult recreation leagues in an area of the city that is starved for these kind of facilities. Since opening in the fall of 2014, the building already has more than 1,700 users who are not students at the school.

Several design choices made this possible, such as making the locker rooms multi-gender-friendly and selecting a color palette that used the school's iconic red and white in combination with a sophisticated robin's egg blue and vibrant accent colors, which are youthful without being childish. An environmental graphics program also makes the spaces feel sophisticated for adults and lively for students.

"Notably," Nelson added, "this project was a partial adaptive reuse of a former parking garage. Select structural aspects of the garage were reused so that we could maintain the existing bulk envelope. The garage's site was one of the few within walking distance of the school that could also support a regulation gym and pool—all essential aspects of the new center. This challenge resulted in a complicated and strategic demolition and rebuilding process, where maximizing every inch of space was critical in order to maintain standards for the competition-specific facilities within."

BKSK intentionally designed teaching moments into the building, and expanded on this commitment by giving a number of talks to the students about how their building works. In a series of assemblies, the team explained how the sun heats water year-round through a solar hot water system with an array of evacuated tube collectors, and how it lights the building through Solatube skylights. As a result of all this, the students see the building not just as a place to stay active and compete, but also as a place that demonstrates the school's five core values, which are stated on the front facade: Faith, Intellect, Service, Community and Wise Freedom.

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