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Facility Design and Construction 101, Part One

Before you commit to a big project, research the users, the space and programs, and of course the funding.

Shiny, solid floors. An upgraded stereo and microphone system. Brand-new equipment. Many fitness facility managers look around their club and can rapidly envision what needs to be acquired or improved. The facility design and construction process itself, however, is not as quick. So many questions need to be answered. How much square footage do you need? What are the current and future programs? Where will you store equipment? These are just a few.

Many factors influence facility design and construction, including building standards; federal, state and local laws; and financial and land resources. The goal of this three-part series is to make fitness managers aware of key elements in the planning and building process, with a focus on group fitness and personal training spaces. This series is not meant to take the place of guidance from experienced facility design and construction professionals. The first installment covers programming, users, space requirements and financing.

Reasons to Build

Group fitness and personal training programs come in many sizes. A multipurpose facility or recreation center may offer classes and one-on-one training alongside aquatic programs, team sports, massage therapy and outdoor recreation. A smaller fitness business may focus solely on group fitness or personal training, and it may offer just one type of service.

Let’s look at two examples from the same city. In 2010, the University of South Alabama, in Mobile, replaced a small facility built in 1993 with an 116,000-square-foot student recreation center. Why didn’t they simply renovate? Because research indicated that the growing student population would be better served with a much larger building. The programs for group fitness and personal training expanded from a single 1,750-square-foot room to three fitness studios and a personal training suite—more than 5,700 square feet. The number of group fitness classes doubled. The studios are also used by the university’s health, physical education and leisure studies department for academic fitness classes.

In 2011, on the other side of the city, Lucille Allen decided to open Mobile’s first Bikram yoga studio. “I’m a native of California, and there’s a Bikram yoga studio on practically every block,” Allen says. “I wanted to bring Bikram yoga to a place where there wasn’t a studio.” She now offers approximately 20 classes per week in a 1,400-square-foot practice room that was specifically designed to accommodate the hot temperatures and ventilation needed.

These facility owners launched their projects for different reasons; however, both of them did the requisite research. Before you do anything, research and specify your reasons for building (or adding on), and ensure that the end product serves the users. Depending on resources and legislation, a renovation or retrofit may be more appropriate than a rebuild. “Renovation” means the building will be restored to a state of good repair. “Retrofit” involves adding components that were not part of the original facility.

Programs and Users

When you tackle facility design, consider the constructed space, which should accommodate current programs and users as well as future fitness trends and membership growth. Survey current members or form committees to determine which fitness classes and programs are desired—which in turn may influence how a space is constructed. For example, if members request programs that use TRX® Suspension Trainers™, design the facility to anchor the suspension trainers and provide the recommended space per user. If several programs include high-impact exercise, select flooring that absorbs the force.

Allen anticipated the number of users of her studio based on the city’s population. Other Bikram yoga studio owners told her that to have a viable business she needed to be in a city with a population of at least 200,000 people. Once she chose Mobile, she partnered with a commercial real estate agent who showed her specific statistics, including age and income, for the areas around potential properties.

Tomorrow’s market leaders are harder to pinpoint, obviously, but fitness trend reports can give you an idea of how exercise programs change over the years. The American College of Sports Medicine’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends indicates that Pilates was popular from 2008 to 2010, for example, but dropped out of the top 10 in 2011 and 2012 (Thompson 2011). Core training, on the other hand, has remained in the top 10 for several years (Thompson 2012). Also think about technology, such as social media and mobile apps. According to the 2011 ACE Trend Report (ACE 2010), mobile apps provide motivational support that complements in-person services. As a result, a personal trainer who provides clients with online workouts may not need as much brick-and-mortar space.

Space Requirements

Once you have a handle on programs and users, you’ll have a better idea of the square footage needed. ACSM (2012) recommends allocating 10–14 square feet per member and 40–60 square feet per piece of fitness equipment. The specific space per piece of equipment depends on the manufacturers’ recommendations; however, a 3-foot buffer around each piece of equipment is expected. A personal training studio with large cardiovascular and strength equipment may need more space than a studio with small, portable equipment.

The same square footage (40–60 square feet) is recommended per user in a group exercise class (ACSM 2012). However, you may need more space per user in a step class than in a dance class. Don’t simply consider the amount of space needed for a piece of equipment; indoor cycling participants also need space between bikes to adjust the seat and to stretch.


A variety of financing methods are available when you’re funding a new space or upgrading an existing one. You may not be accountable for the actual financing, but the funding source and budget may determine the programs offered or the fees charged for them. A loan or bond is often secured initially to pay for a new facility. The income to repay that may come from multiple sources.

Tax revenue. Government-generated sources include property tax, sales tax and income tax. A city facility or a state university’s recreation center budget may be funded primarily by tax revenue.

Gifts. Gratuitous income, or gifts, may come from fundraisers, bequests or annual campaigns. For example, many YMCAs have a yearly “Strong Kids” campaign to raise revenue for low-income families.

Membership fees. Earned income is cash generated from membership fees and charges. In larger fitness businesses, group exercise classes often are included in a membership at no extra cost; a smaller facility with a niche offering, such as Allen’s Bikram yoga studio, may charge per class rather than charging a membership fee. Additional income may come from charges for small-group training, fitness assessments or personal training.

The interest earned on investments, dividends or real estate appreciation may contribute to a facility’s budget. A studio owner may invest the income from membership fees and generate more income. All resources may fluctuate, depending on the economy. A facility’s income source may affect the quantity and type of indoor cycles purchased, the number of instructors hired or the ability to acquire new software for personal training management.

In Part Two of this series, we’ll discuss how to come up with a design based on the money available and the space required.

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ACE (American Council on Exercise). 2010. The future looks bright: Top fitness trends for 2011. www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/1052/the-future-looks-bright-top-fitness-trends-for/; retrieved Mar. 15, 2013.

ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine). 2012. ACSM’s Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Thompson, W.R. 2011. Worldwide survey of fitness trends for 2012. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal, 15 (6), 9-18.

Thompson, W.R. 2012. Worldwide survey of fitness trends for 2013. ACSM’s Health and Fitness Journal, 16 (6), 8-17.

Sarah Schrenk, MS

I have worked in fitness for ten years. I used to be a biologist and found it very unfulfilling. After a few years of teaching group fitness classes after work, I returned to school to get my master's degree in Clinical Exercise Physiology. I have experience working one-on-one with many types of special populations and can teach many group fitness formats. Currently, my full-time job is the managing the group exercise and personal training program at a university recreation center. I'm also adjunct faculty at the university and a presenter for a national certification company.

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