American University Recreational Sports and Wellness Centres

published in sb 1/2017

A response to the needs and expectations of an active campus community

Authors:   Colleen McKenna and David Body (CannonDesign,

The building type of university sports centres emerged in the early 1980s and is arguably the only new building type to become a fixture on campus in the last 30 years. Since 1985 over 70% of universities have constructed such a centre. It has often surpassed the student union as a gathering place for students, faculty and staff, has become a key influential factor in student recruitment and retention, and is increasingly seen as an opportunity for an iconic architectural statement. The authors Colleen McKenna and David Body reflect on typical components and its architecture and give an outlook on trends.

Sport on an American campus can be broadly divided into two categories: intercollegiate athletics and intramural/recreational sports.

Intercollegiate athletes, many of whom receive athletic scholarships, compete against other universities in competitions managed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). At a large university the intercollegiate facilities are usually for the exclusive use of the elite athletes and may include stadia, arenas, natatoriums, indoor practice facilities, training/therapy rooms and strength training centres. They are frequently in a separate zone of campus due to their size and expansive footprint.

The recreational sports and wellness centre is designed for students, faculty, staff, alumni, the recreational athlete, and the fitness participant. Building use is free to students but sometimes has a nominal fee for faculty, staff and alumni.

The impetus for the wave of construction can be attributed to pressure on existing facilities from shared use with intercollegiate athletics, ageing facilities, increased interest in health and wellness, increased participation by women, social engineering (obesity, alcohol and drugs), recruitment and retention of students, the need for a healthy environment for social interaction, and perhaps most importantly the willingness of students to finance the building by supporting a bond measure.

Typical components in a recreational/wellness centre

Most new facilities include the following components: identifiable entries, lobby/control, fitness/weight training, gymnasiums, jogging track, multi-use athletic court, group exercise rooms, spinning studio, squash/racquetball, climbing/bouldering walls, lap and leisure pools, spas, outdoor activities, locker rooms, wellness centre, social and learning spaces, food service, and administration.

Although results may vary according to the region of the country, student surveys consistently place the following spaces as a top priority.

Fitness/weight training

The demand on this space during peak hours in the early morning, lunchtime and particularly between 3.00pm and 8.00pm is very difficult to meet.

The space is zoned by equipment type: free weights, power weights, strength machines, cardio, TRX, and stretching, which reduces any intimidation felt by some constituents. Some recreation centres provide dedicated spaces for women which can also accommodate religious preferences. Frequently there is a small instructional space with samples of each major type of equipment where new members can be instructed on their use in relative privacy. This space can also be used for personal training.


A major programming difference between university facilities and community centres or commercial health clubs is the student’s huge demand for gymnasium space primarily for basketball, volleyball, and badminton. Most buildings have a minimum of three basketball courts, although six to eight courts are not unusual. The courts usually have wood floors and have retractable baskets and electrically operated divider curtains. Minimal spectator seating is provided to accommodate the casual observer and the teams and is also popular as a laptop study or social area while waiting for a turn on the court.

Swimming pools

The aquatic centre is the most expensive component to construct and maintain and the most likely to be shared with intercollegiate athletics. Typically there is a 25m or 50m competition pool which also provides lap swimming for the recreational user and this is coupled with a warm water leisure pool which may have whirlpools, lazy rivers, climbing walls or zip lines.


Jogging tracks

Most of the academic year is during the cold weather months and the peak activity is during hours of darkness. The track offers a sheltered and secure location for walking and jogging. The jogging track has become an integral part of the building, often threading its way through atria and overlooking activity spaces and the surrounding landscape. Recent tracks have also incorporated gradients. The majority have three lanes with the occasional 4-lane track.

Planning and architecture

Most centres are designed with a single point of entry controlled by turnstiles activated by a student registration card or biometric scanner. The food service component is often outside security to avoid problems of food in the facility.
A recreation centre is one of the prime “see and be seen” locations on campus. Circulation patterns are designed to allow visual access to most activities, and the varying volumes offer the opportunity to maximize the three-dimensional interplay of space which energizes the overall experience. The spaces between the activity rooms are designed to provide unstructured areas for student interaction and study.

The building should be designed for flexibility to accommodate both internal change and exterior expansion. The popularity of activities changes over the years, and the increased participation since the first wave of projects in the 1980’s is reflected in the large number of buildings currently undertaking major additions.

The architectural design of the exterior of the building can be a difficult assignment. Many campuses have mandated materials and styles. The nature of the building typology suggests a light, transparent upbeat image which can be a challenge when the campus requires “Collegiate Gothic” or “Colonial” style architecture.


Many buildings incorporate a wellness suite which offers programmes such as fitness assessment, weight loss, drug and alcohol counselling, meditation, yoga, massage, CPR and AED, cooking, and first aid. In some cases a free fitness assessment is offered to all new students.


Squash is growing in many parts of the country with racquetball declining somewhat. Spinning studios, climbing and bouldering centres, “hot” or specialized yoga studios, elevated jogging tracks, and fitness ramps continue to be popular.

One particularly interesting trend is that some smaller universities have grouped multiple student life facilities in one “fusion” building. A good example is the Nova Southeastern University in Florida which has a 4,000-seat arena, intercollegiate athletic facilities, recreational facilities, food service, student union, and the departments of theatre and dance organized around a linear atrium which contains the support facilities, toilets, tickets, and lobby space.

Sustainability, accessibility, financing, and staffing

Sustainability has been defined as meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. Most campuses require LEED Certification which grades buildings in five categories: sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, and indoor environmental quality.

Accessibility is mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, “An act to establish a clear and comprehensive prohibition of discrimination on the basis of disability”. The updated 2010 Standards for Accessible Design includes a chapter devoted to recreation facilities.

Financing is provided from a number of different sources. There is very little if any state funding available for recreation facilities, so universities must rely on philanthropy, traditional debt, institutional bonding, or a student-supported bond issue. The student-supported bond issue is currently the most frequently used. In a typical case, the students hold a referendum to assess themselves and their successors an annual fee to support the bond issue.

Staffing is a combination of full-time and part-time professional staff and is usually the largest employer of students on campus.


Each year there are three million new students enrolled at American universities and colleges. The recreational sports and wellness centre provides a platform for them to develop healthy lifetime habits during those formative college years.