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Brian Rigby, the director of design at Gro Development, talks innovative design in 2022. 

Brian Rigby has been with Gro Development for 10 years. During this time, he’s had the opportunity to witness the impact informed development and design has on the communities of the 500 facilities his team has worked with. Below, he shares insights on where the industry is headed in terms of facility design and how to stay ahead of the curve. 

Why is now the time for community centers to rethink facility design? 

It is hard to imagine an industry that hasn’t been challenged as a result of the pandemic, be it hospitality, higher education or health care. However, the impact our community centers have on the community is diminished if we are not providing relevant places or programs.

Most of our facilities were designed in a different era for a different need, and as we emerge to a post-2020 world, these same facilities may not be able to meet community needs and expectations. The impact of not only the pandemic but also climate change and an increased awareness of social justice, equity, diversity and inclusion have shaped our mindset toward how we plan to live in the near future. I think we will see community centers shift from a sole focus on fitness and recreation to a more well-rounded offering. It will allow these facilities to become true centers of community by providing gathering spaces with a range of program and membership venues that will meet community expectations and impact members’ lives.

Can you share the difference between having spaces for programming and spaces for membership? 

I tend to think of membership spaces as venues that would be appealing for a potential member to see themselves using as we are giving a tour. These spaces tend to be user-driven and often appeal to a member based on their needs and preferences. For example, if a young family is touring a facility and it does not have an appealing offering for a 10-year-old, that whole family may choose not to join. But if the Child Watch Zone is appealing, has age-appropriate zones and features the whole family can see themselves doing together, then it may be an easy decision to become members.

Programming spaces need to be scheduled and often require staffing. Gymnasiums for community sports, lap pools for swim team or aqua-based exercise and multi-purpose rooms for community health classes are examples of these spaces. These are spaces for classes or other programs to be conducted. That doesn’t mean program venues cannot be appealing or drive membership increases. Gymnasiums that traditionally sat empty for long periods of the day have seen activity levels rise as a result of drop-in pickleball and large-scale group exercise. Membership venues get people in the door, but program venues deliver on a promise that center made to a community. You need both. 

What are some examples of changes to facility design you suggest leaders start looking into? 

At a minimum, I suggest ensuring your facility is meeting the upgraded expectations on healthy interior environments through modifications to the existing air delivery systems, enhanced cleaning standards, and making permanent any “temporary” changes users have come to expect during the pandemic. Users have a heightened sense of safety and health of their environments and being “good enough” is not good enough anymore. 

Additionally, social gathering in a safe environment will be even more important than before. It may migrate from something you offer before or after a program or workout, to a primary reason for membership. As people may have moved to another location, may not return to an office or had childcare needs change because of the pandemic, these gathering places will continue to thrive as third places. In some cases, community centers may become a second place as less people may return to an office. 

Looking ahead, how can these changes help centers reach more of their community members and increase membership?  

Membership is really a result of a center’s impact and engagement with their community. It just happens to be an economic engine that drives most of our mission work within communities. If you are providing venues and programs your community is looking for, then the membership takes care of itself. Our goals for community recreation centers are not to make a lot of money and let it sit in a bank. It is to ensure everyone has access to our facilities regardless of their ability to pay, that we are providing services to address community needs, and that we have an impact in our user’s daily lives.

What tips or advice can you share with readers to help them start rethinking their facility design? 

New construction is expensive and we renovate more facilities on an annual basis than we build new buildings. Start by understanding what your current square footage allocation is in your existing facility and which spaces are obsolete or underutilized and prime for reimagining. We typically see large locker room spaces get downsized and the resulting area may become a group exercise studio or community space like a STEM lab or adventure zone. Injecting these venues increase the appeal to a modern member.

I always encourage facilities to upgrade their common areas — lobbies, corridors — with new finishes and furnishings to keep up with trends and modern usage patterns. Not everyone will visit every part of your facility, but everyone will walk through your front door. First impressions matter and these common areas should always be in top shape.

Also, pay attention to generational and community trends, not just the historical venues that have traditionally appeared in community centers. For example, our highly-used venues for teens tend to be focused on technology, arts and non-traditional sports like parkour and e-gaming. If we are not providing features that appeal to modern teens, teen centers will sit empty and underutilized. While we try to predict future trends, no one has a crystal ball, so spaces should be designed for flexibility in not only programming but to respond to future adaptation as well. 

Photo courtesy of Gro Development: The R. Richard Bittner YMCA in Davenport, Iowa, opened December 2020.

Brittany Howard

Brittany is the editor of Community Rec Magazine. Reach her at brittany@peakemedia.com.

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