Lessons in Club Design Learned After Years of Renovation

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They really need to make paint color samples bigger.

We recently repainted the group fitness room at our main club. The last time the room had been painted was seven years ago, when the color was chosen by a real designer as part of an expansion and renovation of the entire facility. We loved the way the building turned out, and we liked the old color, but with other changes occurring in the room this year, it just seemed like the time to choose a new one.

It took a few tries and way too much conversation, but we did it — even with those lousy samples. We wanted to match the new floor, make the room feel rich and cozy, but not dark. On the other hand, the paint had to be dark enough to hide the inevitable beating the walls would take. We also had to choose something that went with the rest of the building. No problem!

We even realized that, heck, we do know a thing or two about design, even if just by osmosis after years of building, repairing, renovating and visiting clubs. At least we had graduated beyond thinking of beige as the one and only color choice for everything.

Trust us. If we can feel comfortable having intelligent conversations with designers, architects and craftsmen, and making decisions on our own, then you can, too!

We certainly believe that design in the world of health clubs dictates that form follow function. The overall function of your facility and the specific details of what you want to accomplish in each specific area is where your conversation needs to begin. Indeed, the most important question we were asked prior to our club renovation many years ago came from our pool builder, who asked very simply, "What do you want to do in your pool?"

The answer was that we wanted to appeal to two demographics that we had not previously reached — seniors and families. For the seniors, that meant recreational swimming, water-based exercise and group fitness classes. For the families, that meant swim lessons and pool parties. We of course also hoped and assumed that our existing club members would utilize the pool to swim, do other exercises and/or take classes.

We decided on depths of only three to five feet. We maximized deck space as much as possible for parents to watch their kids. The ceiling was crafted with a low peak, rather than the high ceiling of a typical natatorium. We put as many windows in as we could, with lots of indirect low lighting. The walls were clad in neutral colors. It became a warm, inviting, calm space — and not like anything we had imagined when we first thought, "Let's build a pool."

Certainly, the result was the kind of thing that made us think, "That's why we spent money on these guys." But it's also easy to get caught up in what you think you want, like when you want a high-end locker room.


The problem with "high-end" isn't really building it. A good designer can help you find ways to look high-end without necessarily breaking your construction budget. But it's not the one-time cost of your decisions that comes back to bite you, it's the ongoing cost. Those costs start with maintenance, since high-end materials simply require more care, and likely more expensive materials to maintain.

Then, eventually, everything breaks or needs to be replaced. When faced with repairs and replacements, we've downgraded much of what we installed. The paper towel dispensers were awful. They looked great, but nobody could grab just one towel, and they didn't have a little window to see how many were left. The fancy ones got replaced by $25 plastic models. The toilet paper dispensers with the annoying clasp mechanism had to go. When we had leaky faucets, we weren't about to spend the same kind of money on replacement fixtures. A bigger problem was the showers. They were gorgeous, with limestone tile, and they surely helped us sell a lot of memberships as people toured our locker rooms. But after years of grout repairs, and re-grouting and more re-grouting, we were through with leaks and other inconveniences. We ripped them all out in favor of fiberglass stalls. It was sort of sad, but necessary and practical.

While your designers, architect and contractors might think otherwise, never forget that you are in charge. One of the reasons we were so happy with the pool was that we learned more about pools than we ever thought we would. (Anyone want to discuss vapor barriers, or the latest water treatment technology?)

As a result, we participated in almost every decision that was made. On the other hand, something we learned nothing about was steam rooms. Everyone we spoke with — everyone who didn't own a health club — said, "Steam rooms are easy. They are like giant showers." Except they're not. They leak. All steam rooms leak. We didn't know that until it was too late, and since we put our steam rooms in our second floor locker rooms, they leaked into the workout area below them. They have been shuttered and will remain so until we decide to reclaim the space. The money, time and space we wasted is something we try not to think about.


So, if you think you don't have to become an expert in every aspect of your building, you are mistaken. After all, your team of experts gets to go on to the next job after they leave you, but you will have to run your facility and deal with the consequences of their decisions if you aren't involved. Your designer might choose a gorgeous carpet for you, but will it hold up to the kind of traffic you are expecting? Carpet guys will tell you that industrial carpet for high-traffic areas is best if it is dark with lots of crazy patterns. Do you know what that means? It means ugly. But ugly and practical can be a lot easier to deal with than lovely and hard to keep clean.

Sometimes you will be well served by letting your designers go crazy. We did that with our main staircase, which is a design and construction wonder with a 180-degree turn, all crafted from wood and drywall. The railing was handcrafted by a local blacksmith who did it the old fashioned way, with iron, heat and hammers. It's gorgeous and the centerpiece of the building.

Then there are times you will want to reel them in, and not just because of raw cost. Sometimes it's just practicality, like not wanting too many different light fixtures with different types of bulbs, or different styles of ceiling tile, or a drywall ceiling where ceiling tile makes more sense.

Ultimately, you want to strike a balance between what your design team wants to do and what you need to run a successful facility on a daily basis. And that's how we chose our paint color from those horrible little samples. We thought, "What would our designer do?" Then we thought, "What do we want to do?" That made the decision easy.

This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Beyond Beige."


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