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Creative Building Code Compliance Can Enhance Member Experience

Creative Building Code Compliance Can Enhance Member Experience

Discussions about club design rarely address the impact of building codes. This is understandable: code compliance is not, in and of itself, a competitive differentiator. All buildings must comply with codes, and all architects are obligated by their state-regulated license to protect the public health and welfare by knowing and complying with applicable building codes. And there are many.

The design and construction of buildings is one of the most heavily regulated industries in the United States. Curiously, until just a few years ago, no building code acknowledged exercise and fitness as specific uses of a building. Even today, the International Building Code (IBC) references nightclub but not athletic club, bowling center but not fitness center, casino floor but not fitness floor, billiard parlor but not group cycle studio, and tennis court but not racquetball court.

For many years, the application of building codes to athletic clubs was largely a guessing game. Now, at long last, the latest edition of the IBC includes exercise room as an occupancy type. However, club designers will, no doubt, still find themselves contesting official code interpretations and needing to explain to code officials how buildings with exercise rooms are really used.

Code compliance influences many aspects of the club environment, but there’s a big difference between by-the-book compliance and creative compliance.

Basic planning: Compliance is simple if your floor plan is defined by doors, rooms and corridors, but this type of design generally does not offer an uplifting member experience. In a modern, open, fitness environment, the best way to avoid a code-regulated rat maze is to build no unnecessary walls, install no unnecessary doors and, above all, stay away from anything that looks like a corridor.

Stairways: Codes specify the required number and width of fire exit stairs in multi-level clubs, as well as their construction and finish. They must be enclosed by solid fire-rated walls and doors. Although these stairs provide a usable physical connection between levels, they’re not suitable as a primary means of member flow. This is best accomplished by a nicely finished, generously dimensioned and centrally located stair that is free of doors and walls. This type of stair cannot be counted as a required exit stair, but it pays for itself as an enriching upgrade to the member experience.

Doors: Code-compliant doors and hardware can hasten emergency exiting, slow the spread of fire and assist in the containment of smoke. In a burning building, closed fire-rated doors are a good thing. In a busy athletic club, these doors can present a risk of injury when located in a two-way, high-traffic path, such as a locker room entry. In this example, alternative code compliance can be accomplished by installing electro-magnetic hold-opens linked to the fire alarm system or, better yet, making a successful case to the building code official that locker room doors are not required.

Occupant load: Because the authors of building codes are so uninformed about how fitness club spaces are used, codes often require occupant densities at unrealistically high levels. For example, codes may require group exercise studios at 7 or 15 square feet per occupant. If unchallenged, these factors can result in astronomical occupant counts which, in turn, translate to unneeded exit quantity, exit width, plumbing fixture counts, HVAC capacities, etc. Most code officials will consider reasonable arguments related to occupant count and adjust requirements accordingly.

Disabled access: Regulations regarding disabled access go beyond building codes. They’re the law of the land, and failure to comply could be considered a federal civil rights violation. Compliance by fitness facilities is somewhat complicated by the unusual accessibility challenges presented by pools, steam rooms, saunas, fitness equipment, etc. You can find the latest federal standards at

When it comes to creative compliance, the undisputed champion is Disney World. If their imaginative engineers can maintain code compliance as they safely usher thousands of guests per day through simulated earthquakes, falling elevators and burning buildings, practiced designers of fitness centers should be able to optimize the member experience with creative code compliance.


Hervey Lavoie is president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architecture, aquatic design and interior design firm. With 35 years of design experience, he has completed club design assignments in 42 states and six countries.

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