Inclusivity & Equity

Hallmarks in the Design of New Recreation & Wellness Centers

By Rick Dandes

As communities grow more culturally and demographically diverse, architects are finding ways to reach out to more community members and address their changing wants and needs in the recreation and wellness facilities they design.

The core mission of any recreation and wellness provider is to offer programming to everyone in the community, contends Kevin Armstrong, principal with Barker Rinker Seacat (BRS) Architecture. As a result, facility designers, in concert with stakeholders, seek to gain a better understanding of their clients' needs, including those groups that often get missed.

Designing for all ages is a trend, from seniors and baby boomers all the way to active youths and tots. "Recreation centers that are multigenerational and gender and culturally diverse in all facets play a part in our current design focus," said Armstrong. "What we are heading for in a lot of our facilities is making the recreation facility feel warm and inviting, so that everyone can come in, enjoy the center and feel like it is inclusive and is something that was designed for them."

"I would say another trend we are seeing on the fitness side is trying to address hybrid workouts," said Brent Ross, Sports, Recreation and Entertainment Practice leader, Perkins&Will Chicago. "The key is finding the right spot for a fitness center in a person's overall fitness scheme."

Consumers these days have many options. They are looking at equipment and apps that they can use at home versus what can they only get at a fitness center. Hence there is much discussion among stakeholders around how wellness providers can offer a subscription model that allows for that flexibility: where they know consumers will be working out a couple of days of the week at home and a few days of the week in the gym.

Leave No Group Behind

Meanwhile, retirees with time and money on their hands want to stay healthy and live an active lifestyle. "We are seeing a shift, a movement away from a senior center aspect and toward more of an active lifestyle-type center," said Bob McDonald, senior principal and CEO of OLC in Denver. "This reflects a trend toward overall wellness and health for the baby boomer generation."

He added, "They are not going to go to a traditional senior center, do arts and crafts, play cards and things like that, although those are still activities that need space to take place. Those quieter activities, we try to offer space adjacent to more active amenities like walking and jogging tracks, cardiovascular equipment, low-impact aerobics, aqua aerobics, access to swimming and things like that. That is a trend," McDonald said.

Yet another trend is to tap into the burgeoning workforce, the next generation of users. Young people getting out on their own are looking to socialize, stay active, and be fit and healthy.

One of the technology trends that has been around for a little while is on-demand fitness or small group fitness classes, said Ross. He suggests providing a space where a person or a small group can run a workout class through a TV or screen. This ties in with those other apps and subscription-based programs that consumers might want to bring to the gym.

There is also a need to capture the attention of active youth by providing a thrill-seeking environment, McDonald added. "You see this through the incorporation of extreme sports into design. Activities such as indoor climbing gyms are growing in popularity," including in the aquatics realm, where slides are also a trend.

"Recreation centers are now tapping into many different resources within the community and trying to bring everyone together," McDonald said. "Having exercise studios that can also double as a classroom. The room should be very flexible, to host maybe a nutrition class, a cooking class or some other kind of arts and crafts venue. It can double as a party space, for birthday parties or reunions or other kind of celebrations. It can be an amenity for the community itself and not just for recreation."

Another exciting movement in facility design is in the realm of esports, said William Schenck, associate, project designer, Hastings and Chivetta in St. Louis. As an example, "We are building a 3,000-square-foot esports room for competitive videogaming at our Wentzville Recreation Center in Wentzville, Mo." (due to open in summer 2022), he said. "There is much interest in the community in the esports space, mainly because it is replacing a teen room, that we have seen in many other community centers. Typically, in those rooms you might have a pool table or ping pong. But right now, there is a recognition that with most kids, if you really want to engage them and draw them into a facility, having video games is an effective way to go."

The esports room designed by Schenck and his colleagues has LED lighting and there are about 24 stations with PCs and a lounge area, where kids can play X-Box games or Nintendo. "Interestingly enough, we have found esports is a way to draw in not only youths but also adults. Let us be honest," Schenck continued, "a lot of adults are interested in gaming. Bringing them in for esports and then having a competition with surrounding communities is a way to attract new people."

These e-spaces can also be used in conjunction with local high school and grade school students. Esports is extremely popular in high school and even at the elementary school level. "In some cases, schools can come into these spaces and rent them," Schenck said.

The interest in esports is not slowing down. Rather the opposite, said Armstrong. "We are seeing esports as a rising trend within community recreation. It has been rising faster within collegiate recreation, but now it is spreading out to the community side, embracing and making it age-appropriate programming. Different communities look at esports differently. We are moving past anyone perceiving esports as a fad."

One of the communities that has embraced esports is Maricopa, Ariz., at the Maricopa Community Center, where they have created a robust esports community, Armstrong said.

