When Louisiana State University was designing its new $58 million recreation center recently, it was partly with an eye toward besting its Southeastern Conference rival, Auburn University, whose new $52.5 million facility opened last August.
Auburn has a 45-person paw-print shaped hot tub and a 20-foot climbing wall by the pool. But LSU will have a lazy river students can float on that spells out "LSU." Auburn has a 1/3-mile corkscrew track—believed to be the longest one at college rec center in the nation—that winds around its building. LSU tried to do one better, with a 1/3-mile tiger-striped track that waggles, inclines, and loops around a rock climbing wall.
"They did want the longest, but it looks like it’s going to be a tie," said James Braam, a senior project designer at 360 Architecture, who worked on plans for both. "It’s fun to see each one try to outdo the other."
They’re not the only ones in competition. Plans for Towson University's new facility call for students to be able to ascend to the second floor via ropes or ledges (lazies can take the stairs). Utah State University, which has a huge skateboard culture, is considering a skateboard-friendly plaza design, scaling back from a plan to make the building’s actual walls skateboard friendly.
Gone is the old squat box of a gymnasium with Nautilus equipment—"the gerbil cage environment," says Reed Voorhees, a CannonDesign vice president who works in the firm’s sports practice. In its place are soaring, light-filled structures with yoga decks, climbing walls, and juice bars.
"There’s a more three-dimensional interplay of spaces rather than just a floor on top of a floor on top of a floor," says Voorhees. "The walls are going away or we’re using more glass and materials that make them appear to go away." That’s partly so students can see all their options, so someone coming in to use the track might run by the climbing wall and be inspired to check it out on a future visit.
"The thinking is: Can we create a building that inspires someone to work out 15 minutes longer?’" says Braam, who watches the CrossFit Games, belongs to multiple health clubs, and just joined a boxing class for ideas. "The environment that you’re in is something that inspires the user to push harder and further."
With the raft of research about the benefits of exercising outside (among other things, people who get out in the fresh air tend to enjoy their workouts more and do it for longer), there is a push on college campuses to create exercise terraces or decks (Auburn has them) and to use the rooftop space. An early design proposal for Arizona State University included an indoor-outdoor track, where students could do an indoor loop around the gym or run around the pool, catch a view of the mountains, and then run back into the building. A thermal lock, like that in the vestibule of a supermarket, would prevent cold air/hot air exchange. The idea was scrapped because it was too expensive. "They chickened out," jokes Braam. "But one of these days someone is going to have one and then everybody else will want it."
Another emerging trend in keeping with the current yen for functional training is to use the building’s structure itself for exercise, a la Towson’s rope climb. In new facilities, "slam walls" made with concrete masonry units and stainless steel panels are a popular feature, so users can throw medicine balls against the walls without destroying them. A handful of university recreation centers currently under construction plan to include Synrgy 360, a some $20,000 configuration of monkey bars and punching bags, with space for battle ropes and other functional training toys.
Flexibility also is key, since a recreation center being designed now will open needing to appeal to students currently in eighth grade. Dedicated racquetball courts are considered very ‘90s; Convergence Design’s David Greusel says most of the ones he worked on in that decade have since been converted to yoga studios. (Lots of colleges have discussed building hot yoga studios, but no one yet has gotten beyond talking.) These days, squash and racquetball frequently share courts, thanks to moveable back-wall technology, and new synthetic floors allow a single space to be used for soccer, basketball, hockey, and volleyball, thanks to nets that can drop from the ceiling at the push of a button.
Says George Brown, head of recreation at the University of Alabama: "Student interest is pretty fickle. We’re dealing with a generation of people that are used to change and multi-tasking. We’re having to constantly understand what intrigues them." (Except during football season, when he concedes defeat. "Interest goes in another direction," he says.)
The race to build is not without controversy. With college costs for a private four-year university averaging more than $40,000 per year (and cost for public in-state universities averaging roughly $18,500), is raising the price to give the school’s rec center a makeover really necessary?
"Sometimes that question does come up," admits Laurie Braden, the president of NIRSA, the college recreation consortium, as well as LSU’s director of recreation. "I can’t speak to every institution across the country but I can share with you that LSU tuition is 15% below the Southern Regional Board Average." At LSU, students’ activity fees will rise steadily from $65 per semester to $200 per semester to pay for the construction.
Schools insist the buildings are crucial for recruitment and retention. A 2006 National Center for Education Statistics study found that just 15% of students finished their first year of college without ever using the rec center. Compare that, the report noted, to the 46% who never used academic support services, such as writing skills centers, and the roughly 50% who never used career planning, financial advising, or academic tutoring services.
"Anything that can show that rec sports contributes to student success is well received by administrators," says James Pivarnik, a professor of kinesiology at Michigan State University, whose 2014 Recreational Sports Journal study is the latest in a string to find that students who hit the gym have better grades.
Luke Wesseling, 22, a 2014 Purdue University graduate who played three high school sports, said the university’s rec center—which underwent a $98 million makeover during his time there—was a contributing factor, though small, to his decision.
"I was looking at some smaller schools and I liked that Purdue had more options and the hours were better on nights and weekends," he said. "And I’ve had friends from other colleges in Indiana come up and they’re always like, ‘Wow, I wish our college had that.'"