University Rec Centers Lead the Way in Sustainability Efforts

What do old seat belts, stained glass scraps and sunflower seed hulls have to do with health clubs? They are materials in the eco-friendly furniture at Sonoma State University's campus recreation center in Rohnert Park, CA.

Benches and chairs in the facility were constructed with woven, reclaimed seat belts. Tables around the building were made with recycled materials, including stained glass scraps and post-industrial glass. And office furniture was made with sunflower seed hulls, an environmentally friendly alternative to hardwood.

But furniture isn't the only green feature at the Sonoma State rec center. The building's design uses natural daylight and ventilation to save energy costs. Its lighting system runs on fluorescent bulbs attached to occupancy sensors that use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. The floors were equipped with radiant floor heating, and solar photovoltaic panels on the rec center roof help offset the facility's energy costs.

Signs throughout the building explain these green features to students and educate them about the lifecycle of production, says Pam Su, director of campus recreation at Sonoma State University and chair of the sustainability committee for the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA).

We're teaching students to ask before they throw something away if it can be reused or recycled, she says. We wanted to carry that into operations as well, so we purchase environmental cleaning solutions and office supplies with as high of a recycled content as we can afford.

Although the economic downturn prompted many club owners to focus more on the bottom line than going green, certain sectors of the fitness industry are still making strides toward sustainability. University recreation centers and military fitness facilities in particular are reaping the benefits of resources dedicated to green practices.

In higher education, there's a push for new construction that tries to incorporate sustainable design if we can, Su says. Universities also recognize that it's a way for them to be able to save money on energy efficiency. It may cost more to put the money into the building at the construction phase, but they can save money later.

Last year, several rec center administrators ordered retrofitting devices for their ellipticals to educate students about renewable energy and harness user-generated energy. Texas State University-San Marcos (TSU) installed 30 such machines in December.

We want the Texas State community to gain a better understanding of how much energy it takes to power simple devices we use on a regular basis, university officials said in a statement. We believe that once students understand how much energy it takes to power appliances or electronics, they will adapt their lifestyles to create a more energy-efficient and sustainable community.

This educational, philosophical approach to sustainability represents one reason the fitness industry has adopted greener practices, says Will Phillips, CEO of Rex Roundtables, Quincy, MA.

There are two types of green initiatives, Phillips says. The first one saves you money and has a great deal to do with energy management. The second kind is more of a philosophical commitment where the return on a facility's investment is very long-term or indefinite, but people pursue them because they think it's the right thing to do and there's a side benefit of positive public relations.


The U.S. military also adopted a multifaceted approach to sustainability. The Navy mandated that all new building projects and major renovations strive for LEED Silver certification, says Mason Lowery, public affairs and communications spokesman for Naval Facilities Engineering Command, Washington, DC. LEED is a green building certification from the U.S. Green Building Council with goals to improve energy savings, water efficiency, CO2 emissions reduction and indoor environmental quality.

The decision was based on the return on investment that sustainable features offer, he says.

The Navy builds 'green' buildings not only because it's the right thing to do, but because it saves money in the long run, which is important to us as good stewards of American taxpayers' money, and lets us focus resources in other areas and contribute more to the Navy's global mission, Lowery says.

The Navy is using many green building techniques, such as incorporating recycled building materials into construction and renovation projects, using natural daylight and ventilation, installing low-consumption lighting systems,specifying light-colored roofs to save on cooling bills and employing water-conserving landscaping techniques, says Craig Chapman, facilities section head, Fleet and Family Readiness Programs, Commander, Navy Installations Command.

Navy fitness facilities are built to incorporate green cleaning practices, too, he notes.

We are specifying finish materials that require less cleaning, Chapman says. The cleaning products we use for counters, equipment and floors — and even laundry products — are specified as mild as possible in keeping with our hazardous waste minimization efforts. Wherever we have vending operations, we provide bins for recycling of aluminum and plastics.

The Air Force also is committed to green building practices. The $15.5 million fitness facility that opened last year at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Burlingame, CA, is one example of the Air Force's sustainability efforts.

Although the 51,000-square-foot facility wasn't officially registered for LEED certification, it earned enough points to be LEED Silver certified, says Jason W. Renner, Civ, DAF, P.E. project manager at Vandenberg AFB.

Air Force civil engineers are striving to make all new construction sustainable, Renner says. A policy letter was issued in 2002 that mandated by [fiscal year] FY2007, which was the year our contract was awarded, 65 percent of new MILCON (military construction) projects had to qualify to be at least LEED certified. The goal was by FY2009, 100 percent of MILCON projects would qualify for LEED certification. We not only met, but exceeded, the Air Force criteria.