Using nearby outdoor spaces is another effective use of property owned by a municipality and is a trend that McDonald has observed. Recreation centers, where possible, he said, can use their immediate outside surroundings in creative ways. "We are seeing a lot of investment in outdoor activities, also trails and riverfront parks, making activities more active and less passive. That is a real trend that has come out of the pandemic, the ability to go outside and enjoy nature."

Partnership Potential

Designers also see communities inviting healthcare into their recreation and wellness facilities, which is also a way to generate revenue. Partnerships with healthcare providers such as hospitals, health clinics and rehabilitation facilities, are becoming more common. A center might be home to a small clinic for checkups and vaccinations, for example.

Other common partnerships might include nonprofit facilities like YMCAs, or could involve pairing recreational offerings with sports tourism.

For example, the Bridge Sports Complex in Bridgeport, W.Va., has developed a themed facility, partnering with a sports management group. The city built a large-scaled facility of 156,000 square feet that is part of a sports tourism destination, but is also being operated as a community recreation space. What is unique here is that it is not just dedicated to one function or the other. The city is leveraging the partnership to create a more diverse center that can meet all those goals.

"Why not partner with a local college?" asked Schenck. That's exactly what the Wentzville Recreation Center did, working with Lindenwood University. They designed into the floor plan a series of five classrooms within the community center. In the evening, those rooms are used for adult education, another source of revenue. As part of the overall agreement, the community center gets to use those rooms during the day, along with general meeting spaces and multipurpose spaces. These rooms are set apart from the equipment area or the community focus side of the building. There is a large weight and fitness space for membership and general population usage.

"Everybody wants weight fitness and people really can't get enough of that in these community centers," Schenck said.

Space in Demand

Are community recreation and wellness centers trending toward new, ground-up buildings or renovation of existing spaces? Both, according to the designers we spoke with.

"Most of our work is for ground-up space, said Schenck.

Inside those spaces, "We look to have anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 square feet (about the area of a basketball court) of a fitness area in our buildings," he added. "We try to get adequate gymnasium space as well, enough for two basketball courts. And along with that, some sort of a jogging track around the space. Those are the hottest in demand for us."

Schenck added that the facility needs to have enough space to accommodate foodservice options. "Rather than your traditional concession stand, our clients tend to want an almost Starbucks-like café style food service option for concessions."

McDonald said he is seeing a real demand for renovation-type work. "Back in the late 1990s, early 2000s, there were a lot of new recreation centers funded and constructed. Now those facilities are 20 to- 25 years old, and they are getting into a phase of their useful life where they need to be refurbished."

One specific example McDonald offered is in the Denver metro area, in Thornton, Colo.: the Margaret C. Carpenter Recreation Center. "We recently renovated the indoor aquatics amenity at the center," he said. "We demolished all the existing pools and then reimagined the different shapes of the pools, the different floor slopes, depths and different amenities. And then some structural mechanical issues were dealt with. The center had gone beyond its useful life. So, rather than build a new center, they chose to invest in their existing facility. That will be a great amenity for years to come."

The number-one challenge in renovation projects is working within an existing envelope. For the Margaret C. Carpenter Recreation Center, project designers were fortunate in having the square footage that was the right size for the community. "We had to reimagine what the space would look like, and so whatever we designed was going to have to fit within the confines of those existing walls," McDonald said. "We did multiple analyses of what was there."

"There is a lot of building stock out there that is ripe for renewal," Ross noted. "If you are putting in a gymnasium you need a larger space. There are only certain types of buildings that would accommodate that. You can convert big box stores at malls, but this would require structural work to make that happen. We see private providers taking over smaller storefronts. This can fill former retail spaces that appear blighted and improve the overall appearance of the area."

Equity & Diversity

Equity and diversity are also having an impact on design, Ross said. "We've seen an increase, especially in gender-identity-type equity in providing privacy and security and comfort for individuals who might not feel comfortable in traditional gender-specific changing environments."

If you have a locker room that does not feel comfortable and safe for all users, it is hard to keep patrons coming back. The newer designs address these issues and so much more.

There are many reasons to provide more private changing areas and restrooms. A mom or dad with a few kids of different genders will be grateful for a family facility. Or someone with an ostomy bag might look for a more private area. "Changing an ostomy bag for instance and being comfortable doing that at a facility would open a community center to a broader population," Ross said. "This would allow older folks to be more comfortable leaving their home and come to a place where they can socialize and improve their overall well-being."

The Ebbing Pandemic Impact

"Where we are now," McDonald said, "I do not see the pandemic affecting design. At least not a significant impact, surprisingly. During the worst of the pandemic, we had a conversation about do we need to have a larger space for fitness. Fitness centers were spacing their equipment six to nine feet apart."

"In our minds," Ross said, "as designers, we were wondering if we had to make all our spaces larger. Now, either the pandemic will be gone, or people are adapting to live with it. If there is anything we do need to think about it is flexibility of spaces, so we could take that fitness center and spread it apart if we should ever be in a situation such as in 2020 with the breakout of COVID-19." RM



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