Fun and games rather than standardised gymnastics

published in sb 1/2018

Customised programming and multifunctionality for standard sports halls

Author: Harald Fux, Sportarchitektur Raumkunst ZT GmbH,

New sports halls are often built by resorting to tried-and-tested strategies, and frequently because of the pressure of time and costs. But should we still be building standardised gymnasiums in the present day and age? Harald Fux, Managing Director of Raumkunst Sportarchitektur ZT GmbH and head of the IAKS Circle of Experts on Sports Halls, advocates a user-driven sports halls strategy.

When a colleague involved in submitting a design tender for a new school in Vienna (Austria) recently phoned me and asked what I thought about a standardised gym with curves rather than corners, I advised against it because of the need to comply with standardised court sizes, safety distances and the obligatory design standards.

I have since pondered over my automatic response and have decided to put down a few of my ideas on paper:

According to demographic forecasts, Vienna will have grown to a city of 2 million by 2020 at the latest. Population migration into the urban centres and the accompanying suburbanisation of the surrounding areas are phenomena that can be observed in much the same way in many towns and are confronting the municipalities with a num­ber of challenges particularly in terms of public services.

In Vienna’s specific case, it can also be said that the age tangent (at least in the short term) is flattening off, which means that, due to the arrival of young families, the trend towards an ageing population will have less impact than the need to provide pre-school facilities, schools and ultimately sports facilities for the young population. In addition to surveying the backlog of modernisation of the existing, somewhat antiquated schools and sports facilities, the public administration is faced increasingly with the challenge of rapidly building new facilities.

The growing number of children and adolescents of compulsory schooling age is resulting on the one hand in the rapid development of educational and spatial strategies particularly concerning classrooms and common rooms, although there is also a trend owing to the pressure of time and costs to stick to the accustomed, seemingly “proven” strategies both for educational establishments and also for their sports facilities. There currently seems to be a call for a large number of in some cases partitionable, standard gyms without taking a closer examination of the specific functional strategies, accuracy in satisfying demand and sustainability.

Operational and usage strategies

It has long been common practice for all persons involved in the design and execution process to orient the operational strategy of the school sports facility to its main use by the school and to its outside use by sports clubs and organised groups. External entrances independent of the school building are created, equipment rooms at least partitioned, and changing rooms, showers and ancillary rooms geared to use by adults so that this expensive infrastructure can be put to intensive use.
But what is the situation with the allocation of spaces and functions and with the standard range of sports hall equipment? Does it meet the requirements of the school students and adults of today and tomorrow?

Standard gyms and accurately satisfying actual sports demand

Designers and architects of new sports halls are supplied with programmes of functions, room specification books and design standards which have to be complied with but whose content is derived from the bygone days of basic provision and represent an antiquated approach to exercise and sport in accordance with equally antiquated curricula.

Many countries have standardised sports halls, particularly for school games, and there can be basically no objection to this. The basic assurance of safety and functional quality, in both the design and construction of sports facilities, are cornerstones of any sports facility development scheme, particularly in the implementation of national sports (facility) development plans. The standardisation of the equipment of built infrastructure largely assumes organised, at least familiar and recognised sports – and is proving to be increasingly inaccurate in meeting actual demand in view of the changes in society mentioned above.

As an eminent work group of the IAKS in its paper “Future Trends 2020 for Sports and Leisure Facilities”  argues, the individualisation of society is bringing forth many new sports and thus superseding other sports or at least diminishing their importance. The challenge increasingly facing educationalists and also the operators of commercial sports facilities is the change in sports behaviour and the personal ambitions and usage thresholds of individual members of the population. Not every school student has the same prerequisites for or interest in sports activity, while sports with a life-style component as well as “gentle physical activity” are coming increasingly to the fore.

Schools are well advised to address the trends mentioned above and thus lay the foundations for “active” student lifestyles, even beyond compulsory schooling. This means the necessity to change and differentiate the programmes of rooms and functions for school games and ultimately to reinforce the multi-sports characteristics of sports and exercise spaces – something that municipal schools with their standardised sports halls currently fail to do.

Customised programming and multifunctionality

A modern approach in my opinion is the customised and specialised programming of all sports facilities for new schools. Customised programming presupposes an analysis of current needs and an estimation of future requirements. A step that evidently is not taken in the vast majority of projects, as they are based on the programme for the standard gym. In operation, school sports halls are not subject to economic pressures either. What is often lacking is users or a coordinating body with whom customised sports facility programming could be carried out.

