Welcome To The Newest Part Of The College Campus: The Wellness Center

Part gym, part doctor’s office, part sustainable farm: Colleges are figuring out that making students healthy takes many forms, and putting them all under one roof can result in unexpected benefits.

Universities seeking to advance the health and wellness of their students must begin the process by rethinking how they currently organize and facilitate their recreational programs and health and counseling services. The traditional model of delivering these programs often results in multiple facilities; a recreation center focused primarily on physical activity, and other services such as health and counseling, nutrition, and wellness education placed in other buildings across campus. While this approach has worked successfully in the past, it fails to meet the needs of today’s students.


As institutions contemplate a more unified approach to recreation, health, and wellness, the boundaries of these traditionally separated campus services are becoming blurred. A one-stop shopping approach with multiple services under one roof can open new doors for shared programming, increase synergies among student services, reduce operational costs, and support an institution’s health and wellness objectives.

Despite all the benefits, fusing diverse programs together is not without its share of challenges, including privacy, separate funding models, hours of operation, and physical space needs. To be successful, all parties must engage in creating a unified operational model which will allow the various programs to meet their individual needs while supporting the overall institutional mission. We believe that overcoming existing departmental barriers is in the best interest of the students’ long-term health and well-being.

Creating a new breed of wellness centers focused on helping students achieve healthy lifestyles has been at the core of our firm’s higher education practice for years. As we help universities across the country wrestle with this new paradigm, we continue to realize and explore new benefits.

Wellness centers generate exciting opportunities for designers to create dynamic new spaces. Unifying the various departments under one roof allows us to rethink how the interior zones interact and collaborate. We are already seeing unique facilities that blend traditional recreational components with demonstration kitchens, green roofs and vegetable gardens, classrooms for wellness learning, counseling space and perhaps even a grocery learning lab. We are focused on continuing to push the limits with new program spaces that will benefit the students’ long-term health.

Here are a few examples of institutions leading this movement across the country:

The University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Health and Wellness Center is designed to foster a culture of sustainability, healthy lifestyles and disease prevention. The facility is unique in its combination of a fitness center; a health clinic and research labs; a green roof with vegetable and herb gardens; a healthy bistro; a research and educational grocery lab; and meeting and classroom space.


Northern Arizona University’s Health and Learning Center consolidates five previously dispersed facilities into one cohesive student learning environment that blends student health and counseling, classrooms, campus recreation, and intercollegiate athletics. The “facility design has transformed the recreation health, disability, and athletic services provided on campus into a state-of-the-art collaborative health model for the future,” says Beth Applebee, Northern Arizona University’s campus health director.”

At Spelman College, we are working in collaboration with Menefee Architecture on a new fitness and wellness center that will be the result of the college’s dramatic vision to eliminate its intercollegiate athletics program to increase recreation and wellness funding. “It was startling how much of our operating budget was devoted to athletics programming that only benefited 80 of our 2,100 students,” says Beverly Daniel Tatum, president of Spelman College. “It just didn’t make sense. So we decided to put all that funding into a ‘Wellness Revolution’ that can benefit every Spelman student.”

These examples, and others like them, are already yielding positive results as students respond favorably to this emerging trend. Our team is excited to be on the cutting edge of blurring the traditional boundaries. Recreation centers are one of the most popular places for students to gather, socialize, and engage in physical activity. Why not capitalize on the natural synergies of wellness and recreation under one roof?

These facilities are a powerful demonstration of an institution’s commitment to their health and wellness mission, and a priceless educational tool to help students to prepare themselves for a long and healthy lifestyle.

About the author

Colleen McKenna leads Cannon Design’s sport practice from the firm’s Boston office. She has focused her career on promoting physical activity and student wellness through the creation of university recreation and wellness centers, intercollegiate athletic facilities and several cutting-edge fusion facilities.