While several basic elements of family locker room design remain standard, communities are increasingly demanding something other than a cookie-cutter approach

Two thousand years ago, if you were in Rome and, as the saying goes, you did as the Romans did, you'd likely find yourself utilizing one of the empire's 900 public baths. These sprawling complexes, oftentimes encompassing tens of thousands of square feet, were much more than simply places to bathe. Roman baths helped define the people of that era, fulfilling a variety of other community needs, serving as an exercise facility and social gathering place - as well as, even, the library and arts center. That said, the bathhouse of ancient Rome could be likened most closely to our modern-day community fitness and recreation facility.

There are many similarities between the two, except for one: public bathing at a Roman bath meant exactly that - one undressed, bathed and used the toilet without the benefit of any privacy whatsoever.

Times have changed. A byproduct of the demand for greater privacy, the family locker room - or special-needs changing room, as it's sometimes called - has become a recreation facility staple.

The design of family locker rooms has dramatically evolved in the 15 years since these areas were introduced. Several basic elements remain standard - private changing rooms, lockers, sinks, toilets and showers - but architects and designers are finding it increasingly difficult to satisfy multiple communities with the same family locker room design. "I think it's probably safe to say that over the past 10 years, the square footage of family locker rooms has doubled," says Mark Wentzell, a principal with Ankeny Kell Architects P.A. of St. Paul, Minn. "But you can go from Ys that are ultra-sensitive about privacy to communities that don't seem to care at all."

"There are a variety of philosophies out there," adds Thomas Betti, also a principal with Ankeny Kell. "Family locker rooms all have the same components, but the space and layout can be very different. Ultimately, it depends on who's running the facility."

It also has a lot to do with a particular facility's relationship with families. "When I think of a family changing area, I think of a place where a mom or dad can go with their young kids," says Anita Moran, a principal with F&S Partners Inc., a Dallas-based architecture firm that serves both the collegiate and public recreation markets. "But for most universities, families are not a high priority, they're a secondary priority. And not even every municipal facility has family locker rooms, although there's certainly a lot of discussion about them."

The Olean (N.Y.) YMCA's largest membership group is families, so the discussion there regarding the Y's new 60,000-square-foot facility, set to open this summer, was not whether family locker rooms should or shouldn't be included in the program, but rather whether these areas should be public or private. The project's architect, Fontanese Folts Aubrecht Ernst Bammel Architects P.C. of East Aurora, N.Y., was asked to design a family locker room that would delicately balance private and public areas. Considering that when asked for their input regarding the women's locker room, Olean YMCA members specified a gang shower similar to the setup that exists in the current facility, FFAEB's architects were expecting a challenge. "We've worked on several Y facilities and it seems that the clients prefer more architect with FFAEB. "But for people who are more shy, in the women's locker room a couple of private stalls provide some privacy. What we've tried to do is design an area that serves a dual purpose."

FFAEB applied the same principle in its design of the family locker room, which will feature five private changing rooms and a general locker area that segues into a coed gang shower at the entry to the natatorium. "Our members responded that that's what they preferred, even when presented with other options," says Barb Schweitzer, the Olean YMCA's chief executive officer.

The architects also gave the shower area a playful atmosphere by designing a 4-by-8foot alcove that features child-friendly showerheads. "This raindrop-type showerhead is "They can pull the chain and get completely doused with water. It's our attempt to encourage them to shower before entering the natatorium." Other child-friendly features in the family locker room include "toddler" toilets, and lower-height sinks and lockers, "so kids can take their coats off, hang them up themselves and learn to be responsible," says Schweitzer.

Because the YWCA of Newburyport, Mass., caters primarily to women, that sort of nurturing environment is exactly what Y officials specified for that organization's Dorice E. Chapman Community Swimming Facility, which is set to undergo a $3.25 million renovation next year. "I recently went on a vacation and checked out Ys all across the country," says YWCA of Newburyport executive director Arlene Santa Fe. "There are some very technically sound locker facilities out there, but they can also have some very sterile elements such as metal rails and rubber mats. That's not exactly something you want to see, especially in New England on a wintry day."

Responding to her membership's call for a family locker room that would better resemble a family room than a locker room, Santa Fe instructed her architect to use warmer colors and softer lighting and materials than those typically found in locker spaces. For instance, polyresin lockers were chosen rather than stainless steel products. "There is a lot you can do with durable laminates," says Rob Corson, an associate with JSA Architects Inc. of Portsmouth, N.H. "We were able to make the scale of the space feel more residential by using appropriate ceiling heights and giving attention to the quality of light."

