Two Health Club Designers Share The Effects of COVID-19 On Fitness Facility Design

Whether or not your heath club, studio, YMCA, JCC, university rec center or parks and rec facility has been allowed to reopen, you are aware that in the age of COVID-19, the design of your facility will change. Some of those changes may be temporary until a vaccine is wide-spread. But some of those changes will be long-term. 

In this article, two designers in the fitness space, Rudy Fabiano, founder and owner of Fabiano Designs, and Bruce Carter, president of Optimal Design Systems International, share design changes that are necessary today and possibly into the future. 

Key Factors In Creating Safe Spaces

By Rudy Fabiano, Founder and Owner, Fabiano Designs

On March 1, Fabiano Designs, the firm I founded almost 30 years ago and operate today, had 40 health and fitness projects in development scattered around the country and a few worldwide. By March 13, we were left with only two projects with most of my staff furloughed. Within weeks, COVID-19 had shut down health clubs almost globally, effectively grinding our industry to an abrupt halt. With revenue streams gone, most owners had no choice but to shut down all investments, including all building projects.

Four months in, after much research, I am considering what clubs will look like in the post COVID-19 future. How do we regain the confidence of our members that we are a safe place to be? What do we build today to protect our members and this industry from such a catastrophic event in the future?  

Although many variables in this ever-changing landscape make this difficult to predict, enough data exists to show that overall wellness is as important and relevant to our members as ever. In fact, if this pandemic has proven anything, it is that being heathy is everyone’s best defense against illness.

The cornerstone of our success has always been creating health. We do that by creating sacred spaces where members can feel safe, at their best, comfortable and connected. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have worked out remotely, outdoors or found other activities to stay in shape, but now that clubs are reopening, they are coming back. Why? 

Well, for many of them, being at the gym is an expression of their vitality and their commitment to their own health. Working out gives them control over their health and their lives. They come to these modern cathedrals of well-being because working out with others is motivating and inspiring. Here they can be alone, or they can be social with friends or make new acquaintances. They can train on the best equipment and have professionals to help them become the warriors they see in themselves.

We are entrusted to provide buildings that are safe and healthy. I believe that our clubs are already fairly safe and healthy. Understanding that the majority of transmission with this virus is airborne, in close proximity to others and for extended periods of time, key factors in providing a safe environment involve controlling air flow, outside ventilation and air volume. Our typical clubs have high ceilings and open spaces, which have ventilation systems that provide a good percentage of outside air that helps dilute the inside air and reduce any virus load that may exist. Potential problem areas, such as enclosed locker rooms, are most likely designed for negative air pressure, which means that air in those areas is not recirculated but is exhausted directly away from people. The heat and sweat produced by exercisers mean the average humidity level in most clubs is around 40 percent to 60 percent. Research shows that viruses respond poorly in that humidity range and thus become inactive.

These features in most clubs already have kept viral transmission in clubs statically low. A recent report from MXM/Medallia indicates that the positive transmission rates in clubs, tracking nearly 3.5 million check-ins, is 0.004 percent. That’s just about 140 members in 3.5 million check ins. Even though there may be some misinformed entities, the truth is that clubs are one of the safest places to be if you are indoors, in reference to this pandemic.

Besides the environment, the cleanliness of health clubs is part of the genetics of industry standards because it is one of the key benchmarks for success. The industry has been at the forefront of deep cleaning and sanitizing equipment as a matter of good business long before this pandemic hit.

Given the benefits of current systems and procedures, what additional measures can we take

that will build confidence for members to return and keep the transmission rate low?

Technology. Technology, such as UV-C lighting is promising. It is a spectrum of light that we cannot see but can essentially render the virus inactive (dead). That’s the good news. The bad news is that direct contact with skin and eyes is harmful so it needs to be shielded, either enclosed or pointing away from people, which is somewhat limiting. This technology Is making its way into our fans, HVAC systems, ductwork and other components that shield people but zap the virus. We have used to goo effect an enclosed fan module for a number of years to eradicate bacteria in locker rooms that cause odors. Currently, work is being done on a UV wavelength called FAR UV that is harmless to humans but is effective in killing viruses. Many companies are investing in this UV technology in the hopes of producing an effective and safe delivery system. Many products are available now, but I would wait until the end of the year before investing a lot of money as better products at a lower cost will become available.

