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Small Space Solutions

With some planning, your fitness center's small-space problems can be transformed into big-time solutions.

"Ah, space," says Marty Gallagher, manager of Ripples Fitness Center, Bellows Falls, Vt. "[There's] never enough where you need it, and often too much where it is underutilized. [It's] the double-edged sword for any small business owner." Ripples Fitness Center has a problem similar to that faced by many small fitness centers: its building was not originally a fitness facility. "We occupy the entire third floor of a building built in the early 1900s," Gallagher explains. "The space that we currently occupy was formerly an Elks Club, which gave us a huge group exercise room (a former ballroom), but has forced us to be creative in the other rooms due to the nature of the fact [that] it is a series of rooms. As we have grown over the years with no possibility of expanding out - and a ... pool on the roof is just out of the question - it is a constant battle to fit everything in."

When fitness facilities run out of space, the first thing that jumps to mind is getting more - either by relocating to a larger building or beginning construction on an addition. Both of these options will guarantee facilities more square footage, but they have the hefty price tag that comes with construction work. And, fitness centers short on space are often just as short on cash. "Budget considerations and design firms ... if only! More like Yankee ingenuity and recycling," says Gallagher. "The rub is we have no real budget for this type of thing, yet you need to keep everything fresh and make the most of what you have. Sometimes it is as simple as re-arranging items, moving posters, plants, display boards, etc., to create something 'new.'"

Repurposing space

Making the most of small spaces is big business. "A top-notch club with a top-notch look ... translates into happier members and a better bottom line," says Diane Dahlmann, director of MizzouRec Services and Facilities at the University of Missouri, Columbia, Mo. Most facilities can get a lot for little expense by "repurposing" unused space. "Repurposing space begins with creating a list of spaces you would like to have to help make operations more efficient," says Dahlmann. "Smart storage where you need it, built-in features that look good and are convenient, supplies that are within reach and still secure - those are just a few of the places to begin."

There are any number of spaces that can be repurposed in a facility. The key to finding them is looking at your space in a new way. "To begin, managers should walk their facility before or after closing," says Dahlmann. Concentrate on improving convenience. For fitness centers in the snow belt, "move through the facility as if it were a snowy day. What would you need and want close to the door? Shovels? Snow melt? Walk-off mats? Mop and bucket?" asks Dahlmann. "Chances are, these items are not stored in a place [that is] adjacent to the front door, where you need them most. But don't lose heart! Is there a corner that can accommodate an alcove or closet?"

Be sure to consider not only what is convenient for you, but also for your staff and membership. "A manager should walk the entire facility through the eyes of each member group and staff member to gain the best perspective for evaluation," Dahlmann says. "Think pragmatically about what works best. How about the space under stairwells? With consideration of local codes, take a look at these spaces and tap into their potential for more storage." Another option is involving your staff. Are they at loose ends without a compact storage area for disinfectant and cloths to clean the equipment? Still another is surveying your membership. Do they crave a private room for trainers to conduct their fitness assessments, rather than out in the open?

"Most of the ideas come from frustration - [We're] really sick of this space, how can we improve it? - or necessity - [We] have a new piece of equipment coming, where are we going to put it?" says Gallagher. "My staff is great about suggesting ideas, and also our members [are good,] since they tend to consider Ripples their space, also." No matter how frustrated you are with space constraints or hearing complaints, be sure to do your research before breaking out the toolbelt. "The need to repurpose should be sound," says Dahlmann.

Common space vacuums

In Dahlmann's experience, the most commonly underused small spaces in fitness centers are the lobby, entry areas, corners, hallways and the space under stairwells. "While I wouldn't want to be so harsh as to say these spaces are 'wasted,' I do believe that we can be smarter about the design of many of these spaces," she says.

Gallagher has found innovative ways to repurpose many of these areas in his facility. "The alcove between the front desk and machine room is now a secondary stability ball area or stretching nook," he says. "Within my front desk space, a comfy chair, plant and bookcase create a cozy space [for members] to sit and look through training books."

Another option is finding ways to carve useful small spaces out of larger ones. Some fitness centers have areas that accommodate sports or programs that are no longer popular. Now that the trends are history, they sit vacant and are prime candidates for repurposing. "[A] popular repurposed space is the old racquetball court," Dahlmann says. "These spaces make outstanding places for boutique-style fitness services and programs. Small spas, massage rooms, personal training suites, cyber café, cycling lair, yoga studio, game room, club locker rooms, table tennis den - these are all terrific examples of services (and sales!) that fit neatly into former racquetball courts."

Gallagher is mulling possible solutions for a large space that is bustling only part of the time. "On the flip side of too little space, my group exercise room sits unused for a good portion of the mid-day, so [we're] actually taking that huge space and creating a smaller private circuit training space in the corner with a bench and a few other simple props," says Gallagher. "[We're] even considering trying to promote that room as a space for indoor walking this winter. ... I have the vision. [I] just have to use my ingenuity and recycle skills to create the space, since budget and design consultants are out of question."

Details make it work

When you find a space you'd like to repurpose, and have determined its new use, be sure your plans involve making the space fit in with the rest of your facility. "The repurposed space should match to other finishes and surfaces, and blend in like it was original," says Dahlmann. "Members should notice the service or function, and not be distracted by something that looks out of place. So traffic flow and adjacencies should be considered for a well-designed space that works to your advantage."

A common problem with repurposed spaces is trying to achieve more than the space can handle. "Much like home remodeling projects, some are done with style and class that refresh the look and enhance the value of the home, and others look like a bad arts-and-crafts project," Dahlmann says. "Don't overdo it! Resist the temptation to squeeze a size-9 need into a size-6 space. Prioritize the need and functions for the space, then size and scale it appropriately. Another risk is squeezing a space like an entry, hall or lobby until it is no longer functional for its original intent. And be cautious not to violate local codes!"

A little change goes a long way

Fitness centers don't have to be overhauled to give the impression of improvement to members, says Gallagher. "Members come day after day and get used to certain spaces," he says. "They see things on autopilot, so, in reality, it does not take much to catch their eye and regain their attention. They see a great new space, and you know it is the old chair from the back office positioned at just the right angle, the bookcase from the corner no one ever noticed, [a new] plant, ... [and] a repositioned a bulletin board. ... And now you have a cozy space for members to sit and peruse training books, and [you] hopefully created a pathway to more staff and member interactions. Perception is everything!"
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