Lock it Up
Locker Room Design Trends
By Rick Dandes
Careful attention to the design, cleanliness and maintenance of a locker room can make all the difference to the people who frequent your health club or swimming pool—after all, the first place they'll go before jumping in the pool or hitting the stair climber is the locker room.
It should be no secret by now to recreation facility operators that modern locker rooms play a critical role in increasing participation, streamlining operations and enhancing the customer experience. A poorly designed, ill-kept locker room will turn off patrons and, in the case of health clubs, aquatic centers or private recreation facilities, likely lead to declining membership revenue.
The design of modern locker rooms is trending away from the traditional locker room of the 1960s and '70s, "… a locker room that was a cavernous, uncomfortable, smelly public space whose functional design focused less on personal space and more on efficiently serving a large number of people," said Mick Massey, Texas regional director for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. "In those days," he continued, "the typical recreation center locker rooms were modeled after high school athletic locker rooms, serving the masses for personal hygiene and dressing after a vigorous sport or workout. This 'old school' locker room model was accepted as status quo and adapted into recreation centers for decades."
No more. Today the trend is to customize the locker room space to your "users." Up until the mid-1980s, you had separate men's and women's options, meaning you would go into your club or facility and there was a gender choice, a vanity area, a few lockers and some showers. Some facilities were nicer, like the New York Athletic Club, some more utilitarian. At high schools, there were gang showers and exposed ceilings. When budget and durability were issues, such as in school districts, you saw metal lockers installed because they are cheap and can be repainted, but metal wasn't your first choice if you were concerned about noise or rusting.
Over the past decade, and particularly in the last five years, that's all been changing, particularly at community recreation centers. "They are different because they have the widest range of customers, from the very youngest kids to the oldest adults, and every ability, from those who are super jocks to people who are there just for community reasons, to people who are recovering from an ailment and may have mobility issues," explained Mark Keane, senior associate, project designer, Hastings & Chivetta Architects, St. Louis. "That is why facilities at community centers have to be able to adapt to the widest variety of people, and that is why real changes in locker room design began in those recreation facilities."
As managers or owners, a key question to ask yourself is: What are the barriers to participation at your facility? What can you do to show people that what you offer fits with their needs and lifestyle? This is not different from what you might find in the private sector, but the private sector is usually after a certain demographic or a certain market sector. You don't have that luxury when running a community center; you are typically providing a facility for everybody. So then, what are the barriers in all the various ages and abilities, and what can you do to take those barriers down, open those doors and create and maximize space? That's a mission all community centers have.
The design of modern locker rooms is trending away from the traditional locker room of the 1960s and '70s, … a locker room that focused less on personal space and more on efficiently serving a large number of people.
"When looking into it, one of the things that came up in survey after survey as a top barrier was locker rooms," said Craig Bouck, CEO, Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. The bottom line, he said "is this: If you have no aquatics at all, you can probably get away with a traditional locker room and with only a couple of gender-neutral, family, or cabana-type changing rooms." Cabana rooms are a trend not only at colleges, but also in facilities everywhere. This situation accommodates an occasional family that comes into a fitness facility, as well as accommodating gender issues and maybe some mobility issues.
"Yes, the new trend we've come across recently is gender-neutral lockers and how they might play a role in all types of facilities that require locker rooms," Keane added. "We've been working recently with a few clients in a new kind of open and shared locker area, which has a central core locker storage area for the lockers that is wide open with good visibility. Here, nobody actually changes within that locker area. Around that perimeter you have private dressing rooms that may just have a bench and showers included in them. We also might have a full-blown family changing room, which might have a sink and shower. Then, off of these changing areas, there could be a restroom."
This design model has been used for years in Europe, Keane said, "but we're only starting to see gender-neutral rooms now in our locker rooms. It's something that is gaining awareness. That is the biggest kind of change I've seen, and it's going to take time for people to get used to it here in the U.S., but it serves both that family and gender-neutral for men and women."
