Adding It All Up

Renderings Courtesy of Stanmar Inc.

Many youth centers experience the same set of problems: too little, poorly configured program space, and noncompliance with standards for accessibility or safety. And most of these problems have the same root cause, which in the case of the Nantucket Boys & Girls Club can be summed up in two numbers: 1960 and 80. Respectively, that’s the year the club was built, and the number of members it served at that time.

These days, the club has more than 700 members—65 percent of the island’s registered public-school children in grades 1 through 8, and 50 percent of kids in the two local private schools. Through 2013, the original building remained unchanged, with the exception of a small expansion of its game room in the 1990s.

Renderings Courtesy of Stanmar Inc.

This year, though, the facility begins a long-awaited, 20,000-square-foot expansion. Its dangerous gymnasium—with walls only a few feet beyond the basketball court’s side- and baselines—is being demolished, and a new, fully compliant, two-court gym is taking its place, along with expanded facilities for the club’s myriad after-school and summer programs. In a town and county population of 10,300 residents that expands to 50,000 during the summer months, including summer residents, tourists, and attendant service-industry workers, the updated club can now broaden its offerings to young people year-round.

Youth Is Served

Boys & Girls Clubs most often operate as an adjunct youth program; of the 4,074 chartered club facilities in the U.S., the largest single group comprises clubs located within schools, of which there are 1,400 nationally. According to an Atlanta-based, private, nonprofit organization, among the other larger groups are the 400 affiliated youth centers on U.S. military installations worldwide, and 300 clubs located in public housing—the majority of which are not stand-alone facilities.

Renderings Courtesy of Stanmar Inc.

And then there’s the Nantucket club, which not only has a permanent home, but also is the area’s primary provider of youth programs. (The town’s parks and recreation commission runs four adult leagues and assesses fees for outside use of town fields, parking lots, and beaches for children’s events, but has ceded youth programming to the club.) The club’s goals are none too modest—to reach all kids in the community and adults as well—but the budget is modest, being completely dependent on local fundraising.

It can be argued that directors of youth centers in general must prioritize to a much greater degree than directors of municipal or collegiate recreational facilities. As a result, youth centers put much of their focus into a gymnasium large enough to host community gatherings, recreational open-play or sports tournaments, and multipurpose spaces that can accommodate as many small-group activities as possible. Youth-center floor plans are usually far from simple to configure, however, given the following issues:

Space utilization . Youth centers combine areas set aside for unstructured hangouts, such as game rooms, movie rooms, and lounges for social interaction, as well as those intended for organized programs, and those programs run the gamut from cooking classes to martial arts to computers. Neither a kitchen nor a computer room can easily accommodate some other function, whereas a room used for yoga or martial arts, while flexible, should include adequate storage for whatever programs will be run there.

Age-range of participants . Activities intended for kids as young as 6 years old and those targeting teens will sometimes require physical separation or subtle differences in finishes and fixtures. Even though an important aspect of youth centers is the mentoring between age groups, the designation of a special area for only one age group (for example, a room for teens) makes adjacencies a potent planning question.

Safety and security . Supervision and control of space is of paramount importance wherever children are concerned, both for their well-being and the well-being of the physical plant. If expanded gyms and other facilities will be used to host community events, keeping access to that space while controlling access to other areas of the center will be of utmost importance.

Outdoor access . Many youth centers have an outdoor component, in which they must accommodate egress to vehicle drop-off zones, parking lots, sports fields, and playgrounds. If sports equipment is to be made available for these activities, an equipment check-in, storage area, and direct access to fields might be in order.

Administrative needs . A control desk is a prerequisite of any membership facility, as is office space for administrators and instructors. Where to put administrative space is sometimes a puzzle, as some administrators want to be in the middle of the action, while others prefer a suite near the front door but separate from the hustle and bustle of the commons. Sensitivity is also required when designing and situating a check-in area because of the centers’ peak traffic at the close of the school day. In Nantucket, the walk-in, after-school rush from the high school and middle school across the street (and from the nearby elementary school) was such that kids lining up to enter found themselves subject to the whims of inclement weather. The new space has, therefore, been designed with a large covered porch outside, and a generous control desk that “floats” near the front vestibule, but away from the exterior wall.

Island Life

Demolishing the old gymnasium was the key to reconfiguring the club’s space in a way that made for a logical progression through the building, and preserved more of the club’s fields to the west. The new addition (linking the original building with the new gym) consists of an entry and game room/common area upstairs, and a dedicated teen center and kitchen (as well as ample gym storage, restrooms, and athletic director’s office) downstairs. Moving the kitchen out of the old arts and crafts room gives both programs more space and better, activity-specific space. Similarly, moving the prime social gathering areas into the addition has allowed the computer room, learning center, and snack area to expand to meet the club’s growth in membership. The new gym, meanwhile, is being counted on to add to the center’s operational coffers through outside rentals, and as such has been designed to operate independently of the youth center.

One of the early design concepts involved the issues of supervision and autonomy that often play out in youth centers. Current thinking is that teens in particular should be given a certain amount of freedom in this home away from home—snack bars tend to be configured with self-serve cabinets and displays—but this doesn’t always square with administrators’ supervisory needs. In this case, two options for the teen center were considered: an overlook from the upper-floor commons into the teen center below (an architectural statement that allowed for ease of supervision), or a full upper floor to increase square footage of the commons. Eventually, the club decided on the additional program space, and administrators hope that a more separate teen center will help curtail the natural tendency of teens to gradually abandon the youth center as they grow older.

Youth centers, like those of Nantucket that undergo a radical transformation, are the quintessential community-based projects, dependent on local fundraising and input. With a proper consideration for everyone who will work and play there, designers can create a building that will easily meet the needs of community residents for years to come.

Oliver Snider is director of business development at Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Mass.-based design-build firm. Reach him at osnider@stanmar-inc.com .