The new Vandenberg facility replaced a fitness center built during the Vietnam War era, he says. Construction materials were recycled during the build-out phase, and the center features LED lighting, recycled rubber flooring, low-flow toilets and environmentally friendly landscaping. The landscaping is expected to reduce water usage by 50 percent, and the low-flow fixtures should reduce indoor water use by 20 percent to 30 percent.

Mandates from the top down are a big reason military and university fitness facilities are making progress on sustainability, says Rudy Fabiano, registered architect, interior designer and president of Fabiano Designs, Montclair, NJ.

Definitely, the nonprofit, university, community and institutional work has the mandates and the funds specifically allocated to implement green certifiable efforts, he says. The expectations for responsible action for nonprofits are still much higher than the private sector. In the private sector, that expectation is simply not there. Since they are almost all privately funded, there is no real outside pressure other than common sense and long-term commitment to the environment to make green happen.

Although most health club members don't buy a membership solely based on a facility's green efforts, Fabiano says that when that starts to happen, the floodgates will open.

Seventy-six percent of people surveyed said they expect to purchase more from environmentally responsible companies in 2010, according to a recent survey by Tiller LLC, a cause-based marketing company.

It's clear that safeguarding the environment has become top of mind for many Americans, Rob Densen, CEO of Tiller LLC, said in a statement. The hanging question is the degree to which we actually put these good intentions to work. Let's hope we have more success counting carbons than we have counting carbs.

However, health clubs in general continue to adopt greener practices, says Kara M. Thompson, public relations coordinator for the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA).

As society gets more eco-conscious, they're going to expect it elsewhere in their daily lives, like at their health clubs and at work, Thompson says. Clubs can improve the environment as well as their bottom line by making subtle changes to their green business practices.

Thompson also notes that going green has a positive impact on a club's image in the community, which can boost the bottom line.


Some for-profit health clubs are making progress toward a more sustainable business model. Retrofitness, Colts Neck, NJ, opened its first LEED-certified facility last December. The 16,000-square-foot club features environmentally friendly pipes, toilets and faucets, low-voltage lights with occupancy sensors, recycled building materials, and LEED-approved wood and sheet rock.

Although the initial construction cost was 10 percent to 20 percent higher for the new club, the reduction in utility costs is expected to provide a payback in three to five years, company officials say. The facility's low-wattage lighting fixtures and Energy Star HVAC equipment should reduce electricity use by about 40 percent compared to a regular health club. In addition, efficient plumbing fixtures, such as low-flow toilets and low-flow, electronic faucet sensors, are expected to reduce water consumption by up to 50 percent.

Owners of the newly renovated plaza that houses the club told the Retrofitness team that they intended to incorporate green building practices into the design. Retrofitness weighed the value of investing in green building against the return on investment plus member acceptance of features such as low-flow toilets, says Eric Casaburi, CEO and founder of Retrofitness.

The financials on the deal for rent were not that different from other places we were looking at, and we knew the environmental investment was going to pay for itself, he says. Our franchisee recognized that there was more of an upfront cost, but it's keeping their monthly overhead down. But we've got to make sure the general public accepts it.

It is possible to find low-flow faucets and shower heads that don't lower your water pressure and frustrate members, says Rachel Devlin, general manager of the Green Fitness Studio, Brooklyn, NY. The 7,900-square-foot fitness center occupies the second floor of a warehouse building in New York City. It opened last December and was designed to be green from the get-go, a fact that members appreciate, she says.

It's possible to provide a five-star experience while being environmentally friendly, and people feel really good about what they're doing, Devlin says.

The club's clientele fully embraced the concept of a green health club, she says.

We have people come in and say we're so glad somebody is finally doing this, Devlin says. When we talk about creating health and well-being, people are finally looking to take it beyond the individual level to the community level and the planet.

The Green Fitness Studio features recycled rubber exercise flooring, LED lighting, dual-flush toilets, automatic soap and towel dispensers, recycled tiles and building materials, and a 2,000-square-foot atrium covered with triple-pane glass to let in natural daylight. Devlin says the natural lighting creates little need for electric lights during most of the day.

We also have a green roof that's super fun in the city because there aren't a lot of grassy areas to go outside, Devlin says. We're going to plant sod on it so in the summer we can have boot camp classes in the grass.

