Tight Urban Sites Can Yield Sports Spaces
These days, college and university administrators chant a common mantra—attract and retain. Students who stay at and graduate from an institution strengthen the student body and become more likely supporters of the college as active alumni. College administrators feel it is fundamental that the quality of student life is kept high to develop a dedicated student body, and much of this effort is focused on building attractive, market-competitive housing on campus, better student centers, and exciting and dynamic athletic and recreation centers.
In densely populated urban and suburban areas around the country, institutions of higher education are grappling with an increasingly complex problem—finding space to construct these new buildings. This issue is especially pronounced in the area of sports and recreation facilities, which are easily the biggest buildings on campuses and are getting bigger every year. As the bar is raised on the size and quality of these buildings, it is increasingly difficult to accommodate program demands given the constantly decreasing real estate available.
In suburban or rural areas, rec centers are designed as horizontal, lower-tothe- ground structures. With space limited in urban areas, however, there is pressure to build up or down, and not out. Unfortunately, community concerns about light and traffic, zoning regulations, structural requirements and egress are among the issues made far more complicated by tight building sites. Also, sports facilities in this era share critical design parameters to make them appealing—openness and clarity of circulation—that are not always easy to accommodate in more vertically oriented facilities.
Coupled with accommodating expanded or new indoor sports and recreation spaces is the tricky issue of how to accommodate outdoor spaces. When push comes to shove on a tight campus, fields often lose out to buildings. However, sports teams are not decreasing in number, and with the explosion in the number and caliber of women’s sports teams, the demand for athletic space is only increasing. The same is true for outdoor recreational areas—the demand is there, but can it be accommodated?
The vast majority of new sports facilities built in the past decade tend to be two or three stories tall. There are several reasons for this: Building codes favor one- and two-story facilities (they’re easier to evacuate in case of an emergency), sports buildings do not readily lend themselves to stacking (think of the difficulty of putting spaces over or under a pool), and user circulation is more easily defined within a predominantly horizontal building. It is also generally less expensive to build out rather than up, as no large tower cranes are required, and contractors prefer an approach that allows them to work laterally as other trades (such as wall or roof construction) follow them in sequence.
Generally speaking, rec centers—unless they include athletic components such as an arena—are made up of components that are either one or two stories tall. Single-story elements such as fitness centers, locker and training rooms, offices and aerobics studios can be stacked to match the height of twostory blocks such as pools and gymnasiums. It has been the rule for owners and designers to take these one- and twostory boxes and arrange them horizontally until the right scheme is created. Financial, engineering and acoustical considerations have prevented architects from putting gymnasiums on top of gymnasiums or small spaces on top of big spaces.
It should be noted that stacking sports spaces vertically is hardly a new idea. Many old city health clubs had pools, gymnasiums and squash courts inserted into multistory buildings. And buildings such as the Paine Whitney Gymnasium at Yale University are testaments to how facilities can be stacked. Whitney Gymnasium, recently renovated, was constructed in the 1930s and had numerous activity spaces placed on top of each other, including a 50-meter pool on an upper level.
But as building lots reduce in size and programs increase, many designers are rethinking how to configure activity spaces. The following are potential areas of concern:
What will the neighbors think?
An orchestrated approach is required to address neighbor concerns. Keeping the community updated on what is going on is often a full-time occupation for a senior member of the school’s administration. Many institutions have now created community task forces that meet regularly to review, discuss and give their approval to projects as they move forward.
Deciding what goes where.
Let there be light?
Achieving openness—from outside.
Getting from here to there.
Codes to live by.
The occupancy load dictates the number of doors and number and dimensions of stairwells needed to get occupants out of the building and to a safe outdoor space. Stairwells and corridors thus can become significant design and cost issues. Again, the architect will undoubtedly want to rely on a code consultant to help him or her wade through the design alternatives for addressing egress from the building.
Urban facilities are required to be fireproofed and equipped with sprinkler systems, just like any other facility. However, should there be other buildings directly adjacent on a shared property line, there may be—depending on the distance from neighboring buildings—more restrictive requirements for how the exterior walls are constructed on that side. Generally, the closer you are to an adjacent building, the greater the amount of fireproofing required on the wall that faces the adjacent building. There also will be restrictions as to the type and size of windows and other openings in that wall. The idea is that if one building should burn, it will not adversely affect an adjacent building or its occupants.
Up on the roof?
Third, sports areas are often lighted and must be equipped with some sort of fencing or netting to keep balls contained. These present special challenges to the architect and may not be well received by the community.
All of these issues mean that the cost of a sports area on the roof can be significant. However, if there is no available land and the building geometry lends itself to accommodating a rooftop play surface, it should certainly be discussed and the costs and benefits weighed. Keep in mind that rooftop activity areas require multiple enclosed stairs leading to and from these areas and an elevator, just like interior space.
The cost of construction.
Open space on campuses will become increasingly scarce. On urban campuses, and even more architecturally developed suburban campuses, vertical solutions will become a larger part of the space-creating equation. While the costs can be higher, more-vertical buildings offer great opportunities to create a dynamic, visible, exciting presence in the urban environment.
Facility of the Week
Ithaca College Athletics and Events Center