Renovation Can Save Energy Costs for Fitness Clubs

Remodeling is usually a time when club owners think about spending money, but for some fitness facility operators, renovations are a time to consider long-term savings. Chuck Richards, owner of the Sunset Athletic Club in Portland, OR, slashed his club's utility bill by 33 percent through a $10.5 million renovation and expansion project. He invested in energy-efficient operating systems after his management team discovered how much it would cost to power, heat, cool and light the additional square footage.

As the fitness industry grows more competitive and the economy becomes more uncertain, more facility owners are searching for ways to save money by investing in energy-efficient operating systems, maximizing employees' time or creating flexible, multiuse areas.

Facilities typically can save 15 to 17 percent on their energy costs through renovation projects, and by investing in energy-efficient operating systems, they can save even more, says Robert Keeler, senior associate partner for Langdon Wilson Architecture in Newport Beach, CA. One of his firm's clients, California State University-Fullerton, exceeds California's Title 24 energy-efficiency standards by 30 percent and is on target to earn the gold Leadership in Energy Efficient Design certification, which is awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization with 11,500 member organizations.

In California, all buildings, including fitness facilities, must adhere to stringent energy-efficiency guidelines during both renovation and new construction. For that reason, many of Keeler's clients are using recycled materials, relying on solar energy to heat pools and shading windows to cut down on heat gain.

In other parts of the country, the move toward energy efficiency has been slower to catch on. Gary Graham, principal at Graham/Meus Architects in Boston, says he wishes more of his clients were committed to saving energy during renovation.

“Higher performance buildings will save money for them in the future, but people aren't paying attention to the longer-term benefits of good planning, green design and sustainability,” says Graham, whose firm handles about a dozen renovation projects at health clubs each year.

Tight budgets force many club operators to focus on the bottom line, causing them to be leery of the higher initial cost and longer rate of return on many of the energy-efficient systems, says Sam Elsheikh, an architect and CFO for Denver-based Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. About 25 percent of the company's health club projects are renovations, he says.

Those health club owners, however, who are investing in energy-efficient operating systems, are not only trimming their electricity bill, but they may also be attracting new members who are concerned about saving the environment. That has been the case for Summit Health and Fitness in Bedford, MA, which has signed up a few new members due to its green building design. In July 2006, the club owners gutted an office building and transformed it into a 12,500-square-foot, high-end boutique fitness center complete with double-glazed windows, a suspended drop ceiling, occupancy sensors in the group fitness rooms and offices, and insulated hot water pipes. To save even more on energy costs, the owners swapped out all of the club's incandescent light fixtures for fluorescents; sized the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) units on the lower side of capacity; and installed automatic faucets, flush valves, and paper towel and soap dispensers in the locker rooms.

Although the club has saved money by investing in energy-efficient operating systems, the decision to go green wasn't purely economic, says Philip Racicot, a founding partner. He says it was simply the right thing to do, and he sees other club owners soon following suit.

To get health clubs moving in the green direction, Graham advises operators to first harvest the low-hanging fruit by employing simple, cost-effective strategies for cutting energy costs (see sidebar below). If possible, they can go to the next level by selecting non-toxic and recycled flooring and materials, and by conserving water. The top tier of energy conservation for health clubs often includes renewable energy generation such as photovoltaics, solar water heating, wind energy and geothermal heating and cooling systems.

Like Graham, Rudy Fabiano, owner of Fabiano Designs in Montclair, NJ, has found that the cost of going green can be out of range for some of his clients, so his firm practices the “green when you can” approach by maximizing the benefits while keeping the additional cost low.

Keeler also follows this principle. He advises clients to use energy-saving techniques, such as installing large ceiling-mounted fans that move air through a facility and use only about 20 percent of the energy of air conditioning units.

More efficient HVAC systems are another area where club operators are reaping significant savings. George Agrimanakis, general manager of Fitness Etcetera for Women, a 15,000-square-foot club in Boston with 2,100 members and 29 employees, expects to save $16,000 on the club's utility bills annually with a new $20,000 HVAC system that regulates the speed of fans based on demand.

