Insights That Will Ensure Your Health Club Design Stands the Test of Time

(Editors' Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2018 report, "Forward Five Years: How the Fitness and Wellness Industry Will Change." The original article also included a sidebar on "10 Design Keys for Clubs of the Future." To download that report, go here.)

The design of your health club may be more important in the future than it is today, which is why investing in a design that will stand the test of time is vital.

Unfortunately, many health club operators are facing uncertainty about their business model due to increased competition. And that can wreak havoc on a club's design because the right design for a club is one that complements its business model, according to Bruce Carter, president of Optimal Design Systems International, Weston, Florida. A change in business model can lead to an identity crisis if the existing design doesn't match that model change.

Challenge No. 1: Cost

Even for health club owners who don't have a business model in flux, one of the greatest design challenges in the future will remain project cost. Some studio operators are able to more freely invest money in their business because their rent is cheap and their fitness mission is focused. Mainstream club owners must spread money around, said Rudy Fabiano, CEO of Fabiano Designs, Montclair, New Jersey, which not only requires solid strategizing but also difficult decision-making. It’s a game of give and take. A good designer, he said, helps with this process. A good designer not only designs but knows when and where and why and how to design—all on a budget.

Often, a new niche exercise space does not require lavish floor-to-ceiling embellishment to become an effective addition to an existing club. (Nor does blind spending equal success for club operators, Fabiano warned.) Gone are the days of grandiose entryway architecture and gold-plated interiors, added Hervey Lavoie, president of design firm Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative, Denver, Colorado. In many ways, clubs of the future will be sleeker and simpler, while better catering to the varying needs of club-goers.

Designing a Club within a Club

Carter has experience working on multipurpose facilities that are at least 120,000 square feet and charge approximately $150 in dues per month. A nearby SoulCycle charges $30 per class in a space that's a few thousand square feet, meaning rent is much cheaper. How does a large facility compete when there is such a disparity in rent and in revenue per member?  

Conventionally, the answer has been to create a “club within a club.” This could mean carving out a special space for a cycling studio or developing a new group training area complete with a robust class schedule. Yet, club operators must be careful and calculating in how they spend their money and use their square footage. Many of Carter's clients tell him they want a SoulCycle or Orangetheory Fitness-type space within their larger facility. He’s quick to warn them: A room full of bikes will not beat the competition in the long term.

SoulCycle succeeds not because it is a studio brand, Carter said, but because it successfully sells an experience that it also effectively packages and markets. Delivering a tailored experience to clients (and potential clients) through print and digital media has become a critical and newer part of club design. (For SoulCycle, think fiberglass, shiny lockers and a consistent white-gray-yellow color scheme.)

“Moving forward, my job as an owner of a bigger club is to make my studio experience feel like our specialty,” Carter said. “I have to make it like my studio is better than any [standalone] club. My studio experience must be so dynamic—finishes, colors, unique lighting that no other club will have—that members will pay extra for it. My job is to get you from $49.99 to $79.99 [in dues pricing].”

Lavoie outlined four questions every owner should consider when developing a club within a club:

  1. Will club members have access rights to the new boutique? Will boutique members have access rights to the main club? Where will the lockers, showers, toilets, warm up and cool down spaces as well as social spaces be for the boutique members? How will they be provided with towels, water and security for their valuables?
  2. How will access and egress be controlled and membership rights respected for both the main club and the boutique without establishing a police-state enforcement atmosphere and wasting staff energy to ensure that boutique members do not stray into club member-only facilities and vice versa?
  3. How can the boutique be showcased to the outside world without conflict with the main club brand?
  4. Will the boutique offering duplicate the main club's program in that area (i.e., cycling or yoga programs) or replace it? Will main club members pay more to participate in a boutique offering or will it be included in their cost of membership?

Only once these questions are answered can design and planning work proceed accordingly, Lavoie said.

“We see some successful club owners opting out of bringing in an outside boutique franchise and choosing rather to develop their own elite branded identity for yoga, cycling, CrossFit, barre, etc., and giving the studio its own unique esthetic as if it was an independent branded destination,” Lavoie said. “For both styling and function, this approach makes generic, multipurpose studios in large clubs a thing of the past.”

Fabiano encouraged operators to consider “retailing” their clubs. In short, they should present each club area and activity in such a way that it feels legitimate, inviting and inspires members to faithfully spend their money—whether that be a specially branded product, a group class or an enhanced membership. This is where design is crucial, he said. Every aspect must shine.

