Many colleges, municipalities and high schools host sports, events and meetings in gymnasiums filled with history. But many of today's gyms — built in the 1970s, '60s and even earlier — were primarily sized for basketball: A standard 50-foot-wide court of 94 feet in length (at the college level) or 84 feet (at the high school level), and a (typically) too-small clearance around the perimeter. The perimeter walls were often structural, load-bearing walls of concrete block or brick.
Why is flexibility important? Because the concept of gymnasium programming has expanded greatly as certain design and construction techniques have taken hold and equipment used in gyms has advanced. Balls still go through hoops or over nets, but gyms have become spaces of social importance, with dances, career days, weddings, commencements, memorial services and other forms of human interaction taking place. Upgrades made to gyms have to be sensitively handled so that they can host these events and more.
Gymnasium updates can be straightforward — renovating the University of Texas-Arlington's gymnasium was as simple as taking down a structural wall and creating a four-gym space — or they can be a complex headache. At the Providence, R.I., flagship campus of Johnson & Wales University, where what sounded at first like a simple expansion (an increase in the seating capacity of its gym from 1,000 to 3,000) has encountered many secondary problems that will have to be solved before the school emerges with a state-of-the-art gymnasium. Changes to building codes include expanded exit requirements as well as accessibility standards.
Amazingly, the 1991 Americans with Disabilities Act continues to trip up facility owners who have never adequately dealt with stair access, among other issues.
To prevent such headaches, anyone contemplating a gym makeover should consider:
• Designing for flexibility. The way a building is framed directly influences the ability to adapt to change, as load-bearing walls are substantial impediments. These days, the masonry products that have made old gyms so difficult to open up are giving way to lighter materials that first gained a foothold in commercial construction. Walls built using light-gauge steel framing and plastic laminate surfaces (such as Trespa panels) are as bulletproof as masonry walls, and if installed with care, will be acoustically isolated, and solid and strong enough to withstand vibration. Light-gauge steel has the best strength-to-weight ratio of any building material, with six tons of steel achieving the same performance as 120 tons of concrete, and its flexibility is unrivaled.
• Power. Because new gyms are likely to host a variety of events, it is important that future power needs are properly anticipated during planning. Both the quantity and distribution of electrical power is changing in this building type, with today's rec centers consuming 50 to 80 percent more power than their predecessors. Imagine a community event held in a gym during which scores of inflatables are powered up, a career day held in a MAC and involving 100 booths with full Internet access, or a "grooming day" during which clothiers and hairstylists set up shop and blow the building's fuses when they all turn on their hairdryers simultaneously. We have witnessed all three scenarios.
In fact, the latter event was held in the lobby of the University of Illinois recreation center, but the point remains that electrical systems are being put to the test as never before. The power distribution and Internet connectivity required for a 100-station career day requires technology borrowed from the hospitality industry. Our firm has initiated the utilization of power rails and Internet broadcast technology to easily address all of these needs at low cost when compared to permanent installations.
• Air handling. Standards written by ASHRAE (American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers) were tightened considerably in 2010 (reducing the energy consumption of minimally compliant designs by approximately 30 percent compared to 2004, the year of the previous energy standard) and then to a lesser degree in 2013. ASHRAE also requires 30 percent more fresh air in sports buildings than it did when the last generation of gyms came online, meaning that a new air-handling system is almost guaranteed to be a part of any renovation project.
• Daylighting and illumination. Gyms are being opened up to the sun through the introduction of north-facing glazing and skylights — ASHRAE raised the minimum insulation values on these, as well as on roofs and walls — both as an important aspect of sustainability and to improve the quality of the gym experience. In accordance with the space's many uses, lighting can be designed as parallel systems adjusted quickly to accommodate different types of uses in rapid succession. For a gym configuration to be truly flexible, three tiers of lighting are required: a sports tier of 100 foot-candles, a recreation tier of 50 and an entertainment tier as low as 15. Even as LEDs work their way into gymnasiums and greatly enhance energy efficiency, this basic multi-tier framework will remain the same.
• Acoustics. Fabric banners or perforated Lapendary® panels made from white-vinyl-coated acoustic fiberglass, suspended from the ceiling, are an improvement over the metal decking — perforated or otherwise — that was once the standard for minimizing reverberation in gyms. Design of sound systems have also improved in recent years, and many systems can be configured with modular banks that are controlled separately while providing balanced fidelity.
• Storage. For a gym to make an easy changeover from sports to other uses, there must be ample storage for stanchions and other gym equipment, and it has to be located conveniently, preferably directly adjacent to the gym. Consideration must also be given to the size and portability of the various equipment to be moved. Standard doors into storage areas are becoming a rarity, replaced instead with roll-down doors such as those in most garages.
A NEW INFRASTRUCTURE
Gyms today are counted on to fulfill social missions as well as to be a haven for hoops. To a certain extent, gyms have always been locations for myriad activities. In older parochial schools (and this is coming from an older parochial schooler), the space would be converted after basketball to perform a church service, sweaty boys quickly being transformed into altar boys. But even if the capability was there to accommodate multiple uses, the gym couldn't always do so comfortably.
As our society demands greater utilization of spaces for greater numbers of people, gyms have the potential to be social hubs as well as sports hubs. This means that your next gym upgrade will involve a lot more than a fresh coat of paint or a new basketball floor. Fulfilling social missions requires a fresh perspective.
Wayne L. Hughes, AIA is a principal with Hughes Group Architects in Sterling, Va.
This article originally appeared in the October 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Non-Sports Centers"