Staff Time Savers

Club remodels can do more than help lower utility costs; they can also decrease the number of staff members required, saving club owners even more money. Some architects are pushing a visually open club design and centralizing the front-desk function. One way to do this is by locating the front desk or fitness desk so that the manager has a view of what is happening throughout the club. Keeler tries to make his health club designs as open as possible. He stays away from corridors, which are wasted space, he says. He also provides visual connections between spaces that have different uses.

Another trend is locating the pro shop and juice bar at or near the front desk during a renovation. One person can typically handle the food and beverage, retail and front-desk functions during slow times, Elsheikh says.

This concept, however, doesn't always work. The owners of Fitness Etcetera for Women tried to save on employee resources by building the juice bar on the other side of its front desk so front-desk employees could not only help members but also serve beverages, says Agrimanakis. After two years, however, he discovered that even though the juice bar wasn't in high demand, it was taking away too much time from the front-desk staff. The front desk now operates as a central nervous system of the club, says Agrimanakis.

Although the juice bar idea didn't pan out, Agrimanakis continues to sell pro shop items at the front desk. Other clubs, such as Sunset Athletic Club, are also integrating the pro shop and front-desk functions. Richards says he sees the value in centralizing the front-desk function, but because his facility is so spread out, he had to add a third manned desk. To keep an eye on different areas of the club, he installed video cameras to monitor the tennis courts, child care room and aquatic center.

As the economy wavers and competition increases, some club owners are looking at ways to become sustainable and lower costs during renovations and new construction. Often, the efforts also help club owners to find ways to increase employee productivity through their facility design, create flexible spaces within their facility and make every square foot count.

Five Ways to Go Green Without Breaking the Bank

Club owners can save energy without going above their budget on a renovation project. Boston architect Gary Graham offers five strategies for increasing your fitness facility's energy efficiency.

Replace incandescent bulbs with fluorescent bulbs

Fluorescents use up to 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, last up to 10 times longer and produce up to 75 percent less heat. High-efficiency fluorescent fixtures can also save up to 50 percent on an energy bill, and club owners can even get rebates from utility companies.

Set economy cycles on your rooftop units

If the temperature of the outside air is cooler than the inside temperature, you can bring in air from the outside.

Attack leaks

Tighten up the construction and identify the areas of your facility with significant heat loss. Use caulking or other insulating materials to seal poorly installed windows or doors that let in too much air. Although it's not always possible, try to replace windows with tight-fitting, sealed, double- or triple-pane windows. You can also reduce heat energy by as much as 79 percent through special window films, which cost about $6 per window.

Add insulation

Insulate your ductwork and add insulation in your roof, which is where the most heat loss occurs. You can save up to 67 percent of your building's energy use by placing a coating on your roof to make it more reflective. Most roofs are dark and provide unwanted heat gain. Black rubber membrane typically costs about 40 cents per square foot compared to 65 cents per square foot for white roofing material.

Replace inefficient equipment

Invest in energy-efficient boilers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems, which may cost more in the beginning but will save you money in the long run on your electricity bill.

Five Tips for Maximizing Your Investment In High-performance Products

When selecting materials for a health club during a renovation project, it's critical to invest in high-performance products to control costs, says architect Robert Keeler. Here are five of his tips for selecting environmentally friendly and durable materials.

Use the materials in the manner in which they're designed

He says many facility owners misuse materials, which cause them to break down in one or two years. Selection of materials, proper detailing and the proper usage of those materials are paramount, he says.

Buy heavy-duty fixtures and valves

His firm uses prison-quality valves because they have a strong anchoring system. Because misuse and repeated use of these types of valves doesn't damage the wall, club owners can prolong any required maintenance.

Don't overlook the details

By buying the proper curve pieces for the tile in your locker room showers, you minimize the risk of leakage, and you don't have to get into the nooks and crannies. Epoxy grout is also a harder product that will withstand the test of time, he says.

Pay attention to flooring

He prefers solution-dyed carpet, which can be thoroughly cleaned, even in a high-moisture environment like a cardio area.

Invite vendors to meet with your staff

Invite major manufacturers to come to your club for a day to educate your employees about how to take care of their products. Although a lot of great cleaning products are available, many of them cause damage, he says.

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