Hands-free. On another front, hands-free products are so affordable that every club should implement as many hands-free interactions as possible.

Filters. Increasing the rating of your filters is another easy move that will help trap viral particles in the filter. High-efficiency, MERV-rated filters can be accommodated by most modern units, but it’s best to check. You’ll also have to change the filters more often as trapped particles will resist airflow.

Anti-viral materials. A host of anti-viral surface products also are being introduced. However, most products currently specified in clubs, such as tiles and solid surfaces, already have those properties due to the high-usage wear-and-tear concerns.

What about people-centric design opportunities? A broader view of what clubs can be will create new sacred spaces members will love. Given the stress many people have experienced while being quarantined, people don’t just need to work out—they also need to chill.  Automated recovery via massage beds and chairs are already a staple in many fitness clubs. We believe in expanding these soft spaces to accommodate a greater range of services—meditation rooms, red light therapy, Himalayan salt rooms, and other recovery and wellness-based activities to help control stress, allowing the mind to relax and recover.

We need to take advantage of the well-researched information available to build in accordance with healthy building standards. Natural materials, abundance of light, connections to the outdoors and natural/assisted ventilation are important components for healthy spaces. The importance of natural light and the connection to the outside it provides is a natural link and extension of this concept. The opportunity exists to be able to open those windows, let the fresh air in, create bold spaces that redefine the line between inside and outdoors. Clubs can put in glass walls that are moveable and able to be opened easily to merge an outdoor patio, for example, with an enclosed yoga studio, creating a larger, safer space for your members to enjoy.  

Being outside is by far safer than being indoors. Exterior spaces are the least utilized opportunities for creating additional safe and functional areas for members. Traditionally, we thought of outside spaces only as possible workout areas, throwing some equipment to use on grass or whatever was there. However, those spaces were not really designed or well designated as a specific place. But today, we can create fitness gardens and playgrounds by turning a generic outdoor space into a sacred space for members. We do that by using the same design principles we use to create interior spaces except instead of using sheetrock, we can use planting, natural stone, flowers and trees.

Moving back inside, we still believe in promoting social areas, but these areas must be designed for flexibility. One large lobby or gathering area inside the club that can be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing or smaller group gatherings by moving furniture can play an important role in responding to possible future threats. Certainly, open fitness areas such as turf have become the hinge pin for flexible programming and varying group sizes when needed. These areas will continue to grow.

In the last two years, we started experimenting with small 8x10 training pods within the confines of a larger club. Last year in a new project in Buffalo, New York, we installed eight of these pods under a semi-enclosed mezzanine. These self-contained workout units were intended for individuals, trainers or friends to utilize for workouts. Similar to working out in the garage with my brothers when I was young, the idea was both retro and modern, allowing for some level of intimacy in a larger fitness setting. I can envision expanding this concept of micro workout spaces as a way for people to social distance while being part of the exciting overall energy of the club for multiple programming. It is similar to renting cabanas by a pool in a resort.

Clubs are a relevant and important part of our lives. There we find health and vitality, get motivation and expertise when we need it, and can be social or alone when we need that, too. Recognizing the importance of health clubs to a healthier, happier nation, we should take this time to expand our identity and influence by creating the next generation of sacred spaces.   

Design Requirements In The Age of COVID-19

By Bruce Carter, President, Optimal Design Systems International

A big question moving forward is how COVID-19 will affect health club design. That will depend on whether a cure or vaccine is found in the short term and we can return to operating as we did before (for the most part) or whether it takes much longer for a cure or vaccine to be found, meaning physical distancing will be a critical new design variable.

Design involves space and people in a space, what people can do in a space and how they can move around in a space.

The evolving trend with club design is that design follows a business plan or business model. As a result of the business model, decisions are made about what facilities (spaces and sizes) and programs will be necessary to support the model. For example, the high-volume low-price (HVLP) model requires enough space to support the volume that is needed to justify the low price.  

