The dream of every school administrator is to increase benefits while cutting costs — usually a contradiction in terms. However, one area in which this can be a dream come true is when high school athletic departments add fitness centers to their facilities in a way that they can be used by both students and the community. The reduced costs generally result from the school partnering with the city or other local government agency’s recreation department. Combined-use buildings obviously can save money because each public entity no longer needs to build their own facilities.

Michael Hall, an education facility planner/architect for Fanning/Howey Associates, Inc., in Celina, Ohio, reports that this type of activity is nonexistent in elementary schools and rare in middle schools,“but in the last five years about 95 percent of the high schools constructed or under construction are a part of this trend.”

What are these fitness centers, exactly? Why are they becoming so popular for both students and community members? What are some of the dynamics of designing these shared-use facilities? What are some illustrative examples of these projects? What sort of cost savings can be seen? And what are some of the challenges to making this partnership work effectively?

What Are They?

Probably the simplest way to describe high school fitness facilities is to simply state that school athletic departments are taking a lesson from modern consumer health and fitness clubs. This means that these centers are typically equipped with weightlifting sets, sophisticated strength machines, treadmills, in-place bikes, step machines and other gadgets. Since high schools have traditionally been focused on competitive sports, this sort of do-it-yourself conditioning is a somewhat radical departure.

However, it should also be noted that, once the concept of sharing fitness centers with the community took hold, it rapidly spread to other more traditional facilities, such as basketball courts, running tracks and swimming pools.

Why So Popular?

“I think the trend of more cooperation between public entities for the benefit of community residents started picking up steam about five years ago,” says Earl Crossland, a partner with Voorhis, Slone, Welsh, Crossland Architects, in Mason, Ohio,“and that was mainly because of the need for good stewardship of limited tax dollars. What spurs the cooperation, is the desire for community-based fitness and recreation facilities.”

Hall points out that these public facilities, have the added appeal of (generally) not charging the community like their commercial counterparts, because they are built with tax dollars. Moreover, Hall says, schools have a much better chance of getting building referendums passed when citizens see that these facilities will be for their use as well as for the students.

“And,” says Hall, “there is the trend of high schools becoming centers of the community again. An added benefit is these facilities are bringing families together.” In addition, some of these centers are appealing to virtually every aspect of the community, including activity rooms for seniors, aerobics for women, equipment for physical rehabilitation and swimming pools that have warmer therapeutic sections at one part of the pool for the handicapped and slides for kids in another area.

Attitudes toward youth are in sync with this trend. “We’re seeing a real surge toward student health in education,” says Tom Oehler, senior vice president/managing partner with SHW Sports, an architectural firm in Austin, Texas. “Fitness and nutrition are now considered components of a well-rounded education.” Oehler adds that, though training for life-long fitness is now seen as a goal in itself, irrespective of competitive sports, this trend is also complementary to team sports. For instance, football players are now encouraged to engage in weight lifting and running during the off seasons to remain in top shape when fall rolls around.

Dynamic Cs of Design:

The key issues of design, says Hall, relate to the fact that a shared facility serves two different clienteles, usually at different hours. This necessitates separate parking lots and separate entrances. “Also, you want separate heating, cooling and lighting systems,” says Hall. “If you have 50 people in an enclosed athletic area, you may want to cool that area, but not the entire school.”

But things can become more complex, because in some cases the school and community share the same facility. In other cases, there are two separate adjoining facilities. And sometimes there is one for sole school use, one for sole community use, with a shared use section in between.

Illustrative Examples

Crossland says one example of the latter is the complex his firm designed for the Mason High School District and the City of Mason, Ohio. On one side is the traditional academic high school. In the middle is a shared facility with a 1,200-seat auditorium; an 800-seat competition swimming pool (or natatorium); a large multi-use field house; a two-court, wood-floor gym and three basketball courts used for volleyball and indoor tennis; and a running track. This space is basically used for high school physical education classes during the day and for community use in the evening.

In addition, there is a facility designed solely for the community that includes its own fitness and weight room, an additional leisure pool, meeting rooms for a senior center, an aerobics room and a second-level running track with views looking onto the other areas.

The reason for this added facility, Crossland explains, “is that with some activities, such as weights and fitness, there is a demand for day use by both the school and community.”

As the Mason example indicates, there are possibilities for all kinds of combinations depending on the needs of both the school and community. One unusual combination going on in Texas, Oehler relates, is the building of regulation-size indoor football fields that can be used for a variety of other things, including marching band practice and community sports. What has helped make this possible is the improvement of artificial turf, which now has the look and feel of grass, unlike earlier variations that were known to tear a students knee.

The reason for this combination, Oehler explains, is the extreme heat levels in Texas, which has resulted in students returning to school somewhat out of shape, creating a liability factor. “These facilities are expensive to build and would not make sense if they were only used nine months of the year or only from 9 to 3 on school days,” Oehler says.

Cost Savings

Crossland reports that for the Mason project, “the total cost of the high school, community and combination facility was $62 million. The estimate is that if they were done separately, there would have been an additional $12 million cost.”

Hall says that his firm built a large community center in conjunction with the Dakota High School, Macomb, Mich., originally 2,400 sq. ft., but it was so popular that two years ago it was more than doubled to 6,000 sq. ft. “The total cost was $900,000, and it would have cost an additional $600,000 more if built separately,” Hall says.

Oehler sees a lot of these joint efforts being done with swimming pools, because the operational costs are so high. “A natatorium can start at $6 to $7 million and go up to $15 to $20 million if you get into things like diving wells and rehab pools,” he says. “One combination that works well is that the school will build the facility with a school bond, and the city will operate it at the cost of $200,000 to $250,000 a year for the life of the building, which may be 40 to 50 years.”


“This type of partnership is not as simple as it sounds,” says Crossland. “The three biggest obstacles are working out the cost sharing, management and scheduling issues. In the Mason project, the three-part division helped solve some of these issues, but they continued right up to the opening of the building.”

But, adds Crossland, though school districts and cities tend to approach these shared projects from differing points of view, “what ultimately leads to cooperation is that both sides can see the mutual benefits.”