Ever-Evolving Locker Room Design
By Dave Ramont
Most of us remember a time when locker rooms were a space that you just couldn't get out of quick enough. Whether you were at a rec center, sports facility, pool or fitness club, you pretty much expected the locker rooms to be, well, less than pleasant. But over the years, the locker room experience has taken a sharp turn for the better, and facility operators realize that these accommodations play an important role in a visitor's overall experience. Therefore, whether renovating existing spaces or constructing new ones, locker rooms are a critical piece of the planning and designing puzzle, as well as an important consideration when it comes to revenue potential.
"Inherently, locker rooms can be perceived as utilitarian spaces, but they play a much greater role in the perception of a patron who uses them," said Kevin Armstrong, associate and project manager at Barker Rinker Seacat, a Denver-based architecture firm. "These are some of the most intimately used spaces in a recreation facility, where it's important for patrons to feel comfortable."
If the experience in the locker room is poor, it could be a potential barrier to users and could even turn away patrons, according to Armstrong. "Creating a welcoming environment eliminates this issue."
The locker rooms of today have taken on a more spa-like feel, according to Nathan Harris, architect at Iowa-based RDG Planning & Design. "An elevated level of finish and a higher quality of light in the locker rooms creates a much more welcoming and pleasant feel to what used to be a forgotten space."
He said the amenities in these spaces have increased as well. "Individual shower stalls with an associated dry changing space are now standard. Dedicated grooming space is allocated and dispersed within the locker areas so that patrons can have these spaces closer to their lockers. Towel service has been included in many locker rooms as an added amenity. Some facilities have even supplied soap and shampoo for their users."
Erik Kocher is a design principal at Hastings & Chivetta, a Missouri-based architectural firm working primarily in the college and university realm. He's also seen the trend moving toward higher quality locker rooms in collegiate facilities, and said it's trickling down to municipal venues. "It's in the finishes primarily, but it also includes the lockers themselves. We have nicer lockers now, nicer ceiling finishes, nicer floor finishes."
He explained that it's a trend that's matching what the private industry has been doing for a number of years, adding that the days of seeing miles of rusty metal lockers and concrete floors are long gone. "It's really about this upgrade in quality; you see a lot more monitors and flat screens showing ESPN, and some of the larger schools are doing nicer two-tiered locker rooms. And then there's a membership-level locker room, so you pay a bit more and you get a towel service, you get shampoo and soap, and the finishes are nicer. It's more like a lounge or a private club, so there's that trend."
Adjusting to Users' Needs
The busy, fast-paced lifestyle of today's user has caused a change in the need for large spaces dedicated to locker rooms, according to Harris, who explained that many rec and wellness center users don't utilize the showering facilities. "In response to this trend, we're seeing clients opt for nicer finishes over a higher quantity of lockers." Armstrong agreed, pointing out that many people come to the rec center ready to work out, bypassing the locker room and seeking out the smaller day-use and wallet lockers for their belongings. "This trend started a few years ago, and in conversations with facility operators/managers we don't see it slowing down. This has started to have an impact on the size of locker facilities, particularly when there is not an aquatics component to the center."
Kocher pointed out that many students have their athletic gear on all the time. "When they go and work out, very few of them will shower or even change in a rec facility—they'd rather go back to their residence instead. So that's another trend, which is changing even the size of the locker rooms; fewer students using them."
Inclusion is another industry trend that David Larson is seeing. He's senior vice president of TMP Architecture, a Michigan-based firm that has worked on many sports, recreation and health and wellness facilities. "The way to include people is to create an inviting atmosphere that is secure and comfortable with adequate open space, good ventilation, higher ceilings, proper lighting and designing with a focus on pleasing materials and ambience."
Larson explained that making locker rooms more comfortable includes adding more elbow room and more opportunities for personal space amongst strangers. "Locker rooms are no longer knock-around, Spartan environments where discomfort is tolerated by jocks as a badge of honor. These facilities are more inclusive by providing more creature comfort."
In response to the movement toward a more inclusive locker room environment, many facilities have been moving toward cabana-style locker room designs, according to Harris. This type of locker room consists of individual shower/changing rooms surrounding a central space filled with lockers that are non-gender-specific. "Each individual space offers a toilet, a sink and a shower, along with space to change clothes. The person then exits the individual room and stores their belongings in a locker. This type of design allows all users, whether male, female or those that do not identify, the same locker room experience," said Harris.
