Designing Successful Recreational Facilities with the User Experience in Mind

by: Jackie Stinson, LEED AP BD+C
I am interested in contextual design, especially as it relates to optimizing recreational facilities. Understanding the user allows for efficient programming of spaces; efficiency is critical when designing recreational facilities.

Dancing was my passion before I became involved with architecture. I learned how to dance in elementary school and continued to dance throughout high school. My driven nature and desire to compete led me to excel at dancing, to the point where I was competing nationally on a team with other talented dancers.

But, by the time I was a senior in high school, I became career focused. Although pursuing a career in dance was a possibility, I decided to discontinue my strict dancing routine to build the portfolio required to get into a reputable architecture program. My decision to leave the world of competitive dancing was difficult. Though not a competitive dancer anymore, I continued to train heavily: cycling, lifting, plyometric training, running, yoga—you name it, I have probably tried it. At the University of Oregon, where I completed my undergraduate degree in architecture, fitness and exercise remained a part of my daily routine. Even today, as a prospective architect, I spend a lot of time training.

As I see it, dance and design both require expression without words.

I am interested in contextual design, especially as it relates to optimizing recreational facilities. Understanding the user allows for efficient programming of spaces; efficiency is critical when designing recreational facilities. The design of recreational or training space should account for the way people move through space and use equipment. For instance, having a clear path from group exercise rooms to the restroom is important; if someone is taking a group class, they are not likely to use any other gym equipment that day. Therefore, they should not have to maneuver their way through equipment to use the restroom.

Properly designed facilities have effective lighting. Access to natural light makes a space more pleasurable, no matter the building type. But in a recreation center, designers should pay particular attention to balancing solar heat gain and glare against lighting requirements. Radiation and glare become an issue when a space is over glazed. Physical activity generates heat, and glare can be uncomfortable and dangerous to users. In one gym I visited, the glare was so severe that people were lifting weights with their eyes closed, which is extremely unsafe. While views to the outdoors are important and common in cardio areas, designers should also consider users’ ability to use the equipment and the facility comfortably. I have been in a recreation center with a beautiful curtain wall that provided a view of a four-lane highway. This did very little for users except create glare.

East Oakland Sports Center © David Wakely

There are many ways of controlling natural light. Internal shades, however, should be a designer’s last resort. The first and more efficient tool for controlling natural light is careful building orientation. The second tool should be smart programming to ensure the appropriate spaces have access to the appropriate amount of daylight and views. The third should be the use of overhangs, light shelves, and vertical fins. The fourth should be the use of high performance glass. Vertical fins on east and west faces can be very effective and beautiful when designed properly. The same goes for overhangs and light shelves. Indirect daylight can also enhance spaces. Of course this is all site-specific, and in some cases internal shades are necessary.

The University of Oregon’s recreation center was remodeled during my time there as an architecture student. The new facility has multiple cardio areas, which work well for adjacency reasons. One of the areas is near the weight room and the other is near the open circuit area; this makes the gym usable for different workout routines—since some people like to break up their lifting and cardio routines, while others like to do them in circuits. But what really distinguishes the facility is its spaciousness. In my experience, overcrowding at peak hours is one of the main reasons people cancel their gym memberships. High usage at popular times is unavoidable, but even at peak hours the recreation center never felt congested. High ceilings, wide passageways, and natural light make this possible.

University of Oregon Student Recreation Center by Robertson|Sherwood Architects, pc in association with RDG Architecture, pc. Photography by IRIS22 – Kun Zhang

Although the University of Oregon’s new facility is a true success, it could certainly be improved by applying some of the ideas I described. For instance, the facility has no water fountains near the locker rooms, and this creates inefficiency. Most people using the facility come from class and change in the locker room before starting their workout. Locating a water fountain near the locker rooms would streamline the users’ gym time, which would, in turn, improve mobility. The facility has water lines from the bathroom that could have been used to install a water fountain there; this should have been considered during the design process.

Recreational facilities should be responsive to people’s needs, and this requires targeting users. This is, of course, easier said than done: are users educated about fitness? Do they have children? Is the targeted consumer generally self-conscious and would want a more secluded area in which to work out? Will people be power-lifting or doing plyometric training? The University of Oregon’s recreation remodel was successful because the user group was specific and relatively homogeneous—young, active students. Clients should remember that, ultimately, people choose a recreation facility based on price and travel range. These demographic factors can be studied and therefore should be used in the design process.

When designing recreational facilities, designers also need to think through possible and likely workout sequences. Gyms are too often designed as big boxes filled with treadmills, dumbbells, and cable machines. Designers should understand how the gym equipment and space are used to improve the efficacy of the architecture.

As I see it, dance and design both require expression without words. In dance, the expression takes place through the movement of the body. In architecture, it comes out through drawings and renditions. To create good designs or perform a meaningful dance, there should be intention behind every move. And that is the idea I evoke in my designs.