How to Plan for Future Campus Rec Facility Expansion | Athletic Business

How to Plan for Future Campus Rec Facility Expansion

STORIED PRESENT The University of Minnesota site dictated a vertical solution to meet all programming needs. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)
STORIED PRESENT The University of Minnesota site dictated a vertical solution to meet all programming needs. (Photo by Timothy Hursley)

When contemplating aging facilities, architects and facility operators across the country often ask the same question: "What were they thinking? There is no room to expand!"

Through the past century of collegiate recreation, colleges and universities have been wrestling with facilities whose designers were not concerned with future expansion. Evolving trends in campus recreation, rising expectations of potential students, and the lack of program space to meet the needs of an active campus community are just a few of the reasons institutions seek to expand their facilities.

No one can really predict the needs of future generations of students, but change is inevitable. Administrators were, and often still are, more concerned with getting something built right now than with what will happen 20 years from now — but we all know that something will happen. Without foresight and thoughtful planning, the next generation of recreation leaders will find themselves asking the same question: "What were they thinking?"

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Most of the early physical education, athletic and recreation facilities built around the turn of the 20th century were never intended for expansion. These iconic facilities occupied prime real estate in the center of campus and adequately served the entire campus community in one building. But campus recreation grew and established its own identity, and in the 1980s, the modern-day recreation center was reborn and brought new opportunities for thinking and planning for the future.

"While not everyone embraced the concept of future growth, there were some exceptions," notes David Body, FAIA, who was a principal at Los Angeles-based Cannon/Parkin Architects during the design and construction boom in the 1980s and '90s. "University of California Los Angeles, University of Arizona, Arizona State University and University of California Irvine — to name just a few — were planned with future expansion in mind and substantially executed as originally designed."

All of these institutions expanded their recreation centers almost 20 years after the original buildings were constructed.

Sometimes, partial demolition is the best way to add program area to a recreation center. This was precisely the case at California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, where a renovation was completed in 2012. The school's original 95,000-square-foot facility, constructed in 1993, no longer met the needs of a growing student population. Due to site constraints, the preferred expansion plan demolished almost 30,000 square feet to allow for construction of an additional 108,000 square feet of new program area, as well as renovation of 45,000 square feet of existing space. The end result is a 165,700-square-foot facility that combines old and new seamlessly in one unified building. The demolition at first seemed drastic, but it was the option that made the most sense to meet the school's long-term recreational sport needs.

"Although we had a building that opened in 1993 and was less than 20 years old, it really was a recreation center of the 1980s — conceived then, but not realized because of the challenges in funding," says Marcy Maloney, executive director of the school's Associated Students Inc. "We went into this project realizing what didn't work, and believed that the vision of the end product was more important than what we would sacrifice by selective demolition of existing space."

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The decision to demolish a part of the existing building wasn't easy, but it was a necessary evil to make the entire project come together. "We prioritized our vision, and that allowed us to make clear choices. We believed if we had 15 priorities for the project, and ranked them, that it would be better to do an A+ job on 13 of them, rather than a B on all 15 and then live with the consequences of that compromise for the next 20 years."


So what can you do now to plan for future expansion? It all depends upon where you are in the planning process and available resources. Perhaps you own a facility that was never planned for expansion, or you are in the design phase of a new facility, or even contemplating an addition in the foreseeable future. In any case, the earlier you start thinking and planning for the future, the more likely your vision will come to fruition. It may not happen overnight, but if the explosion of campus recreation over the past several decades is any indication, it is only a matter of time before you will need to expand.

The following tips will help you get started:

• Assess existing conditions. Any expansion or growth strategy should begin with an understanding of two key resources — facilities and available land. If you are fortunate enough to have an existing facility with available land close by, it is prudent to prepare a facility audit of the building to fully understand its physical condition. A physical and functional analysis will bring to light any potential deficiencies, be they architectural (building envelope), structural (seismic upgrades), mechanical (poor ventilation), electrical (insufficient power and data), or related to plumbing (gender equity), fire protection or code. Such deficiencies may need to be improved as part of a renovation or expansion strategy.

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Functionality is just as important. Is the pool too shallow for current standards? Are the squash courts wide enough to meet current international standards? Are the ceilings too low? In new facilities, planning major program spaces and internal circulation patterns to easily allow for future expansion is an extremely valuable exercise.

Ultimately, you may have to decide whether it is financially feasible to improve an existing building to the point that it will adequately meet current functional needs and code requirements. The facility audit may reveal that it is not worth expanding a building in desperate need of repair.

• Understand your campus master plan. Available land plays another equally significant role. While a land-grant university may have ample land available, the majority of institutions, especially those located in heavily populated areas, do not. In an urban setting, even new facilities end up on sites with virtually no room to expand in the foreseeable future. In extreme cases, an institution may have to settle for a "one and done" approach, knowing that any future growth will have to take place elsewhere due to limited land.

Land is precious on most campuses, and it is not uncommon for multiple interests to compete for the same open space. Parking lots and other flat areas are easy targets for development. At California State University Long Beach, an initial planning exercise was done to determine the area required for the recreation center, including expansion, and a future parking garage. The portion of the site reserved for expansion evolved into sand volleyball courts because they could be initially constructed and eventually relocated for little investment.