“A spin studio should be a spin studio, should feel like one,” he said. “SoulCycle didn’t invent low lighting or spinning or steps. They pulled these elements out of the box to look at them more carefully. How can we make these a little better? How can we elevate it? A yoga studio or an Orangetheory essentially offers one activity, so this process can be quite straightforward.”


Regardless of whether health club owners invest in creating clubs within their clubs, they must consider other design elements to ensure success in the future. If the vibe is off at a facility, a given program—or the entire club concept—may fail, Fabiano said. A budget-conscious designer can transform a vibe and an entire studio space with a single investment: dynamic lighting (lighting that can be adjusted in intensity).

Lighting, when integrated with flooring and wall treatments, can create an entirely new virtual experience for members, Fabiano said.

Products from Texas-based lightbulb tech company Ketra are some of Fabiano’s favorites for enhancing a contained exercise space. The brand’s tunable, fully integrated lighting system can turn a studio’s lighting from a warm white to a cool blue or fiery red through a touchscreen dial that a trainer can manually adjust on their iPhone.

“Lighting as a trend is so big right now,” Fabiano said. “We use Ketra because they’re very cost effective and a really flexible and dynamic mood enhancer. You can have a room be one thing in the morning, and then in two hours when another class comes in it’s an entirely new mood and experience.”

The benefits of dynamic lighting reveal themselves on club tours, Fabiano said. Instead of showing potential members a series of generic spaces, lighting can help prospects feel like they will get a lot more experience for their money because each area is so specially tailored.

Dynamic lighting can include LED lights, which at one time were considered a luxury item because of their expense, but not anymore, said Robert McDonald, one of Lavoie’s partners at Ohlson Lavoie Collaborative. Fixture costs are dropping, availability of options is growing, and the bulb quality is dramatically improving.

In addition to improving the appearance of a club, LED fixtures will cut energy usage.

“If your facility hasn't upgraded the lighting in 10 years or more, a lighting replacement strategy can be a wise investment and a real game-changer in terms of design,” McDonald said.


When it comes to technology, club members now readily expect activity tracking and equipment-mounted displays. Incorporating technology into design will include adding experience-driven technologies such as gigantic digital screens and powerful projectors that often are included in group exercise experiences.

One example of this is Les Mills' Immersive Fitness studios that companies such as 24 Hour Fitness, San Ramon, California, and Hong Kong-based Pure Fitness have installed. The studios feature a room-spanning 270-degree screen in front of which cyclists can abandon reality and spend 35 minutes riding through an immersive and futuristic world in a program called The Trip.

Club operators cannot forget the little details either, McDonald said, when it comes to tech such as club-wide high-speed Wi-Fi. Also important are hard-wired digital connections for fitness machines, convenient locations to charge mobile devices and secure data portals for tracking fitness regimens. (The latter will become increasingly necessary as exercise is more often prescribed by healthcare professionals, McDonald said.)

Ebb and Flow

Fabiano likened clubs of the future to shopping malls. Clubs should no longer be a single space with a single function. Instead, they ought to offer a series of unique and specialized experiences. Just as shoppers are enticed to wander into different specialty stores, club members should want to take advantage of all the amenities their facility offers.

One specialized area of importance today — and likely to continue into the future — is small group training areas. Carter favors installing turf in these areas because it not only serves as ideal flooring for HIIT or small-group exercise, but it serves as eye candy when it is installed properly.

“When we design, we have to make things visible,” he said. “Imagine a group [exercise] class on turf with an instructor leading six members. Maybe the turf area is even sectioned off by glass—contained but still visible. … Someone across the club is going to look over and have a very visual interaction with that. ‘What are they doing over there? They’re switching from kettlebells to TRX to rowing. How do I get in on that?’”

Reserving large open spaces for planks, stretching and foam-rolling can render a similar effect, Carter said. Negative space (or empty space) is a growing and cost-effective club trend.

“So many more people want their functional exercise areas,” he said. “We need to give them nice spaces to do that—core, stretches, TRX—free of apparatuses.”

Carter also warns against an intimidation factor that many club operators overlook. Having a series of individually contained studios and dynamic open areas can help mitigate this pitfall.

“We want people to see what we’re offering, but we don’t want anything to be the center of attention and intimidate,” he said. “Glass, if tastefully done, is a great way to break things up and allow people to safely interface with others in the club.

