Creating Harmony: The Art of Club Design

Creating Harmony: The Art of Club Design

Your club can be much more than just ‘the gym’ for your members. By creating welcoming social spaces throughout your facility, you can unify the many areas of your club and make it genuinely worthy of members’ loyalty, says award-winning fitness architect Rudy Fabiano.

As an architect and interior designer, I am fortunate to be able to visit and review numerous types of fitness facilities in locations all over the US. In the evaluation of these clubs, the most common flaw I encounter is the inconsistency of the overall design and décor.  The lobbies may be beautiful, but by the time we are deep inside the building, the look and feel of the club can become quite different. Imagine going to a great restaurant with a fantastic vibe at the bar, and then getting seated in a bare bones back room. You would feel that something was missing, disconnected from your expectations. Even if the food was good, you’d be a little disappointed.


When your focus is on delivering a diverse range of services in your club, having a good design strategy that unifies the whole club can be easily overlooked. But just like a good business plan, the success is in the details. The art of designing spaces that support the social needs of our members, where they can enjoy time with their friends, activities, time to reflect and grow, and the ability to enjoy being alone, as well as in groups, can have a profound effect on the success of a club.

A successful club design is much more complex than arranging programming and services or placing the equipment in a row; rather it is tying all the diversity a club has to offer into a well choreographed presentation that your members will actually enjoy. Providing a consistent design quality will help make your members’ experience not just good, but great.

This is especially true for larger clubs that incorporate sports, due to the great amount of space and diverse programming areas. As programming has grown to include pools, court sports, multiple programming rooms, expanded family services and kids’ activities, senior classes, multiple functional classes and more, the architectural challenge has been to fit all these entities together in an affordable way that makes good design sense. The goal of the facility is to house not only these diverse uses, but more importantly the users, harmoniously.


What can help pull all these areas together are the club’s pathways, halls and social nodes (hubs): the connector spaces that everyone shares and experiences. Providing good way-finding and aesthetic consistency along these paths is the simplest approach to pulling it all together.

There is ample opportunity for introducing interesting floor, wall and ceiling treatments, and decorative lighting can really accent special areas, entry ways, lounges and marketing areas, and provide a pleasing rhythm for the movements that occur. These should lead to social nodes – areas specifically designed for non-exercise activities, such as relaxation areas before the locker rooms, and seating areas around the group exercise rooms where members who are waiting for classes can interact and become acquainted.

We have championed these spaces for a long time and believe that the importance of informal and formal meeting areas throughout the club for members to engage in should not be underestimated. Think about a string with dots that are placed at important junctions or events as you move throughout the club: the string is the path and the dots are the nodes. These nodes are intimate lounges that help support and elevate other events – they become local gathering spaces of the club. Providing these places, rather than just one big lounge, will help make your club socially relevant.


Social relevance is a key to member retention. The effect of social networking on programming and design is already profoundly shaping the expectations of members, who want to be part of a larger community, but interact regularly with a select few, all on their own schedule. This phenomenon needs to be accommodated by design. How to be big club – community – but also create a sense of intimacy, and individuality, is a design paradox. I liken this to creating small virtual neighbourhoods in your clubs which would attract different individuals to form spontaneous groups for specific events. I may be in a class of 40 people, but I will probably have a smaller group that I bond with during class. Designing spaces to encourage and promote this bonding is crucial.


From a purely spatial perspective, as we add more programming spaces, the workout floor is shrinking. Group rooms, such as extreme fitness zones, yoga, Pilates, women-only, large group fitness, cycling, mind exercise rooms and  cardio theatre all need to be legitimately organised and designed. A yoga studio should feel like one, and not a leftover space.

If the social nodes are the gathering places of the club, the main exercise floor is still the great mingling hall. Everyone does some form of weight training. As such, bringing design onto the floor can rework this room into something that appeals to everyone, and not just an equipment holder. Rather than overpowering, they should feel majestic, yet have an intimate touch. As the heart of the common spaces, paying good design attention to this area can be a major differentiator in your market. Materials not normally see on the workout floor, interesting design features, proper lighting and abundant natural light are a great visual element that will make a statement.


As for décor, there is no one style to bring flair and fun into fitness. Earth tones have their place, but as you seek to influence more people to join, look to other styles for inspiration. Styles such as modern hip, dressed down casual or high end resort can all play a part in supporting the diversity of clubs, and thus speak to the wider audience you seek.

The role of colour has been overestimated and materials underestimated in what a club will look and feel like. Certainly, having  great colour in a space can help define it and bring it to life, but colour alone, without texture or changing light, is merely a painted wall that will age very quickly. The mood and ambience of a space is the interaction of colour, light, and form. The idea that we can simply paint walls to bring excitement and style to our spaces is a myth. A great space can be all white and still be a great space. By form, I mean the creation of the spaces we are in – the proportion, the height as it relates to the width, how light enters a room. It is these feelings that stay with a member when they leave. This overall design experience creates a memory map that builds and offer reasons to come back. When you hear someone say ‘that was a really nice space to be in, it felt really good’, you know they will be back – and telling others about it.

We can choose to simply provide a place to work out, or a place that is firmly part of our members’ lives. Create a clear sense of design and flow for the entire club and you will elevate the experience for everyone. Your members don’t come to your club for exercise alone. At their best, the clubs we create can be much more than ‘the gym’ for our members: they can be healthy, beautiful and inspiring places where members enjoy being, and where they want to come back to. In short, they can be places worthy of our members’ loyalty.