The Future of Recreation Design Post-COVID

It is anyone’s guess how long the pandemic will last. For now, most institutions have meshed local, state and federal health guidance with campus culture. The next few months will reveal if the thought, discussion and anguish that went into these plans will produce an environment where students feel safe.

But what impact will the pandemic have when it comes to recreation and wellness design? Once funding is available for new construction and renovation, what will recreation design look like and where should you invest? Looking into our crystal ball, here are a few things that we see.

The center of social life

Recreation centers are frequently the center of community life. Before and after workouts or events, sitting down with a friend in these facilities is one of their draws. Mask requirements and distanced furniture makes this less appealing. In fact, many clubs and gyms are asking that patrons refrain from lingering in common spaces before and after exercise. Socializing may move to newly created, exciting outside spaces with interior lounges converted to serve other purposes.

Uptick in outdoor activity

Neighborhoods that were once quiet regardless of time or day are now populated with walkers, runners and bicyclists. Over the past few months, people may have come to prefer outdoor fitness over working out indoors. Look for new projects that address this renewed interest in outdoor fitness, including expanded and improved tracks, trails, tennis courts and other outdoor venues. 

Outdoor group exercise

Pandemic aside, patios outside of group exercise rooms have become increasingly popular, which has put more emphasis on moving even small classes to outdoor areas. Shade pavilions, folding exterior walls and covered porches are becoming common and affordable locations for equipment and group exercise. Adding heaters and fans can make these spaces comfortable enough for year-round activity in certain regions of the country. 

More space for the same function

One of the things that creates an exciting fitness atmosphere is the bustling lots of people in a weight room. The demand for a variety of equipment is immense, causing operators to frequently place machines close together. Spreading out machines for social distancing means operators will be using two or three times the space to house current equipment. Many universities have already relocated some equipment to underused gym space to allow for more distancing. But this is a short-term fix.

In the long run, operators will need to be more selective about the machines that they install and the number of users that they can accommodate, or else they will need to build more space. Our bet is that once funding is available, institutions will look to build more space rather than reduce their offerings.


Over the past six years, furniture manufacturers and designers have focused on reinventing office space to encourage a variety of work environments designed to suit a diverse workforce. Smaller workstations, collaborative workspaces, meeting rooms and centralized amenities intended to get people to mingle have become popular. Partitions between cubicles and office walls came down with the intention of providing better communication between colleagues. Over the past six months, Zoom and home offices have substituted with limited success.

When workers return, many will find plexiglass partitions between workstations, rotating schedules for working in the office versus at home and limits to the size of meetings. Parameters may change if workers continue working remotely.

Haworth, the internationally known furniture manufacturer, has developed a series of recommendations for offices looking to reopen. Included in these are categories for engagement —assigned workspaces, retreat, open collaboration, enclosed collaboration, and full-time remote member spaces — which represent new ways to reconfigure office suites to meet future demands.

Air-handling systems

Upgrades to mechanical air-handling systems are last on an owner’s wish list of improvements. This is because patrons have a difficult time appreciating the owner’s investment in hidden improvements.  That said, upgrades to mechanical systems can improve comfort, hygiene and diminish energy use. Moving forward, ongoing sustainability concerns will be coupled with more attention to the quality of mechanical systems to filter and reduce air recirculation.

Interior materials selections

Disinfecting of spaces will continue after the pandemic wanes. This will require using interior materials that can withstand bleach or other disinfectant. While this is already common for upholstery and carpet, it is uncommon for wall coverings, paints, ceiling tiles and other materials. Architects and owners will be looking for materials that can withstand being frequently cleaned with harsh chemicals.


Lighting manufacturers, such as Hubbell and GE, have already been promoting short-wave ultraviolet lighting that targets bacteria, molds, fungi and yeast, among other things. There is much discussion about how well these work with LED lighting over long-term use, as well as their impact on color and viruses. Nonetheless, the use of light for sterilization is likely to be part of the design discussion for some time, if not permanently.  

Touch-free environments

While much has been written about touchless locker room and restroom design, other areas of a wellness center will also need to be reimagined in this regard. Biometric scanners for entry may be replaced with touchless retina scans or contactless ID cards. Equipment handout and towel dispensing may be handled by vending machines or even elementary robots.

More parking

People are reluctant to take public transportation right now. Hopefully that will diminish with time as reasons to reduce our dependence on cars — namely, crowded infrastructure and climate change — remain. In the meantime, developers will likely continue to build more parking. Campuses without adequate parking may see this as a deterrent to patronage and look for ways to encourage pedestrian and bicycle transportation.

Over the years, patron preferences, new technology and other cultural shifts have prompted change, but the response to COVID-19 has by necessity been sudden and extreme. The importance of facility flexibility is greater than ever, as operators need to pivot quickly while limiting costs. It may be a few years before we move into the next generation of recreation construction, but when we do, let’s remember the lessons learned from 2020.

Anita Picozzi Moran, FAIA, is founder of Moran Architects, a consulting architecture firm with expertise in recreation, aquatics, wellness, and sports architecture.

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