Another residential touch involved incorporating into the family locker room benches that "face each other, to encourage conversation," says Santa Fe. "As a society, we're going at 100 miles per hour and we often don't make enough time to take care of ourselves. People want to come here and have a place of respite."

Some people do prefer being able to enter the locker room and change as quickly as possible. Such is the preference of residents in Laramie, Wyo., who persuaded that city's community recreation advisory committee to include eight private changing rooms in the family locker room of Laramie's new recreation center, a 50,000-square-foot facility that will open in October. "We put in as many of them as we could fit into the program," says Paul Harrison, Laramie's parks and recreation manager, who as a Community Recreation Advisory Committee member toured a number of rec centers over a two-year span. "Every parks and recreation director said, 'We don't have enough.' The demand was just huge."

"Clubs built five to 10 years ago just don't have enough space," adds Bob McDonald, an associate principal with Denver-based Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, which designed the Laramie recreation center. "We hear them saying, 'One thing we should have done is build more of these family changing rooms.' Back then, two or three changing rooms was enough. Now, it's more like six to eight."

All of Laramie's family changing rooms were designed to be ADA-accessible, but only four are "wet," or fully equipped with showers, sinks and toilets. The four "dry" changing rooms are smaller and feature only benches and clothing hooks. The combination of wet and dry changing rooms "saved us in construction costs," says McDonald, "while giving us more locker space."

Even so, the decision to increase the family locker room's size came at the expense of space originally dedicated to other facility components. "We squeezed down the size of our men's and women's locker rooms. We originally were looking at 150 lockers in each, and we ended up with approximately 100," says Harrison. "There's close to 1,000 square feet allocated to the family locker room. But it was never an option that could be removed. It was kind of automatic that if we were going to do men's and women's locker rooms, we would also do a family locker room."

Unlike many facilities, the family locker room in Laramie is set apart from the recreation center's other locker areas. "Most of the family locker rooms we saw were almost a part of the men's and women's locker rooms," says Harrison. "We've created an entrance separate from the men's and women's locker rooms. We wanted to make it a unique space."

The family locker room's increased accessibility will enable it to serve both indoor activity spaces and the outdoor leisure pool, which will have dedicated men's and women's locker rooms but no similar area for families. Likewise, it's hoped that the 37 oversized lockers in Laramie's family locker room will provide enough storage space for families recreating both indoors and out.

Despite the best efforts of architects and facility operators, some things will occasionally be overlooked. "We've been changing the way we do family locker rooms since we started doing them in 1990," says Betti. "There are things I'd change since I've had kids. Sometimes, I'll take my kids through facilities that I designed and say, 'Why in the heck did I do that?' And there are other things that I see work very well."

Take, for example, the Westlake (Ohio) Recreation Center, which opened in November 1998. Westlake director of recreation Michael Rump has three complaints about his facility's family locker room, which features eight private changing rooms. The first involves the area's original colored and brushed concrete flooring that continued into the locker room from the pool deck. "Calcium from the water got into the concrete grooves and made the floor look dirty," says Rump. "Our members liked the way the surface felt - they felt as if they were safe from slipping - but it was impossible to make it look clean." The concrete was eventually covered with tile.

The second thing Rump would have done differently is incorporate a second floor drain in each changing room, in addition to the one that drains the semi-enclosed shower stall. The family locker room's third and final "glitch," as Rump calls it, was the decision to give each changing room an inside-locking door, which allows some unruly teenagers to shut themselves in and "do things they're not supposed to be doing."

Craig Bouck, a principal with Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture of Denver, believes that such mischief will be conspicuously absent from family locker rooms of the future. He predicts that as the demand for and size of these facilities continue to increase, separate-sex locker rooms will become a thing of the past. Bouck sees men's and women's locker rooms being replaced by a large family locker room that will house all lockers and as many as 12 (or more) private changing rooms, or cabanas. There will be access from the main locker lounge to separate men's and women's toilet areas, but other than that, Bouck envisions a locker room that is entirely coed. "It'll take a while to get there," he admits. "But this is good for two reasons: One, people, especially seniors, will no longer be confused as to where to change clothes. Two, because of the openness and increased traffic pattern, you'll have virtually no locker break-ins."

