For most patrons, using a recreation center locker room ranks somewhere between public speaking and skydiving on a list of things to avoid. Besides being an unpopular place to spend time, it is also one of the most expensive to construct, one of the most troublesome to maintain and one of the most difficult to renovate. With all of these challenges, it is a wonder that locker rooms haven’t been phased out along with group showers, but they are necessary, convenient and, if planned well, actually a positive experience for users.
Locker room use appears to have declined in recent years, which can be attributed to a trend toward more cubbies and backpack lockers within activity areas, or users simply having busier lives and less time to spend at the gym. Whatever the cause, it is clear that new locker space must be more specialized and better planned for comfort, convenience and efficiency.
By following 10 simple rules and understanding certain realities of this type of space, you can build a great locker room.
In many cases, the locker room anchors the layout of other activities within the overall plan, either to directly access pool areas from showers by health code, or to ensure that changing areas are adjacent to other activity areas for convenience.
Visibility also is important. Clear views of the entry area by staff can offer a better sense of security and avoid many problems. The layout of the changing rooms should allow for clear circulation through the space to restroom and shower areas, but still offer screening of shower, drying and dressing areas.
Comfort is usually a secondary concern in locker rooms, and is not improved by the institutional quality of most facilities. With the use of some basic techniques, even a simple community recreation center can feel like a private club.
Adequate seating areas and large, ample benches are simple ways to provide more useful space to dress. Or replacing the old linear benches with large, pedestal-style seating can provide a noticeable improvement.
Providing ample vanity counter space and drying areas near showers is another simple solution that is not costly, but adds a level of convenience that gives the impression of a more upscale facility. Combine this added area with warm, comfortable materials–wood benches and solid-surface counter tops–and a normally institutional space begins to feel like an upscale club.
Even the cleanest, most well-maintained locker rooms occasionally suffer from unpleasant odors, and no amount of scented cleaning products can compensate for stagnant air and poor ventilation. Often, the cause of the odor is not the users of the space, but the mechanical and plumbing systems.
Designing systems to exceed code ventilation and fresh make-up air, and installing carbon dioxide sensors to detect a rise in occupants can have a significant impact on air quality.
Another suspect in the fight against odors can be floor drains. A direct conduit to the sewer system, floor drains seldom function as they are intended. Drains require a near-constant source of water to remain “primed,” and can begin to smell when they lose their seal, or dry out. One solution is to “trap-prime” a floor drain by routing a water line from sink or shower drains to the floor drain to provide a constant water source and ensure proper sealing. Even though maintenance requires floor drains, having too many increases the chance that some will malfunction.
Durability, Durability, Durability
Recreational buildings suffer from wear and tear unlike other building types. The real test is not on opening day, but after several years of use to prove whether the buildings stand the test of time. The challenge in locker room design is to employ materials that are comfortable as well as durable.
Floors are normally the first area of a facility that begins to show wear. Tile floors are probably the best solution for locker rooms if tile and grout colors are dark enough to mask dirt buildup, but tile can be costly. Poured seamless epoxy floors are more economical, but it is difficult to find good installers. The system has also been known to crack, the abrasive finish can be hard to perfect, and color selections are limited. Another possibility is the use of seamless rubberized surfaces with a small amount of non-slip additive.
Walls in locker rooms not only suffer from the effects of the moist environment, but gym bags constantly brush against them. Drywall finishes simply do not hold up to this abuse, but harder surfaces can be costly. A combination of painted concrete block throughout the locker area and tile in wet areas is usually the most durable solution, but can appear spartan without some variation in color and texture. Epoxy paint is commonly used in locker rooms, but few facility owners are willing to reuse epoxy when it is time to touch up, defeating its purpose, so a durable acrylic or enamel paint is a more appropriate solution.
Benches and counters are also sources of wear in locker rooms. Counters are in constant contact with water, and few materials hold up to this condition better than synthetic solid surfaces. Counters also must support patrons sitting on them. Counters and benches should be reinforced with steel within the supports to withstand this abuse.
Finally, locker selection can be the most difficult choice in planning. There is no question that phenolic resin lockers are more durable and less noisy than metal lockers, but the cost can be prohibitive. An effective compromise can be solid-plastic lockers that cost midway between metal and phenolic. There are many differences in the quality of plastic lockers, so make sure the product selected is of a thick, high-quality nylon plastic.