This is not necessarily a reaction to concerns about safety, Keane noted, although there are certain things that you do in these cases to provide safety: You provide a private dressing area, and the lockers are more open and visible, so that that there is less availability to steal something or change where you are not supposed to be changing.
What's Right for Your Clientele?
If you have a wellness facility that has a wellness pool with therapy water, all you might need are cabanas, or family-style designs. "Because those wellness classes tend to be smaller; they tend to be people with mobility issues, who will take advantage of the cabana-type space, or they have an assistant who would like to help them," Bouck said.
The number of people moving through the locker room at a wellness center usually works with the cabana, or family-style stalls. There isn't a big group of people moving quickly through the area, so you can get away with the cabana-only option. The exact number would be determined by the class size.
If you have a leisure-only facility, no competitive swimming teams coming or meets, you have more choices. You can do the all-cabana option or you can do a mix, what's called a blended locker area. Some communities are not ready for the all-cabana option—it's too big a change. Depending on throughput—if it is a drop-in facility, the all-cabana option can be great. If you are going to have big classes there, you may want to do more of a blend so that you can get more people through the traditional men's and women's locker room and still have cabanas.
If your facility has a lap-swimming component, Bouck said, and you play host to swim meets, you have two options: One, you can do what is now traditional, men's women's and cabana combined and you appropriately size it based on your user need. Two, you provide a very big cabana, where 80 to 90 percent of the locker room is all-cabana, called wet cabanas with sinks and shower and toilets, and 10 to 20 percent are dry cabanas, meaning that you really just need to get in and out.
Bouck has a hint for those centers with lap pools that are not always occupied. "You might have eight lanes, but only eight people in them. When a team shows up, the facility is full. If you build a big locker room it's not cost-effective. What we have been experimenting with is, we build men's and women's locker rooms adjacent to this cabana space but, those are only open during those peak times. When the teams show up or when the meet happens, those rooms get opened up, get used and then cleaned and get shut down again."
It's like a relief valve, he said. It makes it easier to supervise, because now you can control and maintain one big locker room, the cabana space. But you are never caught short-handed. You can always use the release valve if you need to get more people through your facility. People will still use the cabanas first, but if they don't want to wait or if it is crowded, they can go into the other spaces.
Living in a Material World
There are several new products in the marketplace that are competing with traditional metal lockers, Bouck said, "… but I've been doing this for more than 20 years in hundreds of facilities, and I've yet to have to use metal lockers. It is one of the choices, but it hasn't made it into any of the facilities I've worked on."
Agreeing with Bouck is Keane. "We very rarely use metal lockers anymore," he said, "unless our client specifically asks for it."
In fact, added Bob Martin, president of an Ontario, Calif.-based locker manufacturer, "there are a number of choices of materials: synthetic plastics, specially treated particle boards and laminates, and phenolic lockers, the material of choice when a high degree of design flexibility is desired or where durability and strength are required."
Phenolic lockers are fabricated to stand the test of time. The dense components, combined with stainless steel brackets and fasteners, stand up to the most extreme conditions of moisture and humidity. So, if you want a locker in your facility that is impact-, water- and corrosion-resistant, and does not support bacteria, phenolic is the answer.
The first question you should ask is what look you are trying to achieve, Martin suggested. What is the aesthetic experience you would like your users to have? That doesn't necessarily dictate a material, but it helps you narrow things down. If you want a warm feel, you might like the look of wood.
The next question is, what is your expectation for maintenance? And what is your expectation for durability? A private club can charge their members to replace worn lockers. They may even choose real wood, which you see in some golf clubs. Other options provide the look of wood without its drawbacks and expense.
The message, Bouck said, is to educate yourself on the variety that is available, but approach it from what you want your user's experience to be? What is your initial budget and your long-term commitment to maintaining these things? And what is the life-cycle cost of each of these choices? Nail those down first, and then see which of the options fit with the criteria that you have. This is a wonderful way to approach things. Because you are not locking yourself into one particular brand, one particular material, you will find the right one for your facility.
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