Bearing The Essentials

Downsizing isn’t always a bad thing. When it comes to locker rooms in rec centers, it may be the best way to go.

“Members really don’t use locker rooms--or big lockers--that much,” says Doug Holzrichter, a principal at PHN Architects in Wheaton, Ill. The award-winning architecture and design firm specializes in recreational facilities, including recreation and fitness centers, aquatic facilities and golf course clubhouses and facilities.

“Put in fewer lockers and reduce the room size,” Holzrichter advises. “Studies and experience show that most people come to the fitness center already in their workout gear, and they leave dressed the same way. They shower and change at home.”

The exceptions are those people who work out before work, or the occasional patrons who work out during lunch, Holzrichter notes. “With such occasional usage, we’ve found our clients can better use that space elsewhere.”

“A park board wants to dedicate as much square-footage and taxpayer dollars as possible to actual program space,” says Andy Dogan, also a principal at PHN. “A decision to include a very large locker room doesn’t necessarily make a district seem fiscally responsible.”

Nooks And Cubbies

But there is still a need for storing personal belongings. Holzrichter and Dogan recommend designing storage areas in other parts of the facility. One trend is to install wallet lockers--usually 4 inches x 4 inches x about 3 inches deep--along running tracks and pool decks. “They’re perfect for securing items like a wallet, keys and cell phone,” Dogan says.

The Palatine Park District’s rec center in Illinois began long ago as a high school. “Most people don’t use the locker rooms, but patrons still need a place to put their belongings,” Dogan says. “In remodeling the center, we put in 12 (inch) by 12 by 12 cubes that people can lock with their own locks, plus open cubbies.”

The Wood Dale (Illinois) Park District’s rec center also offers small lockers near the running track. When these proved both popular and useful, the district added portable storage units on wheels right in the fitness center.

At the Field House at Hinkston Park in Waukegan, Ill., the locker rooms are fairly compact, with both full-size and half-size lockers. “By using smaller lockers, you can increase the capacity of the locker room without increasing the size. For every person who hangs a suit in his locker, two people are putting in nothing more than their wallets, keys and phones. To provide nothing but full-size lockers would be a waste of space,” Dogan says.

Palatine’s newest facility--in pre-construction--won’t have any locker rooms at all. That’s partially because the facility won’t have a fitness center, but officials originally considered including locker rooms for use by sports teams.

Conversations with both district officials and residents led to eliminating locker rooms in favor of more program space. “We designed a 400-square-foot multi-purpose room with exterior windows high off the floor, and that room can be used for changing if necessary,” Dogan says. “No one will be showering at the facility, so there was no need to spend money on expensive plumbing that would be used only rarely.”

Dressing Up The (Locker) Room

Yet smaller definitely does not mean spartan. “We’re getting away from quantity of space and focusing instead on quality of space, as well as amenities--and those amenities tend to be upscale,” Dogan says.

Competition is one factor. Park districts have to compete with high-end clubs where luxury touches are standard. “We’re starting to see some things that were once considered luxury items really taking hold in public facilities.”

At the same time, public facilities also must compete with “storefront” fitness centers at the bottom end of the price scale. It all adds up to pressure to offer value, with upscale touches.

Body-wash and shampoo dispensers are becoming standard, as are wall-mounted hair dryers and swimsuit extractors in facilities with pools. “These items don’t take up much space, and they don’t cost much money, but they add an upscale ambiance. Even existing facilities can add some of these items to enhance their appeal,” Dogan says.

Changing the lighting can change the look. “Fluorescent lights are a given with today’s energy codes, but we recommend softer, indirect lighting in grooming areas instead of harsh, ceiling-mounted lighting. It provides a more upscale feel without significant additional cost.”

Instead of laminate countertops, park districts are selecting granite or another solid surface, for a higher-end look that’s also longer-lasting and anti-microbial. Dogan advises, however, against using an upscale marble tile for flooring in wet areas. “We recommend surfaces that are slip-resistant,” he says. “Marble or granite tile may look fantastic, but it could be dangerous.”Anti-microbial carpeting, particularly in changing areas, gives a more upscale look than vinyl tile, and is becoming common. And open showers have virtually disappeared. Instead, separate showers are installed, with small changing areas.

Details, Details

The trend toward a more upscale ambiance affects other facets of design, including materials and color.Ten to 15 years ago, Dogan says, the base standard for lockers was metal. Today it’s solid plastic, which doesn’t rust and is quieter. And wood lockers--such as those found in the Hinkston Park--also add an upscale touch.

For walls, Dogan suggests a material, such as plain concrete block, that can be painted easily. “You can create an inviting ambiance with an inviting color scheme,” Dogan says. “Paint is cheap. Using a material that can be painted lets you freshen the look and change it, without the expense of a complete remodeling.”The desire to avoid germs also affects design. “People are very concerned about germs,” Dogan says. “We’re really trying to design our facilities, including locker rooms, as touch-free as possible.”In some cases, restrooms or locker rooms may not even have a door. “Instead, there’s a little bit of a maze, including full visual protection, with no line of sight into the room. That design creates privacy, and no one has to actually touch a door,” Dogan said.

Dogan offered additional recommendations and thoughts:

· It’s important to consider where patrons will use personal grooming items. “People want an electrical outlet by the mirror,” he says. “We have to think about setting up grooming areas so there’s ample power where it’s needed. In many older facilities, the outlet is near the floor. It’s not really useful there.”

· Don’t forget the smaller details. “Some design elements get overlooked. For example, is there a good spot for a garbage can? A patron washes her hands and turns around to throw the paper towel away. Is there a convenient spot for the garbage can? Those details matter.”

· Security is important. “We try to design locker rooms with the lockers in an island configuration, allowing circulation around them. We avoid alcoves or dead ends, for security reasons.”

In a sense, locker-room design is following the trends in homes. Thirty or so years ago, few homes boasted luxury master baths. Today, they’re not uncommon. “I think some people ask themselves, ‘Why use a public facility if what we have at home is nicer?’ That kind of thinking is driving the move toward upscale touches. Public centers want to move beyond utilitarian. And they are,” Dogan says.“The spaces may be smaller, but they’re nicer. They just offer more.”

Beth Bales is a writer associated with PHN Architects, an award-winning architectural firm that specializes in the design of recreational facilities, including aquatic centers, recreational centers and golf course clubhouses. Her story, “Off-Season Greens,” on ways to increase revenues at park- and forest preserve district-owned golf course facilities during the off-season, received Illinois Parks & Recreation’s award for “Best Facilities Management Article” for 2003. She lives in Geneva, Ill., a western Chicago suburb, and may be reached at (630) 232-7912.