Bouck says the increased traffic also makes it more difficult for teenagers, or anyone else for that matter, to get into trouble. "With this new scenario and because people will likely change in the individual cabanas, there's no opportunity for hanky-panky with those camera phones," he says. "The more people there are in the common space, the less likely teens are to sneak into the cabanas and mess around."

Further pushing his case for a single, coed-only locker room, Bouck suggests that building such a facility would cost about as much as two separate-sex locker rooms and a family locker room. "You're not doubling or even tripling up on vanity space," he says. "There's more plumbing because of additional fixtures in the cabanas, but you have less lighting and fewer lockers." An added benefit of a coed-only locker room, continues Bouck, is that "maintenance people of either sex can clean the locker room" at any time.

But not all recreation facility architects are hip to the idea. "I can picture what he's talking about and I think that might be a little farfetched," says McDonald. "I think other people who use the facility, those who don't have young children, will still like to have their elbow room and be able to dress and undress in front of a locker instead of having to cram their stuff into a little room."

Wentzell, too, believes that reliance on a single locker room might be problematic. "The problem with family locker rooms is that they're inefficient. If you have six changing rooms, that means only six families are changing at once," he says. "I think that's the only reason you wouldn't see more support for this."

What might work, says Wentzell, is a facility with two locker rooms: one general, coed area such as what Bouck suggests, and then a second deluxe locker room reserved for adult patrons. "There are members who want to have a quiet fitness experience, and don't want a bunch of kids running around," says Wentzell. "I know of one community that, if it had the room in its facility, would do a general locker room and a deluxe locker room - with carpet and wood lockers, kind of like what you see in a private health club. The facility would sell deluxe memberships for the use of that locker room."

Ultimately, it depends on how well the coed-only idea is received by each community, meaning that it would fall to fitness and recreation facility operators - should they decide to push for a coed-only locker room - to persuade facility users that the future is now. "They're the ones who have to sell the idea to their customers," says Bouck, who adds that the facility operators to whom he's pitched the concept have at least given it serious consideration. "There's not so much resistance from them, but they're saying, 'Gee, I wonder how it's going to go over with our public?' "

Santa Fe believes she accurately reads the Newburyport community pulse in predicting that such a proposition would not go over well. "Being a YWCA, we cater to women, but we do have a lot of men, too," she says. "We're hearing that the women really enjoy their privacy. In our current facility, we have a coed sauna from the '70s - peace and love and all that. For our new building, one group is suggesting that we do a women-only sauna and a coed sauna. Not that they want to exclude men, but I think the women are more reluctant to give up their space. It's definitely a plus having female-only areas for women to speak to their sisters, for them to bond."

Meanwhile, the residents and recreation department of Irving, Texas, have embraced the Roman philosophy by including a coed-only locker room in that city's Heritage Senior Activity Center & Aquatic Center, which opened this past December. The 40,000-square-foot building accommodates seniors and their activities, as well as youths visiting the indoor leisure pool and play area.

Connecting these two distinct program components is the facility's only locker area, which features six private changing rooms. Outside the changing rooms is an expansive court lined with storage lockers. "For the seniors it works pretty well, since they're not as inclined to change in front of youngsters," says Moran, who believes the single locker room works in Irving because the aquatic facility is leisure-based and not bogged down by competitive swimming events.

The coed-only concept gave the architect the flexibility to incorporate into the open court large windows, giving the space an unusually airy feel. "Generally there's not any natural light in family locker rooms. But because we're not expecting any nude bodies out in the general area, we put in windows," says Moran. "Often, you want windows in so many other places throughout your facility, and locker rooms aren't a priority. If you do have windows, you usually have to put them up high on the wall. Here, the place where you put on your shoes is actually a pretty pleasant space."

Moran admits that the revolutionary design of the Heritage Center's locker area is one that might not be welcomed by every community. In fact, Moran's not quite sure she's comfortable with the coed-only locker room concept on a personal level. "My husband likes to brag that he can be in and out of a locker room in three minutes. Women do take much longer," she says. "I like women's and men's locker rooms to be different."

Although certain to generate some measure of debate within any community that is planning to either build or renovate a fitness and recreation facility, the choice to consolidate separate locker spaces is a less significant design issue when compared with the two most important factors affecting family locker rooms. "The touchy things are still space and budget," says Moran. "Family locker rooms are very expensive spaces because there is a lot of plumbing concentrated in a small area. It comes down to priorities: Is an extra family changing room more important than a 200-square-foot aerobics room?"