Club Industry: Two Health Club Designers Share The Effects of COVID-19 On Fitness Facility Design

Club Industry: Two Health Club Designers Share The Effects of COVID-19 On Fitness Facility Design

Catalyst Fitness
Designs that allow for social distancing are more important today than ever before. Catalyst Fitness, which has locations in New York, has room to spread out its equipment and members.

Whether or not your health club, studio, YMCA, JCC, university rec center or parks and rec facility has been allowed to reopen, you are aware that in the age of COVID-19, the design of your facility will change. Some of those changes may be temporary until a vaccine is widespread. But some of those changes will be long-term.

In this article, Rudy Fabiano, founder and owner of Fabiano Designs, share design changes that are necessary today and possibly into the future.

Key Factors in Creating Safe Spaces

By Rudy Fabiano, Founder and Owner, Fabiano Designs

On March 1, Fabiano Designs, the firm I founded almost 30 years ago and operate today, had 40 health and fitness projects in development scattered around the country and a few worldwide. By March 13, we were left with only two projects with most of my staff furloughed. Within weeks, COVID-19 had shut down health clubs almost globally, effectively grinding our industry to an abrupt halt. With revenue streams gone, most owners had no choice but to shut down all investments, including all building projects.

Four months in, after much research, I am considering what clubs will look like in the post COVID-19 future. How do we regain the confidence of our members that we are a safe place to be? What do we build today to protect our members and this industry from such a catastrophic event in the future?  

Although many variables in this ever-changing landscape make this difficult to predict, enough data exists to show that overall wellness is as important and relevant to our members as ever. In fact, if this pandemic has proven anything, it is that being heathy is everyone’s best defense against illness.

The cornerstone of our success has always been creating health. We do that by creating sacred spaces where members can feel safe, at their best, comfortable and connected. During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have worked out remotely, outdoors or found other activities to stay in shape, but now that clubs are reopening, they are coming back. Why?

Well, for many of them, being at the gym is an expression of their vitality and their commitment to their own health. Working out gives them control over their health and their lives. They come to these modern cathedrals of well-being because working out with others is motivating and inspiring. Here they can be alone, or they can be social with friends or make new acquaintances. They can train on the best equipment and have professionals to help them become the warriors they see in themselves.

We are entrusted to provide buildings that are safe and healthy. I believe that our clubs are already fairly safe and healthy. Understanding that the majority of transmission with this virus is airborne, in close proximity to others and for extended periods of time, key factors in providing a safe environment involve controlling air flow, outside ventilation and air volume. Our typical clubs have high ceilings and open spaces, which have ventilation systems that provide a good percentage of outside air that helps dilute the inside air and reduce any virus load that may exist. Potential problem areas, such as enclosed locker rooms, are most likely designed for negative air pressure, which means that air in those areas is not recirculated but is exhausted directly away from people. The heat and sweat produced by exercisers mean the average humidity level in most clubs is around 40 percent to 60 percent. Research shows that viruses respond poorly in that humidity range and thus become inactive.

These features in most clubs already have kept viral transmission in clubs statically low. A recent report from MXM/Medallia indicates that the positive transmission rates in clubs, tracking nearly 3.5 million check-ins, is 0.004 percent. That’s just about 140 members in 3.5 million check ins. Even though there may be some misinformed entities, the truth is that clubs are one of the safest places to be if you are indoors, in reference to this pandemic.

Besides the environment, the cleanliness of health clubs is part of the genetics of industry standards because it is one of the key benchmarks for success. The industry has been at the forefront of deep cleaning and sanitizing equipment as a matter of good business long before this pandemic hit.

Given the benefits of current systems and procedures, what additional measures can we take that will build confidence for members to return and keep the transmission rate low?

Technology. Technology, such as UV-C lighting is promising. It is a spectrum of light that we cannot see but can essentially render the virus inactive (dead). That’s the good news. The bad news is that direct contact with skin and eyes is harmful so it needs to be shielded, either enclosed or pointing away from people, which is somewhat limiting. This technology Is making its way into our fans, HVAC systems, ductwork and other components that shield people but zap the virus. We have used to goo effect an enclosed fan module for a number of years to eradicate bacteria in locker rooms that cause odors. Currently, work is being done on a UV wavelength called FAR UV that is harmless to humans but is effective in killing viruses. Many companies are investing in this UV technology in the hopes of producing an effective and safe delivery system. Many products are available now, but I would wait until the end of the year before investing a lot of money as better products at a lower cost will become available.

Hands-free. On another front, hands-free products are so affordable that every club should implement as many hands-free interactions as possible.

Filters. Increasing the rating of your filters is another easy move that will help trap viral particles in the filter. High-efficiency, MERV-rated filters can be accommodated by most modern units, but it’s best to check. You’ll also have to change the filters more often as trapped particles will resist airflow.

Anti-viral materials. A host of anti-viral surface products also are being introduced. However, most products currently specified in clubs, such as tiles and solid surfaces, already have those properties due to the high-usage wear-and-tear concerns.

What about people-centric design opportunities? A broader view of what clubs can be will create new sacred spaces members will love. Given the stress many people have experienced while being quarantined, people don’t just need to work out—they also need to chill.  Automated recovery via massage beds and chairs are already a staple in many fitness clubs. We believe in expanding these soft spaces to accommodate a greater range of services—meditation rooms, red light therapy, Himalayan salt rooms, and other recovery and wellness-based activities to help control stress, allowing the mind to relax and recover.

We need to take advantage of the well-researched information available to build in accordance with healthy building standards. Natural materials, abundance of light, connections to the outdoors and natural/assisted ventilation are important components for healthy spaces. The importance of natural light and the connection to the outside it provides is a natural link and extension of this concept. The opportunity exists to be able to open those windows, let the fresh air in, create bold spaces that redefine the line between inside and outdoors. Clubs can put in glass walls that are moveable and able to be opened easily to merge an outdoor patio, for example, with an enclosed yoga studio, creating a larger, safer space for your members to enjoy.  

Being outside is by far safer than being indoors. Exterior spaces are the least utilized opportunities for creating additional safe and functional areas for members. Traditionally, we thought of outside spaces only as possible workout areas, throwing some equipment to use on grass or whatever was there. However, those spaces were not really designed or well designated as a specific place. But today, we can create fitness gardens and playgrounds by turning a generic outdoor space into a sacred space for members. We do that by using the same design principles we use to create interior spaces except instead of using sheetrock, we can use planting, natural stone, flowers and trees.

Moving back inside, we still believe in promoting social areas, but these areas must be designed for flexibility. One large lobby or gathering area inside the club that can be reconfigured to accommodate social distancing or smaller group gatherings by moving furniture can play an important role in responding to possible future threats. Certainly, open fitness areas such as turf have become the hinge pin for flexible programming and varying group sizes when needed. These areas will continue to grow.

In the last two years, we started experimenting with small 8×10 training pods within the confines of a larger club. Last year in a new project in Buffalo, New York, we installed eight of these pods under a semi-enclosed mezzanine. These self-contained workout units were intended for individuals, trainers or friends to utilize for workouts. Similar to working out in the garage with my brothers when I was young, the idea was both retro and modern, allowing for some level of intimacy in a larger fitness setting. I can envision expanding this concept of micro workout spaces as a way for people to social distance while being part of the exciting overall energy of the club for multiple programming. It is similar to renting cabanas by a pool in a resort.

Clubs are a relevant and important part of our lives. There we find health and vitality, get motivation and expertise when we need it, and can be social or alone when we need that, too. Recognizing the importance of health clubs to a healthier, happier nation, we should take this time to expand our identity and influence by creating the next generation of sacred spaces.