Outfitting Student Rec Centers

When you consider student recreation centers through their history, the desire for their services and programs has always come from students,” says Pam Watts, executive director of Corvallis, OR-based NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation. “It is that desire that results in facilities. In addition, the rec center is going to continue to be an important part of campus life as more and more employers ask higher education to develop soft skills in addition to hard skills.”

Space for Getting Physical

What are students requesting inside their rec centers? “By far the number-one demand is for fitness space,” says Colleen McKenna, Assoc. AIA, LEED-AP, associate principal in the Boston office of Cannon Design. This includes cardio, strength training, and weight training equipment, along with both personal and small group training.

The key word regarding multipurpose rooms is, as McKenna notes, flexibility. “It’s a recurring theme,” says Bill Massey, AIA, LEED-AP, principal of Sports Practice in Sasaki Associates’ Watertown, MA, office. In fact, his firm has seen it in both the planning and post-occupancy phase. It only makes sense, as trends change so rapidly.

Another commonly requested space is a Multipurpose Athletic Court (MAC). It is essentially the same size and shape as a gym, but with the flexibility to be used for sports like indoor soccer and roller hockey and equipped with dasher boards to prevent objects from projecting out. “MACs are always on the wish list, and we’re seeing those get triggered more and more now,” says Massey.

Of course, often placed over gymnasiums are indoor jogging tracks. They’re still requested, although now they are including a rise and fall in elevation. For example, Radford University’s (VA) Fitness/Wellness Center, which is under construction, has a jogging track that runs between two floors, rising and falling 15 ft. in elevation.

Interestingly enough, synthetic turf for the flooring is being used more and more in student rec centers. Interesting because it’s usually found in field- houses. “It’s a durable material,” says Jack Patton, AIA, LEED-AP, principal with the Des Moines office of RDG Planning & Design. It’s common to put floor drains under it so that it can be sprayed to safely remove bacteria.

Vermont’s Middlebury College will soon begin construction on a fieldhouse that boasts a 200-meter NCAA track and features more than 20,000 sq. ft. of athletic turf. It will allow all athletic teams to practice indoors during inclement weather and provide a multipurpose space to accommodate recreational, intramural, and campus and community functions.

Other physical recreation spaces are still being requested, including swimming pools, climbing walls, and squash and racquetball courts. And McKenna is noting a movement toward the ability to rent equipment for outdoor pursuits, such as kayaking and camping.

Space for Getting Well

However, there are also trends emerging that reflect the importance of health overall. One is space for socializing — emotional health. “Instead of assuming that space for food service comes out of the net gross of space,” says McKenna, “it’s actually programmed in.” Here, students can meet friends before exercising and hang out with them after exercising.

Another trend is wellness services — physical health. “Administrators are taking the preventive side of services, which are traditionally provided through health services, and moving it into the rec center,” McKenna observes. “There may counseling, demo kitchens, and other things that are part of a healthy lifestyle.”

Value All Around

Students, many of whom participated in high school sports and enjoyed summer pool memberships, year-round YMCA memberships, and/or community rec centers, ask for student rec centers because sports and fitness is what they know. For instance, Patton indicates that weight/selectorized fitness equipment is the number-one destination for as many as 40 to 45 percent of students who walk through the rec center door. Similarly, Watts notes that it’s the biggest classroom on campus: “Seventy to 80 percent of students go there two to three times a week. It’s an integral part of campus life.”

What students may not know, but administrators must know, is the value a rec center provides the college or university in return. There are three. The first is they’re recruiting tools: “They tend to be one of the first stops or a major highlight of student tours,” says Massey. The second is employment: Rec centers tend to be the highest on-campus student employers. This doesn’t sound like much until it’s connected to the third value: student retention. “The University of New Haven found that employed students in the rec center had a seven to eight percent higher retention level than students employed elsewhere on campus,” says Massey. “They also found that there is higher retention of students who use the rec center regularly vs. those who don’t.”

If that information is enticing, Massey has a piece of advice for administrators contemplating building or renovating their rec centers. “In rec center design, there is a rule of thumb for number of students vs. number of square feet,” he explains. “That allows you to plan fairly well. However, it’s difficult to anticipate how the increase in programming space affects the increase in use, which requires a staffing increase, which requires an increase in support space.” But it does need to be anticipated, and so you’ll want to discuss this with your architect.

Student rec centers — if they’re what students want (and they do), and if they come with value added to the institution (and they do), then flex your biceps and start building. 

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