"Since the facility opened, a culture has developed around the volleyball and adjacent outdoor pool area," notes Craig Hamilton, FAIA, principal at CannonDesign in Los Angeles. "The soft space originally reserved for expansion now has a new constituency group that must be addressed before expansion can be considered."

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If you have not identified a location for future growth, now is the time to talk to your campus architect or planner. He or she may be able to share the current campus master plan, which outlines the long-term vision for the campus over the next seven to 10 years and perhaps beyond. A campus master plan can identify growth strategies, land development scenarios, proposed infrastructure improvements, transportation networks and future building sites. By working directly with your campus planner, you can put your stake in the ground and identify future growth within the context of the larger campus master plan exercise.

• Conduct a feasibility study. Another option is to conduct a feasibility study to evaluate potential sites for expansion. For a minimal investment, a study can arm you with all the information you need to realistically plan for the future. A study can evaluate available sites, right-size program needs, develop conceptual strategies to accommodate projected growth, compare pros and cons of various options, and establish a solid foundation for the future.

Adding a larger-volume space such as a gymnasium or natatorium onto an existing facility can be much more difficult than adding smaller, more flexible spaces such as fitness or multipurpose rooms. A feasibility study can let you quickly test various options. If the adjacent land is not large enough to meet your long-term needs, then it might be time to consider alternative locations. Constructing a satellite facility might be a viable approach.

The decision to select a new site can also be triggered when the campus's geographic center changes. Growth in facilities and student populations can shift the heart of campus away from a historic quad and in a new direction. It may make sense to start fresh in a new location, if it appears that the site will be ideal in the near future.

A feasibility study can address not only the physical space requirements, but also the supporting research to justify the need. "'Build it and they will come' worked in the late 1970s, but not now," says Jim Turman, Ph.D., director of recreational sports at the University of Minnesota. There is a lot more pressure and scrutiny on campus recreation today to justify the need for expansion with real data. Institutions need "credible research that the administration can get behind and support," Turman says.

When the original recreation center was built on the Twin Cities campus in 1993, Turman knew it was underbuilt, but the funding was not available to construct the full program. "We have a much better understanding today than back in the 1980s on how to right-size a building," he says.

• Build awareness and support. Building political and financial support can be even more challenging than finding open land. An institution's philosophical and financial climate can have a huge impact on planning for expansion. No matter how much consideration goes into future planning, a well-crafted expansion strategy can still change in an instant with a new president, a new donor, new priorities or fluctuations in financial resources.

What is the political climate on campus for an expansion? Building your case and gaining the support of the student body and administration can be a lengthy process. Finding creative ways to keep the campus engaged is critical. "The project is only dead when people stop talking about it," says Turman. "Good communication is essential. Talk about your vision with the students, faculty and staff so they are educated and able to share the information effectively with others 10 times over."

Many public institutions require the approval of the general student body or student government for an increase in student fees to pay for an expansion. Given the financial stress of recent years and the rising costs of higher education, students and administrators are extremely sensitive to increasing fees. Talking with representatives from student government and testing the willingness to increase student fees to pay for an expansion is a critical hurdle. Ultimately, most institutions will require final approval from the university president, board of trustees or board of regents before a project can move forward.

• Keeping up the momentum. How much should you invest upfront now for a future expansion that might not even happen? It can be discouraging to think that a project may not move forward in the immediate future. Even the prospect of phasing a project leads many to believe that it will never happen in their lifetime, or that it is wishful thinking. "Create a vision, hold on tight and stay clear about your priorities," Cal Poly's Maloney says. "That's how we got to our end result."

Promising a long-term expansion seems like a gamble, but for some it is a gamble that can pay off. It may take several years, but chances are good that it will happen if you build with the future in mind right from the start. Keeping the momentum going is not easy, but if you nurture the right relationships with students, faculty, staff, administration and campus planning personnel, mindsets can change for the better.

Getting the senior administration to acknowledge that the existing building is undersized is a starting point. It may be hard to imagine a future addition on opening day, but once the facility is open and fully functional — and yet overcrowded — everyone can see and understand the value of expansion. Providing the research and data to support your vision can seal the deal.


If an existing facility is too small to meet the future needs of the campus population, then staking a claim to future growth today is imperative. And it is inevitable that future students will have even greater expectations for their recreation facilities. While it may be hard to comprehend the future potential of a new facility, a feasibility study can go a long way toward advancing your vision.

What were institutions thinking about in the 1980s, when they built their first recreation centers? Did they imagine that they would need to expand? It takes true visionaries who have the political and financial clout on campus to consider the future in this way. Today's students — and tomorrow's — are the ultimate beneficiaries of such forward thinking.


Colleen McKenna (, Associate AIA, LEED, leads CannonDesign’s sport practice as a senior vice president in the firm’s Boston office, specializing in the programming, planning and design of college and university recreation centers, community centers, and athletic training and competitive facilities.

This article originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of Athletic Business under the headline, "Play it Forward."


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