The cabanas are a take-off on the original family locker rooms, which have been around for more than 20 years. Kocher said the concept is gaining traction even in the collegiate rec centers, and he described three different types of cabanas. The basic version is the dry changing room, which is similar to a department store dressing room. A bigger version adds a sink and maybe a toilet, while a third version has a sink, toilet and shower, and maybe a baby changing station, hair dryer or other amenities as well. "And again—these are all single-user, non-gender-specific rooms," said Kocher.
Armstrong said that as they try to create facilities that are more inclusive, multi-generational and inviting to all users, private spaces are becoming the norm. "The private cabana plays an important role in providing locker facilities to patrons that may not otherwise use a traditional locker room. This includes families with small children, users that may have a caretaker or require assistance, etc."
Others that benefit from cabana-style designs include those with disabilities and transgender populations.
Some facilities are using cabanas in conjunction with separate gender-specific locker rooms, while others have found that a combination of cabanas and gender-specific restrooms can provide the privacy and function of the old-school locker rooms.
Larson described working with the city of Dearborn, Mich., which was replacing an existing community pool and saw an opportunity to explore options other than the traditional male and female locker rooms. "It was ultimately decided to provide individual changing rooms exclusively, with a large common locker area to store clothing and other valuables after having changed into bathing wear. This approach maximizes the ability for a young child to stay with his/her parent and to provide privacy for people uncomfortable with changing in sight of other patrons, whatever the reason."
Regarding efficiency, Harris discussed a project they undertook at Troy University in Troy, Ala. "We studied many solutions and compared the space requirements for this cabana style against the space requirements for dedicated gender-specific locker rooms. At first glance, it would seem that many small, dedicated spaces would take up more square footage. In fact the cabana-style layout takes up less space than the traditional locker rooms."
Indeed, the personal changing rooms with community locker spaces can meet the needs of a variety of users in a smaller footprint, and also allow for more design options. But as Kocher explained, the fixture counts can start to increase if you have many spaces with separate toilets, sinks and showers. "So they can get bigger from the plumbing side, a little bit more efficient on the locker room side."
Regarding floor layout, Harris believes the thought behind the sensitivities of the transgender population is very important, and said that many of the mistakes made in planning for these spaces relate to the entrance into the locker rooms. "At the University of Michigan, we had great discussion about this topic. In the renovation of their Intramural Sports Building we were able to accomplish a layout that allowed all patrons to enter a single suite of locker rooms from a main travel path, in which they are not forced to visually make a locker room selection until they were off the corridor."
Providing day-use lockers at various locations within a facility is diminishing the number of lockers necessary in the locker room. "These cubbies are often found in gymnasia, group exercise rooms and weight/cardio spaces. In the past, these cubbies or day-lockers have all been one size, sized for backpacks," said Harris. "Today we're seeing a desire for a variety of sizes, sized for wallets, phones, shoes and backpacks. Another component to these lockers is the desire to charge your phone or computer while it's being stored."
Finishes & Maintenance
When it comes to locker materials, there are many options, along with a myriad of colors, finishes and grades. Some are customizable. Metal lockers are cost-effective, though they're noisy and can rust, scratch and dent. Wood lockers—whether solid or veneer—offer the look of furniture. Plastic lockers are very popular these days, whether plastic laminate, phenolic (made from a plastic resin material) or HDPE (high-density polyethylene). All material options have pros and cons, and final selection comes down to desired aesthetics, facility type and size, wet or dry areas, who the users are and budget.
Cleaning and maintenance considerations are very important in the design phase. "Maintenance-sensitive design and the appropriate use of materials is key to the longevity and operational efficiency of recreation facilities," said Armstrong, adding that it's important to pay special attention to the design of areas that receive water. "Picking solid surfaces over plastic laminate at sink areas, for example. Or selecting the right bench product that can hold up to moisture over wood. Considerations for finishes that can withstand impact, are easy to clean and are visually forgiving are important."
Armstrong said they consider the staff who clean these spaces. "By selecting materials that can be easily maintained by 'green' cleaning products, not only do we assist in the health and wellness of the staff but the patron that follows."
Harris feels that many of the design features associated with cleaning and sanitation are simple things. "Some examples are wall-mounted, not floor-mounted, benches at the locker space, phenolic doors on the shower stalls in lieu of plastic curtains and removal of the entry doors, so that people are touching fewer surfaces while in the locker rooms. Other things would relate to finishes within the spaces," said Harris. "Using large format tile to minimize the amount of grout lines in the floor or walls is one way to accomplish this."
