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Unique Health Club Designs

Design Discoveries: Unique design elements and locations help club owners boost retention and attract members.

Imagine a club where members can watch a Major League Baseball game from their group cycling class or enjoy a spectacular downtown view during yoga class. These possibilities are reality at Fit Athletic Club-San Diego, a high-end club that is specially tailored to its professional, urban clientele.

The luxury club is housed in the city's Diamond View Tower, which overlooks center field at Petco Park, home of the San Diego Padres.

“Every single thing here is unique,” says Connie Cook, fitness director. “We have a deck off the cardio area where people can work out and watch the game. I love taking people on a tour because when they see that view from the deck, their jaws just drop.”

Fit Athletic Club is just one example of a club that fully leverages its unique, local environment. Even during a recession, providing an atmosphere that makes members feel comfortable goes a long way toward retaining them, which can boost the bottom line.

Although the club opened just as the economy bottomed out in 2008, Fit found its niche by making the most of a one-of-a-kind facility and targeting the design to appeal to its young member demographic, most of whom live in the East Village area of downtown San Diego. A local graffiti artist even decorated the walls in the group cycling room to enhance the club's urban vibe.


Vida Fitness in Washington, DC, also shares space with a sports arena — the Verizon Center, where the NBA's Washington Wizards play basketball and the NHL's Washington Capitals play hockey. Like Fit, Vida is located in a recently revitalized area of downtown that appeals to young professionals. Owner David von Storch created Vida's sophisticated urban décor with this demographic in mind.

“A certain type of client looks for an environment that reflects their design aesthetics,” he says. “My thought process was to create a kind of connection members have with the facility that's similar to the connection people have with a boutique hotel.”

The décor inside most big-box clubs has a standard design palette that von Storch does not find compelling as a customer or as an operator, he says. To set Vida Fitness apart, he incorporated unique design elements built by the building's previous tenant, The Discovery Channel.

“The [group cycle] studio is an adaptive reuse of the Jules Verne ‘20,000 Leagues Under the Sea’ exhibit,” von Storch says. The studio's curved walls are covered in blue, green and white mosaic tiles set in abstract patterns. Even the floor was designed to look like the ocean.

Von Storch also kept The Discovery Channel's asymmetrical staircase.

“It's not something a fitness facility could generally afford to be able to install,” he says. “It was fun to be able to identify these elements we could reuse and do so in a way to augment the customer experience.”

Special additions to a club's design help entice new members and make existing ones feel more at home. That's exactly what Club One, San Francisco, had in mind when it renovated two of its Frog's Fitness locations in Southern California, according to Paul Atkins, senior manager of club planning and design for Club One.

“Every club we have is tailored to members in the area,” Atkins says. “In essence, clubs build themselves by attracting like-minded people. If it's a clubby environment, you invite your friends and family. It's where you're comfortable and you see people you know. It feels natural.”

The Solana Beach Frog's Fitness club on scenic Highway 1 has stairs in the back leading down to the beach. In addition to using lively, tropical colors on interior walls, Frog's embraces the members' laid-back beach culture. To accommodate numerous members who jog to the club with their dogs, for example, club management added outdoor dog pens.

The building was formerly a bowling alley and resembles a Quonset hut, Atkins says.

“It's very funky and ‘beachy,’ and we didn't want to lose that when we designed the space,” he says. “I don't force a design idea because it's about who's working out there, and it should be an extension of their environment.”


Adaptive reuse, or repurposing and renovating old buildings, is a practice that frequently leads to unique spaces.

The new rec center at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in Richmond, VA, is an example of making something old new again. In January, the school opened a 125,000-square-foot recreational complex in a historic city market building constructed during the late 1800s.

“We needed a new recreation sports facility, and we knew we could either tear down this historical building or retrofit it and rebuild,” says Tom Diehl, director of recreational sports at VCU. “It's very unique. You can see where people carved their initials into the brick walls in the 1800s.”

VCU completely gutted the building, removing retrofitted windows and the original roof.

“The only things left standing were the four walls,” Diehl says.

In addition to modernizing the building, the architects added green design elements and expect to receive LEED Gold certification.

The expansive space allowed VCU to add a 40-foot-high climbing and bouldering wall and 6,000 square feet of fitness equipment. It also features a cardio mezzanine, a suspended rubber running track and an aquatics center. The rec center staff keeps table tennis and badminton nets set up in one area of the four-court gym to provide recreation options beyond basketball, a decision that helped increase student use, Diehl says.

“We increased student participation to 68 percent of the student body in the first semester alone,” he says. “Last year, we only had about 48 percent. We're bringing in students who never came before because there was nothing for them to do.”


Mark Rullo, owner of My Fitness Kitchen in Latrobe, PA, also attracts new members using a unique architectural element — a fully operational kitchen.

“More than half our members never belonged to a gym before,” he says. “I'm in a small town, and I had to be doing something different because there are other gyms in town. I kept asking myself, ‘How can we attract that other 85 percent of people who don't belong to a health club?’ For me to attract that other 85 percent, I have to bring them in on their terms.”

Rullo says members appreciate the sense of familiarity they feel in the club's kitchen area. Plus, by adding a nutritional aspect to his programming, the staff is better able to help members succeed with their weight-loss goals.

Rullo's effort to make members feel comfortable mirrors an industry-wide trend that Hervey Lavoie, president of Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, an architecture firm based in Denver, sees in club design.

“People like comfort and familiar style,” he says. “People are not pushing for the new. They seem to be going back to older, traditional values.”

Lavoie notes that technological advances and the increased speed of doing business may be prompting this return to familiarity and comfort in club design.

At Rullo's club, members get to sample healthy adaptations of comfort foods, such as hot wings. He says this nutritional aspect of the club's programming helped increase daily member use to 42 percent, as opposed to the industry average of 20 percent to 30 percent. The high member participation is prompting Rullo to consider expanding his 5,600-square-foot facility, which opened in 2008, sooner than he anticipated.

Unusual design elements at the Cooper Fitness Center at Craig Ranch, McKinney, TX, also help attract new members in unexpected ways. The facility features a demonstration kitchen where members can participate in culinary classes, which are included in membership fees, says Brandy Rentz, assistant general manager at Craig Ranch.

“The fact that we offer the demo classes makes ours a more well-rounded program, and it encourages people to schedule one-on-one or couples sessions with the nutritionist on a per-session fee basis,” she says.

A unique water wall in the ranch's spa relaxation room also adds to the ambiance and creates a sense of tranquility, Rentz says.

Water walls are a great way to enhance a club's design without doing a full renovation, says Bruce Carter, owner of Optimal Fitness Design Systems International, a club design and consulting firm in Weston, FL.

“Who doesn't like a waterfall?” he says. “Water energizes and relaxes people. We're helping to create a more favorable experience for individuals that we want them to associate with exercise. We give them that ambiance that makes them feel good.”

Simple design touches, from water walls to dog pens, can help clubs create a comfortable atmosphere for members that keeps them coming back, which in turn boosts both retention and revenue.


For more stories that feature tips and suggestions about health club design, visit our special report section on design at

TAGS: Universities
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