Locker rooms can be a source of constant maintenance frustration. More time and energy are spent by custodial staff on locker rooms than on almost any other space, and the battle never seems to end. Whether the problem is related to cleaning, moisture, damage or vandalism, it usually can be traced to a poor material choice in the design.
Many of the material choices are described within the durability description, but how they are used can greatly affect the ease of maintenance. Floor materials should be coved 8 to 12 inches up the adjacent wall for proper floor cleaning. Toilets should be wall-hung, partitions should be ceiling-hung, and benches should be constructed with concrete or masonry bases instead of complicated steel supports that can rust and inhibit proper floor cleaning.
Proper lighting can do many things for a space. It can focus on a particular task, provide ambient illumination, be decorative in accenting certain features, or even go unnoticed. A combination of wall sconces and overhead lighting can accomplish these effects well, but make sure the wall-mounted fixtures chosen are abuse-resistant. Lighting in change areas can be more ambient and of lower intensity. Indirect fixtures mounted above lockers work well. The most important consideration is that lighting type and level are appropriate to the function, and should be pleasant, not glaring.
If possible, the incorporation of natural light into a locker room space can be wonderful. Obviously, views into the locker room must be obscured, but high windows with translucent glass or even skylights can have a profoundly different effect on the feel of the space, and transform an austere space into a cheery, enjoyable environment.
Nothing can breathe life into a tired locker room environment like an infusion of color, but a few cautionary notes will ensure that the colors chosen don’t become quickly dated. First, a little color goes a long way. Locker rooms are small spaces with visual complexity that can be quickly overwhelmed by too many colors or patterns. Some of the most successful color schemes focus on the bold use of just a few tones. Second, introduce color into areas that are easy to change and update. Consider neutrals for tile, fixtures and lockers, and use color in painted walls and accents, such as toilet partitions. If the colors need to be updated, it doesn’t require a major demolition effort or a costly renovation.
Any time that wet environments are introduced into public spaces, the problems multiply. Safety concerns need to be considered. People are often in a hurry when using locker rooms, but minimizing blind corners and utilizing non-slip surfaces can avoid injury. Sometimes it is not enough to simply install abrasive epoxy floors or slip-resistant tile. Perforated plastic or rubber walkway mats can help keep the walking surface safe even when water begins to puddle.
Although by code all restrooms are required to be accessible, there are many considerations that go beyond the code when it comes to designing for physically challenged patrons. There are specific ADA guidelines for clearances and arrangement of elements that dictate the design of locker rooms, but there are some subtle ways to make a locker room more convenient for a disabled visitor. This user may be a senior with limited mobility or a patron who participates in wheelchair sports.
One consideration for locker room layout is convenient access to designated lockers, benches, showers and other services for the physically disabled. If visitors need to navigate through a winding locker room and tight corridors to reach their lockers, they may be less likely to use the locker room on their next visit. Likewise, if ADA locker and bench locations are near circulation areas or located so that the user is exposed to view, it can also create an uncomfortable condition. It is best to plan these specialized amenities the same as for any other in the building–with thoughtful consideration of comfort, access and ease of use.
Designing sustainable buildings while being conscious of precious natural resources should be the goal of every responsible building owner and operator. There are many ways in which the design of locker rooms can target some of these benefits.
With the large number of plumbing fixtures in a typical locker room, a clear target for savings is in water use and minimizing waste water. By employing low-flow shower heads, dual-flush, low-flow water closets, auto-sensing faucets and waterless urinals, a typical locker room design can save as much as 30 to 40 percent in water use.
There are many materials that are appropriate for use in this type of space: recycled plastic benches, toilet partitions, lockers, recycled porcelain and glass tiles and recycled content solid surfaces.
Lighting comprises one of the highest energy uses in a typical building. By reducing the level of lighting in a locker area, and utilizing natural light and automatic dimmers and introducing occupancy sensors that will shut off when areas are unoccupied, the amount of energy used in a locker room can be greatly reduced.
Although these strategies cannot guarantee a great locker room design, they can provide insight into the factors that contribute most to a better environment for users and operators alike. With a little attention to detail and a more creative approach to locker room planning, it is possible to design a space that is not only functional and easy to maintain, but a pleasure to use for years to come.