Indeed, flooring options are another major consideration. Smaller tiles, typically one-inch or two-inch square, used to be the norm, as they offered the greatest slip-resistance. But that means more grout joints than larger tile, so cleaning is harder. Using a darker-colored grout so that soiling is less apparent can be helpful. Kocher said lately they've gone to larger, more abrasive tiles, such as the nonslip porcelain tile pavers.
Other locker room floor choices include textured sheet vinyl flooring, sheet rubber flooring, poured-quartz epoxy flooring, carpet and carpet tiles. All options have pros and cons, and a venue's unique variables must be considered. "There's no perfect solution in terms of maintainability," says Kocher. "The poured synthetic floors generally work pretty well and the carpets have gotten better."
Locker room floor systems also need to be chemical-resistant to protect against damage from personal products like cologne, hair spray, topical medications or lotions, all of which can have high solvent or chemical content.
There are many amenities to consider that offer comfort and functionality—everything from shower seats and locker benches to grab bars, mirrors and soap dispensers. Hand dryers are now high-speed and energy-efficient, while swimsuit spin dryers can extract 95 percent of water in a matter of seconds, no heat involved.
Many facilities have embraced water-saving measures, including low-flow fixtures and touchless faucets. Armstrong said they've found great success with reducing water through these means. "As sustainable design is becoming more of the norm than an outlier, they are becoming more prevalent in our designs."
Waterless urinals are also being utilized, with manufacturers telling us that one can save 20,000 to 45,000 gallons of water a year. But they do require training to maintain them properly, and Armstrong said they create a significant challenge in high-occupancy facilities. "They require a fair amount of monitoring and cartridge replacement if there's a high amount of use."
Larson said they're also utilizing these technologies more and more. "They are more complex devices so there will be more maintenance, so it's a personal priority for the owner. If you look at minimizing germ transfer, it is nice not to have to touch things."
Dual-flush toilets, prevalent in Europe, are another growing trend. "That's one thing we're starting to slowly introduce here, but otherwise everything has gone low-flow, low-flush; that's standard now in everything we do," said Kocher.
Light selection is another important consideration, and proper lighting should create ambience. Indirect lighting is optimal for circulation or gathering, while lights above lockers or side-lighting at dry vanities is helpful for accomplishing tasks. Certain lights are listed for damp and wet locations. "There has been a revolution with LED lighting," Larson said. "You can provide a very bright and clean environment with minimized energy consumption and heat contribution."
Recreation vs. Sport
So what might some differences be when designing locker rooms for recreation or fitness centers versus sports facilities? Armstrong said the primary differences lie in the space around the lockers, since significantly more room is sometimes required in sports facilities, such as a football game halftime. "This is an environment where you have a large number of players within a concentrated space for a condensed period of time. Good flow, access and grouping of players is essential to make these spaces effective for the players."
Other differences are present in terms of materials, graphics and physical locker sizes, according to Armstrong. "Sports facilities are typically focused to a specific set of athletes or user-groups; thus the accommodations in the locker spaces are provided according to those needs. Recreation and fitness center locker rooms are more commonly geared toward the general public and are reflective of that use."
Kocher explained that for many years, Division l schools have ramped up the "wow" factor to compete for student athletes, and this includes the locker rooms. Amenities like pristine lockers, lounges, flat screens and other technology, saunas and even barber shops are commonplace. "From a trend standpoint, we're seeing that come all the way down the scale of schools; it's starting to trickle down to Division II and Division III athletics."
Which brings us back to the idea that locker rooms are taking on a more spa-like feel. Even basic facilities are more commonly offering amenities like streaming music, TVs and workstations, towels and washcloths, razors and shaving cream, mouthwash, combs, hair spray and lotion. More upscale facilities might offer robes, flip-flops, magazines, heated floors and benches, frozen lavender washcloths or eucalyptus-infused towels. There may be whirlpools, tanning beds and steam rooms.
All our contributors are involved with renovating and modernizing existing locker room facilities. Armstrong said they relish those projects because they learn from the experiences of the facility operators and, in turn, they can offer options the operators hadn't considered. "The rewarding part for us is that it helps us up our game as we can take the lessons learned from that user and provide that solution on the next project, where we are consistently evolving the design of our locker room facilities."
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