The staff at the Green Fitness Studio educates members about the facility's green features as well as conservation issues, such as using less water to shower and fewer towels. The environmental focus has essentially created a club culture based on being green, she says.

There are a lot of exciting things we're doing, and we hope it catches on, Devlin says.

Retrofitness caters to Generation X members who also are fairly environmentally conscious. As more businesses request environmentally friendly fixtures during construction and renovation projects, the prices for these items should drop, Casaburi says.

I think we're just getting started, and it hasn't been talked about as much — these types of toilets and water heaters and plumbing systems, he says. But there are lots of older gyms out there, and [the owners] probably would rather re-do their treadmills than pull out all their plumbing. So I don't see it happening in all the older clubs in general, but as new clubs come on, going forward, we're going to be very conscious about it.


Economic considerations do play a role in the decision to go green. Energy-efficient appliances and construction methods often cost more upfront, but they generally offer savings later. It's important to decide how much you're willing to invest in environmentally friendly products, Devlin says.

When you look for green products, it's amazing how expensive they can be, she says. You have to say, 'How green do we want to go?' We ended up using recycled materials from other [construction] jobs. The materials we used were a lot of recycled materials that were not necessarily green at first, but then we recycled them.

Added cost and lack of awareness about energy-efficient systems contributes to the industry's slow adoption of green projects, Fabiano says.

Cost, time and just simple knowledge are the main barriers to full-out green certification, he says. I think the big push will be environmental in the next few years. But for the most part, implementation has been incremental and not to the LEED certification level.

Phillips agrees, saying many of the clubs he works with began working on green initiatives, such as energy-efficiency projects, a few years ago, but that momentum gradually waned in the for-profit sector because of the economic downturn.

There's been a three- to four-year push on green in the fitness industry, and I don't feel it has a lot of traction, he says. The only places I see anything happening are where there are real opportunities to save money or where there's an owner who's really committed to this.

Su says university rec centers are feeling the effects of the recession, noting that funding for rec center construction or expansion projects is becoming harder to secure. However, universities whose projects are already in the design phase can take advantage of the troubled economy during the bidding process.

I have heard those campuses that have been able to move forward are continuing to do well, Su says. It seems like as the demand gets greater and more people start to ask for these [green] features and go forward with installing them, it will drive more research and development with technology and, hopefully, bring down prices.

Thompson notes that health clubs can take small steps toward sustainability even if they're not able to invest in big-ticket items. She says initiatives such as recycling are a good place to start, as are installing automatic hand dryers and faucets in locker rooms. (See sidebar on page 38 for more tips on going green.)

There are daily opportunities [to go green], she says. It's not an all-or-nothing thing. You don't necessarily need to go 100 percent green to support your bottom line.

Instead, Thompson says that as people in the industry become more informed about the benefits of going green, operators are integrating sustainability where they can, depending on their financial capabilities.

IHRSA developed a best practices document about going green that is available on its Web site. The suggestions IHRSA offers are practical and affordable, Thompson says. In addition, IHRSA will offer an educational track about going green at its upcoming show March 10-13 in San Diego. The track is a testament to the demand in the industry for continuing to improve its green business practices, Thompson says.

NIRSA also plans to add educational sessions about going green at its conference and expo, April 20-23 in Anaheim, CA, Su says. In addition, the NIRSA sustainability committee is working with the Higher Education Associations Sustainability Consortium on several sustainability initiatives.

Although the adoption of green business practices has been slow to gain momentum in the fitness industry, some progress is being made. And as prices for green projects decrease with increased demand, the future looks brighter for environmental initiatives at health clubs.

We're glad we built a club with a green thumb, Casaburi says. Maybe we won't be LEED-certified with every single gym we build, but we're moving forward. We always try to look at the big, global picture, and this is the big picture. It really is.


1. Promote recycling for plastic water bottles and sell reusable stainless steel bottles to members.
2. Use green cleaners.
3. Turn off TVs when not in use.
4. Install automatic hand dryers, faucets and low-flow toilets in locker rooms.
5. Paint the club's roof white to reflect sunlight and save on cooling costs.
6. Add occupancy sensors to control lighting.
7. Replace old water heaters with on-demand tankless systems.
8. Add energy-saving devices, such as a VendingMiser, to refrigerated vending machines.
9. Install a programmable thermostat to control temperatures when rooms are not in use.
10. Replace incandescent lighting with fluorescent lighting and replace outdated T-12 fluorescent fixtures.

Sources: Will Phillips, CEO of Rex Roundtables, Quincy, MA, and PSE&G, Newark, NJ

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