Forcasting: The State of Collegiate Recreation

Based upon a recent user survey conducted by RDG and Athletic Business magazine, the future as seen for collegiate rec indicates movement toward a technologically advanced but individualized campus recreation center experience. The years that separate a building’s initial planning and its completion make it imperative that owners and architects are accurately able to forcast for future trends” .. and this survey indicated the Top 4 “In Demand” Spaces for Collegiate Recreation are as follows:

1. Cardiovascular Exercise Equipment Areas

2. Free-weight Equipment Areas

3. Selectorized Strength Equipment Areas

4. Core Strength Equipment Areas


Demand for More

It does not matter in what year we ask the question: everyone has fitness space, everybody loves it – and everybody wants more. 70% of respondents representing facilities of all sizes said they needed more weight and fitness space. Followed closely by 65% needing more Group Exercise studios.

Bottom line, the popularity of cardio exercise simply dwarfed all other forms of fitness in the survey data.


By the Numbers

For years, designers have estimated initial space allocations based on metrics per participant. In 1999, the number was around 1 square foot per student, while today the number is frequently 1.5 to 2 square feet. In the recent recessionary (and current post-recessionary) climate, a better calculation is often to evaluate the cost per patron for each of the spaces under consideration, by dividing the cost of construction (and/or operation) of each space by the number of participants who utilize that space over the term of one year. Building components in the lower left quadrant of the resulting matrix, those deemed “low cost, high occupancy” such as group exercise studios, are the most cost-effective to build, whereas “high cost, low occupancy” spaces such as lap pools can be the least.

These sorts of metrics — when paired with survey results of users, likely users and program operators — can go a long way to ensure that the resulting recreation center maintains a robust usage well after the initial excitement over the facility has worn off. It certainly helps that owners’ interest in keeping construction and operation costs low seem to be dovetailing with users’ interest in individual pursuits such as fitness over the more traditional team sports.

This is probably the most interesting change we’ve seen when comparing data from 15 years ago to now — this coalescence around an idea of an individual mentality (as opposed to group) in the recreation sphere. There is still demand for expensive cardio equipment, of course, not to mention pools, MACs and other specialized spaces or equipment. But repeatedly over the past decade, we’ve seen a remarkable resurgence in more-Spartan activities. A good example nowadays is the growing popularity of bouldering, while top-rope climbing may have reached a plateau, as it were. In the collegiate market, bouldering makes a lot of sense: It is less expensive to build and it requires less oversight. It can also be built of modular units that can be more easily removed later, meaning that it can be operated in space that, if not truly multipurpose, at least doesn’t forever have to be dedicated to climbing.

In fitness, the rise of functional training has been one of the biggest surprises of the past 20 years, and it has only accelerated as a trend with the emergence of suspension training, CrossFit and other similar programs. As designers, we can tell you that the reappearance of monkey bars has been something we would not have anticipated 20, or even 10 years ago. Had we 10 years ago proposed monkey bars for a college rec center, it would have met with extreme skepticism.

Florida, Univ of SW Rec Functional Fitness

Demand for Flexibility

Another big driver of change in the rec center environment is the administrative demand for flexibility. If the recession ends up cutting into proposed rec centers’ square footage, what ends up making the cut has to be able to serve many masters.

This demand for flexibility is one of the strongest trends in rec center design right now, and it sits at a juncture between specific programming needs and high stewardship. If a space is singularly focused, it frequently serves a relatively small number of participants. If, however, it can change from a group exercise space to, say, a meeting space and then a demonstration kitchen in just a few minutes, then it becomes a space that’s much easier for the institution to endorse. This is a real conundrum in certain instances, as some roommates fi t well together, while others never will. Facility operators who try to host yoga, Pilates and cycling in the same physical space can spend so much time “turning a room” that these multifunction spaces often fail to meet the high expectations of participants.

Making spaces multifunctional can be difficult and expensive, but still, we’re seeing this happen in some surprising places. For example, we are seeing pools designed to be rapidly heated or cooled so that in the range of a few hours an operator can accommodate warm-water aerobics following competitive swimming, which requires cooler water. Operationally, this is energy intensive, but as a trade-off against building a second pool basin, it can be financially reasonable.

Clearly, the idea of multipurposeness is changing. Whereas 15 years ago, multipurpose space would be called on to serve group cycling, indoor golf practice with nets, and combative exercise, today there’s a growing desire for specialized spaces for each of those activities, where possible. Accommodating such desire requires investment in your facilities by boosting the technological capabilities of a multipurpose space to change, and change quickly, as well as increasing your dedicated storage space. What makes that possible is a strong business plan.

UNL Outdoor Adventure Ctr_Kessler_Ext Climbing-Day B-2

In another recent trend, many institutions are seeing the outdoors as a place to grow their indoor programs — and vice versa. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s new Outdoor Adventure Center thus has both indoor and outdoor climbing. Other schools, meanwhile, are creating something akin to “recreation without walls” — forthcoming projects of ours include a CrossFit studio in captured outdoor space (the University of Oregon) and a rooftop patio for group exercise classes (the University of North Carolina-Greensboro). Because of the lower price point of building things outdoors, as well as the dynamic quality of such spaces, more schools are sure to follow.

What’s Next?

The survey data does have its holographic moments. The technological capabilities of rec centers continue to grow, as does the individualization of the fitness experience, helped along by smartphone-based workout applications. Survey respondents say that 40 percent of rec center users are now using tools to track their progress, and four of five users (and nine of 10 facility operators) attest to these tools’ accuracy and their ability to lead to real fitness improvements.

Tracking our progress is just the start. When we presented our survey results at the 2014 Athletic Business Conference & Expo, we met many recreation professionals who shared with us some incredible ideas about what they think could happen in coming years. Mike Warren, senior associate director of recreation at the University of Wisconsin, foresees a future in which workouts are monitored and shared with health insurance companies, with individuals’ overall fitness affecting their insurance rates. In an age when corporate wellness programs are already built on this idea (employees’ insurance rates are determined in part by their program participation), it is wholly believable that such programs may extend into your recreation activities in the not too distant future.

Major changes are and will continue to be in the area of sustainability, well-being, healthy building environments and smarter building materials — including floors that capture energy from the feet of 5,000 people who visit your facility daily, and sports surfaces that utilize fiberoptics and LEDs to change the field of play at the flip of a switch. Depending on how far out on the limb you want to climb, you might also imagine a coming era of holographic fitness instructors. Given that a basic activity tracker would have been dismissed as science fiction in 1995, this is not as far-out an idea as you might think.

© 2015 Athletic Business, republished with permission. The original article “Recreation State” appeared in April 2015 issue


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