Facilities (Campus Spaces)

What's New in Sport and Fitness Facilities Design?

It seems as if, every day, news outlets report about yet another college or university unveiling plans to build bigger and better sport and fitness facilities. So much so that, rather than being exciting, the news has become rather humdrum. And yet, if we take another look, we easily see that much is happening to propel this construction. In fact, here are three drivers.

Driver 1: A Focus on Recruiting

Let’s get the obvious driver out of the way first thing: recruiting. Recruiting student-athletes is imperative to income-generating athletic programs. “Basketball and football are the only college programs that produce revenue,” observes Erik Kocher, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, a principal in the St. Louis office of Hastings+Chivetta. So it’s critical for these programs to provide top-notch facilities to attract athletes who are on their way to becoming professionals. What’s interesting about the drive to provide amazing amenities in the most powerful conferences is that it’s starting to trickle down to Division I, and even Division II and Division III facilities. “Recruiting is about one-upping the Joneses and providing facilities and services that are beyond compare,” Kocher says.

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For example, in 2018, Hastings+Chivetta completed a renovation of the University of Tulsa football locker room. Located in the Case Athletic Complex in the north end zone of H.A. Chapman Stadium, the $1.2-million facelift features a dedicated nutrition center, custom-built lockers, updated lighting, a wall of fame highlighting UT players who went pro, and top-to-bottom branding.

But what’s remarkable about the renovation is that it was completed just 11 years after the original football facility opened in 2007. “That short amount of time is indicative of how much the bar has been raised in terms of what coaches want in the locker rooms in order to attract students,” says Kocher. “Renovating the football locker room so that it has all of the bells and whistles found in brand-new facilities means the university can stay competitive in NCAA Division I.”

Driver 2: Focus on Athletes’ Wellness

Student-athletes have higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety than non-athletic students, indicates Andres Pacheco, AIA, LEED-AP, senior associate with VMDO Architects, which has offices in Charlottesville, VA, and Washington, DC. As a result, administrators are finding that providing one facility that combines everything student-athletes need, such as training, conditioning, tutoring, and nutrition, allows them to experience a greater sense of inclusion in the athletic community. “It’s about paying attention to the students’ mental health,” he says.

Andy Barnard, AIA, LEED-AP, managing director and principal in Perkins+Will’s Denver office, echoes Pacheco’s observations. “Unlike general campus design,” he says, “athletic facility design has a strong focus on wellness. It has been evolving through the years as athletics has moved from a strength training, sports medicine, practice, and competition environment to an environment of how to maximize performance through nutrition and other types of workouts. The definition of student wellness really, really ranges, as well, so that no two facilities are the same.”

sports and fitness facility 


HOLISTIC HEALTH. The design of Liberty University’s Athletics Center is aligned with abundant natural light and therapeutic principles that help connect every person to nature, both inside and outside. Bathed in natural light with windows facing spectacular mountain views and numerous plantings, the facility harnesses evidence-based design approaches that support and encourage the well-being of body, mind, and spirit.

One example is Athletics Center, a $26-million, 72,240-square-foot, multi-use facility at Liberty University in Lynchburg, VA. Located at the heart of Liberty’s Athletics Corridor in the middle of campus, the building opened in fall 2017 to support the university’s NCAA Division I athletes.

“At first, it was only going to be an athletic facility,” says Pacheco. “But the vision of the athletic director at the time was combining academics and athletics, so we moved the design in that direction.” As Athletics’ central hub, the building includes student support services, training rooms, rehabilitation facilities, equipment and weight rooms, academic amenities, study rooms, and administrative offices.

Even more, the facility makes a strong biophilic design statement, which encourages a sense of peace. Three side are tucked into a hill, and the fourth side, which is 100-percent glass, has views to a mountain. A skylight at the top brings in natural daylight. A courtyard in the middle of the building, along with a linear garden, offers further connection to the outdoors.

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Another example of a facility representing student wellness is Athletic and Human Performance Research Center, the first phase of which opened this past April at Milwaukee’s Marquette University. The 47,000-square-foot building provides 5,400 square feet of dedicated space where faculty and partners from the healthcare industry collaborate on research, exploring areas such as rehabilitation and the challenges encountered by athletes with special needs, as well as developing new fitness technologies and advancing the use of fitness data analytics as a tool to improve performance.

In terms of serving athletes that make up Marquette’s NCAA Division I teams, the building includes lockers for athletes and coaches, support space for the lacrosse programs and golf team, and additional strength and conditioning spaces for the Athletics Department.

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Driver 3: The Spectator Experience

A discussion about campus sports and fitness facilities wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include consideration of competition and spectator venues. Here, design is no longer focused on the quantity of seats but the quality of the experience. “It’s about how to augment the fans’ experiences so that they’re richer than the richness that is found in front of today’s large, clear television screens,” says Barnard. “Administrators are thinking: How do we build venues that attract recent graduates who are getting footholds in their careers and want to return to the game-day experience? They’re especially keeping in mind that the game-day experience comes with the immediate gratification of ‘another great day in my life,’ as expressed on social media.”

The next time a news outlet reports a college or university unveiling plans to build bigger and better sport and fitness facilities, it might fall into one of these three drivers. Then again, it might be another driver altogether.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management October 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.