When it comes to the modernisation of sports halls, the proposal, development and implementation of customised programming is usually more successful as users can be asked about a facility’s shortcomings and their personal requests. A suitable participatory process and dialogue is capable of producing good results and satisfied users in the long-term.

When a sports hall or facility is newly built, the expectations of the complexity of the planning and participation process should be higher in my view. The realisation that one does not need a single- or multi-court sports hall with standard equipment for all sports should be top of the agenda in the discussion of quantitative space allocation. The quantitative and quality basis in terms of required space is yielded only with a precise definition of the sports that are actually played, are to be played and are to be made possible in future. Along with the specific number of school students, a review of the facilities available and the demand within and beyond the immediate region yields findings and basic data on which to estimate the number of required halls and their equipment as well as any supplementary spectator space.

Less is more

“So how does customised programming of a sports facility actually look in practice?” you may well ask.

In one case, this can entail limiting the hall’s functionality. A hall focusing on ball sports can omit the installation of gymnastic equipment and thus offer a degree of specialisation. The always intrusive boulder wall already obligatory in standardised gyms is better accommodated in a room of its own. It does not need a room height of 5.5 m and can be used as a permanent fixture without causing time to be lost due to conversion. Part of the financial means saved by specialisation can be spent on this.

In the course of the modernisation of three school gyms dating from the early 1980s at a school in Vienna, we succeeded in consultation with Vienna’s schools council in programming each sports hall differently. One hall became a ball sports hall (photos 3 and 4), one a universal gymnastic and ballgame hall and the third a fun sports hall. In the fun sports hall, which is due for modernisation in 2018, nothing but equipment devoted to fun and trend sports will be installed.

In another case, a ballgame court was reduced to sub-standard size in order to facilitate the permanent installation of an exercise landscape in the hall in addition to its use for ballgames. This makes hall usage more democratic, as not every school student is skilled at ballgames, and also increases the possible total number of people using the hall at the same time.

This strategy is demonstrated by a sports hall in Aalborg by our colleague Maria Keinicke Davidsen of Keingart Space Activators. The attractive and varied exercise landscape encourages all age groups to exercise and shows a totally novel design dominated by the joy of exercise. The familiar appearance of a standardised gym has been abandoned (photos 1, 5 and 6).

Other functionally successful examples like the ASKÖ exercise centre in Klagenfurt show that the realisation of non-standard programmes is capable of yielding highly exhilarating architecture (photos 9 and 10).


A project with students at Vienna University of Applied Sciences, “sports equipment” study discipline, which I have the opportunity to teach, shows an even more experimental approach with a stronger emphasis on trend sports. The content for a strategy that the students were to produce for the modernisation of a single-court sports hall with an outside sports ground was completely unconstrained on the given ground area.

I found the designs produced by the students both astonishing and satisfying at the same time. Of the eleven groups, five presented trend sports halls, three groups an indoor bike park (to some extent with outdoor extension) and one group a freestyle hall. Three groups incorporated the outside space and designed a beach park, an outdoor obstacle course and a classical outdoor sports ground.

The trend sports halls that the students designed comprised the elements of bouldering, climbing, CrossFit, slacklining, parkour elements and trampolining; the bike parks consisted of pump tracks, dirt courses and a mega ramp with an airbag to cushion impact against the hall wall. The freestyle hall envisaged skating, a BMX track, freestyle skiing and snowboarding. In my view, the choice of sports reflects students’ daily experience of sporting activity and was from their point of view neither extreme nor experimental.


The differentiated programming of sports facilities and sports halls geared to trend sports will result in a growing number of non-standardised sports halls and exercise spaces. The sizes, proportions, heights and degree of equipping of the halls will show stronger specialisation and concentration on the envisaged sports and exercise offerings and offer space in reserve for further development and for a response to subsequent new trends.

The scope for high-quality architectural design in terms of lighting and the quality of surfaces and materials will grow and make a major contribution to user acceptance, well-being and ultimately health.

Photos 1, 5, 6    Tornhøjskolen Aalborg; Photos: KEINGART (; Bronze medal at IOC IAKS Award 2015
Photos 2, 3, 4    Ball sports hall Vienna; Photos: Raumkunst Sportarchitektur (
Photos 7, 8        Haslev Sports School; Photos: KEINGART (; Participant at the IOC IAKS Award 2017
Photos 9, 10    ASKÖ exercise centre Klagenfurt; Photos: halm.kaschnig.wuehrer architekten (; Participant at the IOC IAKS Award 2009