Not Your Daddy's Locker Room

Growing up in the 1960s and ‘70s, I saw a locker room as a cavernous, uncomfortable, smelly public space whose functional design focused less on personal space and more on efficiently serving a large number of people. The average locker room experience was the same for my dad, and oddly enough, locker rooms had not evolved or improved from his boyhood to mine. The typical recreation center locker rooms were modeled after high school athletic facilities. This “old school” model was accepted as the status quo for decades.

Old-school locker rooms may be our heritage, but recreation facility operators know the critical role modern locker rooms play in increasing participation, streamlining operations, and enhancing customer experience. This once common and forgotten space is now part of progressive business plans that drive design and provide revenue potential. Service-minded professionals recognize the importance of a locker room to the customer, and as a result, ever-evolving and paradigm-shifting locker room design is now at the forefront of recreation center planning.

Deciding what to include in a new community recreation center revolves around activity spaces—i.e., how many gyms, how many lanes in the lap pool, and how many meeting rooms. Rarely, however, does the discussion explore the spaces required to support these activities, in particular the variety and quality of the locker rooms.

Locker rooms are personal. Very personal. It’s important that a customer feels good about this personal space. Happy customers mean a happy bottom line, which leads to happy bosses and elected officials. What could possibly go wrong with this logic? Plenty! Often marginalized during the design process, modern locker rooms take thought and commitment throughout the entire design process. Delivering maximum recreation space is often the highest priority, and when budgets are challenged, the temptation is to save money by reducing locker room quality. Resist this temptation!

The Cabana Concept
Modern locker rooms accommodate a wide variety of users, are easy to clean, are durable, have ease of maintenance, and, of course, are safe. A superior architect seeks to understand best practices in these areas while continually looking for innovative improvements. Let’s focus on the next generation of locker room concepts that have recently been built and are currently being tested in Provo, Utah; Olathe, Kan.; and Grapevine, Texas. These examples are living laboratories, testing both incremental refinements and new paradigms. These modern recreation centers explore the concept of personal space with “cabanas.” Cabanas are a series of full-service personal bathrooms adjoining an open community space of individual lockers in a variety of sizes. The key to the cabana concept is the ability to accommodate the widest variety of patrons. Cabanas are places to corral your three kids while managing beach bags full of towels, dry clothes, shoes, diapers, etc. They provide patrons with disabilities a convenient and private space with access to all locker room amenities. Cabanas provide an added level of privacy and convenience for patrons recovering from injuries or surgeries, and may even accommodate patrons with gender-orientation concerns. Aging members love cabanas because a helper, or aide, can assist them with their personal needs with dignity, even if that assistant is of the opposite sex. A fully-appointed cabana has a shower, toilet, lavatory, baby changing station, dressing bench, hair/hand dryer, and enough space for a family to change clothes in privacy. A decade of locker room evolution has dictated that, in order for a facility’s locker room to be deemed successful, cabanas must be included.

Design Details
The modern locker room has become the heart of the building for patrons. That is why the design and selection of materials are so important to the success of the locker room. For example, a well-made locker has materials that do not rust and is clean, inviting, safe, and accessible. It is available in many sizes to accommodate a variety of needs. This same design approach applies to all surfaces of the locker room. Beyond all this, patrons reveal that a locker room can make or break the experience in a facility.

The first family changing room was in the East Boulder Recreation Center, which opened in 1992. Today, family rooms are required by building code throughout the United States. The family changing room answered a challenge that a facility could do better. The modern-day cabana takes the family room to the next level and even accommodates multiple generations. When the cost is weighed against the return of satisfied users over time, the return on investment is obvious.

The Synergy Of Space
The cabana concept, being around for two decades, is no longer innovative. What is innovative is that the cabana is synergistic with a community locker space within a facility. Many facilities currently contain cabanas in conjunction with separate gender-specific locker rooms. Imagine an array of locker selections—from over-sized to accommodate the gear of an entire family to smaller-sized for the single person doing a quick workout—in close proximity to cabanas in a community space that is open and inviting, with natural light and clean air at just the right temperature. It’s a locker room with open views to corridors above, the second-floor fitness facility, or the walking track. The benefit of a community locker space meets the needs of a variety of users in a smaller footprint, thus helping to maximize facility efficiency.

As social paradigms shift toward services that are specific to an individual’s needs, is there any doubt the recreation locker room will evolve to meet these needs? The smart service provider understands that a quality customer experience begins and ends in this personal space. Whether it is a new facility or a renovation, the locker room space should be an imperative part of planning and design. It’s certainly not your daddy’s locker room any longer.

Mick Massey is the Texas Regional Director for Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. His 28 years of experience in municipal government, including Parks and Recreation Director for the city of Richardson, Texas, is value added to any community project. He believes the most successful partnerships are the result of local leaders knowing what is best for their communities and consultants who compliment that knowledge with innovative ideas to find the best overall solution for a community project. He is a registered landscape architect, park planner, and a master at building public consensus.