“If my first step is into the club and my second, if I’m not careful, is onto a treadmill, we’ve done something wrong,” Carter continued. “No more rows of 40 treadmills by the front door. A clean, tidy lobby is a buffer. It can offer a little bit of a personality. Then you have the lighting. That’s exciting and welcomes them in. Now they get to safely wander and see and feel what else is going on.”

The flow of a club, and of the member experience, ought to begin in the parking lot, Lavoie said. Landscaping, finishes, lighting and colors—not directional signage—must guide the way. Clubs of the future will be dynamic, interactive and even theatrical in ways that suit the club’s uniquely branded experience.

As of late, Lavoie tends to avoid traditional design materials and is instead drawn to turfs, stained concrete, galvanized steel and recycled rubber. These “authentic” materials particularly appeal to millennials, he said.

Carter encourages club operators to always think like salespeople. Don’t discuss memberships over a cold counter lit by harsh artificial bulbs. Instead, staff members should be able to escort clients to a comfortable couch, a wide window or a flowing miniature waterfall to discuss business. If clients are relaxed, they’re more likely to enjoy their experience and make financial investments.

Hospitality Takeover

For some time, the line between hotels and health clubs has been blurring, even disappearing altogether. Companies such as Leisure Sports and The Houstonian have operated combination hotels and health clubs for years.

Midtown Athletic Club, Chicago, recently added its name to the list when it renovated its West Fullerton Avenue club in Chicago and re-opened it in fall 2017 as Midtown Athletic Club and The Hotel at Midtown. The six-story, 575,000-square-foot facility is the largest of its kind in the country, according to Midtown. Midtown President and CEO Steven Schwartz, who holds a bachelor's degree in hotel administration from Cornell University and previously worked for the Hyatt Hotel Corp., likened the hospitality trend to 20th century men’s athletic clubs.

Now, Equinox Holdings Inc., New York, is looking to get in on this as it is set to open luxury hotels that cater to health-conscious travelers in New York and Los Angeles in 2019. Life Time Fitness, Chanhassen, Minnesota, has teamed with Simon Property Group to open in 2019 a healthy lifestyle village in the Minneapolis area.

As a growing number of hybrid concepts emerge from some of the biggest brand names in both industries, the influence that hotel design has on health club design is growing, Carter said, so much so that each of his firm’s three designers has a background in hotels.

“We sell a product people hate: exercise,” Carter said. “But the industry is now realizing they can create an environment that is fun, exciting and colorful, which the hospitality industry has lived by for decades. The health club industry is becoming a form of the hospitality industry, and our environments are only going to continue to get more beautiful and well thought out.”

In a Jan. 8 Forbes article, Jordi Lippe-McGraw explored how Aaron Richter, Equinox’s senior vice president of architecture and design, is leading the brand into the 21st century, including employing historians to specifically tailor clubs to their geographical locations. (Equinox’s Brookfield Place club offers vistas of New York Harbor, so the facility features a soft nautical theme that flows level to level like a ship would, and is even aesthetically reminiscent of a boatyard.)

Since 2013, the article said, Equinox’s average square footage for lounge spaces has quadrupled to as much as 700 square feet in order to create a stronger community feel.

Fabiano said this blend of fitness and hospitality is about all-encompassing care. This is not dissimilar to the health club industry’s adoption of medical wellness practices in recent years. Club operators are learning the benefits of providing spaces that cater to their clients’ all-around lifestyle needs.

Opti-Life Health and Fitness Center, which opened in early 2018 in Wichita, Kansas, is one such example. In addition to various exercise areas, the 34,000-square-foot facility will feature a community kitchen, education room and Himalayan salt sauna with a 5-inch-thick wall built from Himalayan salt blocks to inspire invigoration.

Opti-Life’s website states: “Here you’ll find as much community as you’ll find fitness. Join members-only tribes of art lovers, gardeners, or other interest areas. Take workshops on reducing stress or eating well. Crank up your heart rate on the treadmills in our cutting-edge Tread X studio. Then relax and recover with a refreshing, organic smoothie at our friendly on-site cafe.”

To accommodate its various amenities, Opti-Life will offer four membership tiers ranging from $60 to $130.

“Fitness is an anchor to everyone’s life,” Fabiano said. “We’ve been treating it like this other leg, this other thing you need to do. Now people are seeing that it should be an integrated part of your lifestyle, and clubs now have the power to do that.”

That ability is made easier with the right design elements for wellness models and for any business model. A fresh coat of paint and a few new elliptical machines alone are no longer the redesign answer, especially if you want your club to be relevant and successful in the future, Carter said.