No-Sweat Fitness Center Design Trends

The biggest thing about the collegiate recreation center is that it’s very different than it was just 10 to 15 years ago, says Pat Tangen, AIA, senior associate with HOK Sport + Venue + Event in Kansas City, Mo.“It’s a very open building. It’s a very user-friendly building. There’s a lot more technology in the building than people expect. It’s there to be of service to the students, and that service makes the university look good.”

Indeed, today’s fitness center design can be categorized into three main areas: transparency, connectivity and flexibility.“These are the key elements to make a successful design that attracts students,” says Gerardo Prado, RA, a project engineer with HNTB Architecture in Kansas City, Mo.


This design element is broken into two: exterior transparency and interior transparency.

Exterior transparency means the use of a lot of glass so that what’s happening inside can be seen on the outside, inviting students to come in. “In the past, rec centers were big boxes at the edge of campus, and everybody said, ‘Well, that must be the gym over there with no windows in it,’” says Chris Chivetta, PE, LEED, president of St. Louis-based Hastings & Chivetta Architects.

“Today, these facilities have inviting front entries, great interior finishes and lounge spaces that are seen from outside, so you can see students working out, playing, socializing and having a good time, and you’re attracted to that building,” Chivetta says.

Interior transparency means more visual openness once you’re inside. “The reason for this is ease of operations and use for both the operator and facility user,” says Tangen. “What that means is that both can see and understand all of the activities occurring within the facility from the control desk. The users should be able to see a majority of the activities so that they know how busy things are and what the facility has to offer. And it’s a control point for the operators to maintain security, discipline and safety for the users.”

Related to transparency is a free zone and a control zone that Chivetta sees occurring more often. Upon entering the fitness center, the student is in the free zone and has access to food service, lounge space and more. To enter the control zone and use the athletic portion of the facility, a student has to show his identification.


“Connectivity means that you feel a physical and visual connection between different activity areas within a rec center,” says Prado. “We’re seeing a lot more of that because students come in to see other people work out and to be seen.”

An example is the running track above the gym-nasium that also overlooks a climbing wall so that, while you’re running, you can see what’s happening on the climbing wall.

Encouraging the physical and visual connection, fitness centers now boast satellite dining facilities. “They are doing that so students have an option for other food service on campus late at night when these facilities are typically open,” Chivetta says. “They’ve become a big drawing card for the students to come out of the residence hall or library at 10 or 11 o’clock and go someplace for a cup of coffee or a water bottle.”

“The reality is that most successful rec centers foster and encourage socialization between students,” notes Prado, “and they offer a lot more than exercise equipment, like computer stations, juice bars, areas where you can watch television and relax or just socialize and chat.”


Campus fitness centers also have to be designed for flexibility. “Flexibility is probably the most important of the three issues,” says Prado. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that flexibility allows you to offer multiple functions within a single space, as well as move old equipment out and new equipment in. Tall ceilings and open areas lend themselves well to flexibility, as do wide corridors loaded with electrical outlets. Prado encourages the use of clerestory windows in tall spaces to allow for indirect natural light. “These spaces need to be divisible and open enough so that they can host groups of 10 to 50 people all at one time,” he asserts.

The second reason fitness centers need to be designed for flexibility is to accommodate future expansion. When thinking in terms of the future, it’s especially important “to design these facilities so that, when the expansion occurs, it looks seamless, like it was planned as part of the original project,” says Prado.

Chivetta agrees, adding that he considers the external and internal. In terms of the external, will the expansion be court space or a pool, and where might it be located? In terms of internal, the structural system must be flexible enough to accommodate future moving of walls and other components. “This allows multipurpose areas to be expanded or eliminated, and other components to be programmed in,” he says.