To meet the industry's core mission of expanding its membership base and getting more people active and healthy, club owners are putting fitness back in the hands of their members. This entails giving members ownership over their own fitness regimens, experiences, timetables and costs. Essentially, clubs are giving members more of what they want, rather than just what is offered. And that means design strategies must change to support this fundamental shift.
Lately, new health club types have opened which seek to capture the nonmember market. These clubs include low-priced options, the 24-hour key club options and mini-sports clubs.
As we try to penetrate the other 84 percent of the population not currently using a health club, we will need help from all these club models. Creating consistent designs and positive experiences for members that match the programming can only help educate and introduce more non-members to fitness.
Design can do a lot to elevate and support these models. The low-priced clubs, for example, offer affordable fitness for people whose primary concern is cost. Unfortunately, the design choices for many of these clubs have been questionable. These operators often take a “you pay less, you get less” attitude. But a low-frills gym does not have to look like one. Despite smaller building budgets, these clubs can have a smart design sense using a simple, honest and affordable material palette (much like the design of The Gap stores). By using cheap-looking carnival colors and making no-frills clubs look low budget, we send the wrong message to consumers.
On the other side of the spectrum is the evolution of the gym turned mini-sports club. These 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot clubs — formerly offering a huge workout floor, a few group studios and lots of equipment — are quietly evolving to deliver the programming and diversity of large, multi-purpose clubs. As programming has grown to include pools, court sports, multiple programming rooms, expanded family services and kids' activities, the architectural challenge has been to create an affordable design that can house these diverse needs under one roof harmoniously while preserving the member experience.
The new design paradox is how to be a big club community but also create a sense of intimacy and individuality. Social networking is playing into design and programming, and the design of mini-sports clubs has the potential to capitalize on this phenomenon. These members want to be part of a large community, but they want to interact regularly with a select few individuals on their own schedule.
I liken this to creating small "neighborhoods" in your clubs to attract different individuals and encourage them to form spontaneous groups. In a class of 75 people, individuals will bond with just a subset of the whole group during class. Designing spaces to encourage and promote small group interaction is crucial and complex.
The exercise floor is still the great mingling hall that needs to feel majestic but also intimate. As we add more programming spaces, the workout floor is shrinking. Group exercise rooms, such as extreme fitness zones, yoga, Pilates, women only, large group fitness, group cycling and cardio theater, need to be legitimately organized and designed.
We are advancing the notion of 200-square-foot cabana fitness units on the perimeter of the workout floor. Like a pool cabana for rent, these rooms are personalized fitness areas. Members can rent them by the hour and work out with a small group of friends, or trainers can use them for clients. Free time also could be scheduled for use by all members.
What pulls together these diverse areas are the club's social hubs. These are areas specifically designed for non-exercise activities, such as relaxation areas by locker rooms and sitting areas around the group exercise rooms where people can interact before and after sessions. Don't underestimate the importance of informal and formal meeting areas throughout a club.
We can celebrate the differences among all clubs. Remember, no one style brings the flair and fun into fitness. Yes, earth tones have their place, but as we seek to influence more people to join a club, it may be that a diversity of design styles, as well as programming, are just as important. Styles such as modern hip, dressed-down casual or high-end resort all can contribute to the diversity of health clubs and thus speak to the wider audience we seek.
Rudy Fabiano, a registered architect and interior designer, is president of Fabiano Designs, an architectural firm for health clubs, wellness centers, sports clubs and spas. The company has produced more than 400 projects in the past 20 years.