Current clubs are operating with an existing amount of space and whatever business model they are working with. The plan assumed projected usage and projected number of members paying projected dues and fees to produce projected profits.

Now COVID comes along, adding a bizarre variable to the people and space component of design. This variable is either suggested or mandated by local or state governments. Now people must be apart in a space to help prevent spread of COVID-19.

Six feet apart seems to be the norm, but in some states (such as California prior to clubs being closed again in many counties), 14 feet is required unless a barrier is placed between each piece of equipment. Some states or cities are allowing only so many people in a club at a certain time. In some markets, locker room use and group exercise classes are not allowed. The same may apply to pools, saunas and other amenities.

Few if any business plans created prior to COVID-19 allowed for such physical distancing. Most clubs now are in survival mode: get open, existing members to return, get new members to join and hope this all ends soon so the volume of people can once again produce healthy profits.

The above review is the foundation for future club design. The question is not what is the design for dealing with COVID 19. Instead, it is what will be the business models that can profitably deal with COVID 19? Design will then follow. However, design and space requirements will play a more important role than ever in deciding how a model would work. For example, normal spacing for 50 pieces of cardio equipment requires approximately 2,300 square feet for the cardio layout. Spacing units six feet apart now results in only 24 units being in the space. If you keep the same quantity of 50 pieces with social distancing, you would need approx. 5,000 square feet instead of 2,300 square feet.

It should be noted this social distancing design variable pertains to any type of club whether it be a large full-service facility, HVLP or boutiques.

Moving forward, whether or not a cure or vaccine is found, here are six design components that should be part of any new club design or renovation.

Cleanliness. People will be looking for safety, but club environments also will need to be exciting and inviting. Creating a first impression of a spacious, freshly cleaned and well-lit environment is important. Softer and lighter paint colors tend to convey a “cleaner” space. Attractive sanitizing stations should be visible in the lobby and throughout every part of the club. Clutter is bad energy; people want to experience “clean energy,” so well thought-out storage at the front desk and throughout the club is a must. If needed, desks should be large enough to have more than one check-in point.

Screening. Infrared fever screening systems (IFSS) in the lobby are a must, but if a cure is found, these will eventually fade away.

Touchless. The entry doors ideally should be automatic or use some other type of hands-free option (automatic, foot or arm operated). In fact, anything that can be touchless or hands free should be. This includes sign in, payment terminals, doors, toilets, sinks, urinals and drinking fountains

Air quality. Air quality (HVAC system) has to improve. In most clubs, indoor air is made up of about 25 percent of outside air. The rest is recirculated and filtered, meaning it’s already been breathed by other occupants. If indoor air is not regularly exchanged, it can contain greater levels of pollutants than outside air.  As a result, experts recommend at least 20-30 air exchanges per hour for health clubs. The use of ultraviolet C germicidal irradiation lights (UV-C) placed in duct work or with indoor air-cleaners will most likely increase substantially. These units have been around for years and widely used by hospitals to kill bacteria and germs and many studies show they kill coronaviruses.

Antimicrobial materials. Many building materials and finishes are created using antimicrobial technology and will increasingly become the norm. These types of finishes are made with coatings that work to keep surfaces cleaner and from multiplying bacteria. They include paints, door hardware, laminates, metal finishes, rubber flooring, carpet and porcelain tile.

Communication. It is a must that club operators create beautiful posters or digital marketing that promotes all the club does to make a safe environment (hand-washing, cleaning, disinfecting, touch free, air quality, antimicrobial materials, etc.) and how both staff and members should work together to achieve a safer place.

Designing a health club in this point in time involves a variable that clubs have never had to deal with before. Yet, clubs are resilient primarily because those in the industry have such a love and passion for what they do. The challenge is great and whether COVID 19 leaves or stays, creative solutions will be found to move forward - and clubs will play a more important role in a community than ever before. As the old saying goes, “the darkest hour is just before dawn”. COVID 19 is forcing clubs to be better than ever and the new Golden Age of health clubs is not too far in the future.