Christy Radecic
They once served primarily as changing rooms and private places to seek treatment, but today’s locker rooms are a hub for many activities and purposes.

A changing role for locker rooms

Oct. 5, 2023
Locker rooms on today's campuses have become a hub for many activities and purposes.

Being competitive on the field of play begins in the locker room. This is true not only for athletes, who increasingly rely on these facilities and their amenities to prepare and train for competition, but also for the schools they represent.

High-performing athletic facilities are critical to recruiting and producing leading athletic programs. But the arms race of constantly outperforming rivals with newer, cutting-edge facilities is not sustainable at any level.

One approach to keeping a school competitive is pursuing a holistic approach to its locker room facilities. As with any attempt to be all-inclusive, versatility and customization to the school it serves are, of course, key.

The role of the locker room has changed significantly over the years. These spaces once served primarily as changing rooms and private places to seek treatment. But today’s locker rooms are a hub for many activities and purposes, some directly related to athletic endeavors and others more attuned to enhancing the student-athlete experience.

Beyond the general expansion of purpose and need, how a particular locker room effectively functions will vary widely based on several factors that are not limited to a particular sport or season.

New purposes 

Crafting an interior locker room design that is multifunctional and easily adaptable for both daily routines and game-day scenarios requires some initial reconnaissance.

A fundamental and necessary step for a design team is taking time to observe how an existing facility is being used by athletes, coaches, trainers and support staff. How do they flow through the space before and after practice, as well as during competition? Are their movements through the space sequential? Are there any overcrowding points or dead areas? Are the furniture, fixtures and amenities arranged in a logical, purposeful order? Can equipment be accessed easily?

The ability to perform tasks efficiently is critical, especially at the collegiate level, where the number of hours a team is allowed to practice is strictly regulated and enforced. A design that incorporates the observed sequences to provide a thoughtful flow of movement will enable players and coaches to operate in a seamless manner, while avoiding backtracking and congestion.

A locker room has the potential to serve purposes beyond its utilitarian function. As any coach will tell you, camaraderie and team chemistry are critical to success, and those bonds often are formed in the locker room.

Teams often cultivate pregame rituals involving the entire team. To enhance the atmosphere and provide adequate space, designers must understand the team dynamics. Music and specialty lighting create an immersive environment that fosters team connection and motivation. Incorporating touchscreen control panels for lighting and premium audio systems are ideal for seamlessly achieving this goal.

Conversely, some athletes prefer privacy before a game to prepare mentally. Creating a dedicated quiet space or incorporating additional privacy into a locker room design can be useful for both pregame and daily activities.

Technology tools

In terms of interior aesthetics, a great way to introduce flexibility and customization into a locker room is through digital displays on the walls in place of traditional graphics.

Video monitors and OLED displays will enable a team to instantly personalize and update the space with the team's logo and graphics, player photos, recognitions and awards, motivational messages, as well as practice and game information. During recruiting visits, these displays can be used to make prospective signees feel like part of the team by highlighting their photos and accomplishments.

Because digital displays can be changed instantly and even automatically, they are especially beneficial in facilities shared by more than one team.

Space is almost always at a premium. Therefore, every inch should be optimized; the design should identify ways to repurpose an area aside from its primary purpose. For example, a player lounge can be transformed to serve as a suite for hosting visitors during a recruiting or parents’ weekend, or a training area can be used for serving team meals. Having adequate storage nearby is always a top consideration to accommodate quick transformations by swapping out furnishings and equipment.

Social media plays a major role in recruiting and fan engagement. Not every program has the available square footage to dedicate space specifically for video and photography production. Adequate storage and flexibility are once again imperative to make production equipment easily accessible to execute these tasks within a modern locker room.  

Flexibility’s true talent

When designing a locker room, it is important to recognize, at some point, the facility will undergo renovation. Over its lifespan, an institution will need to alter how the space is configured, furnished and branded.

Even in its original iteration, there will likely be a need to repurpose areas on a weekly, monthly or seasonal basis to accommodate team activities and to maximize the value of the space at any moment. 

Maximum flexibility is best achieved when designing the building’s shell. Incorporating a structural system with an organized grid so that columns can be spaced at the greatest possible distance will result in large, open areas of space. Columns that are placed too closely may create obstacles when renovating and result in underused space. Modular walls and dividers can be incorporated to temporarily separate larger spaces when necessary.

After the structural system has been determined, focus then turns to the internal systems that will bring the project to life. Raceways such as conduit and cable tray will ensure that power and data can be readily available throughout the facility.

What serves as a simple storage space today may need to be converted in a few years to a training room or office. Transmission equipment and technology will likely evolve over time, and the system infrastructure should be designed to accommodate changes. To facilitate regular building maintenance and future renovations, it is critical to maintain above-the-ceiling access to not only power and data lines, but also plumbing and HVAC utilities.

The game plan for funds

Almost any coach would prefer to have an ultra-premium new locker room, but a project’s budget and scope will often dictate the amenities available in each space. By prioritizing funds and selecting key, impactful moments to concentrate on, project teams will be able to enhance the use of every square foot to optimize its value.

A more cost-efficient renovation can still produce significant improvements and efficiencies, while including highly appealing features that will turn an athlete’s head.

Renovations regularly present challenges. Assessing existing conditions will enable designers to establish an optimal layout that fits the program’s goals while adhering to constraints. For example, converting an existing locker room suite under stadium seating into a space with an open floor plan can be tricky because of irregular column spacing, resulting in empty cavities or conflicts with new utility layouts.

Existing structures and building systems can create low or varying ceiling heights that can also create problems. Areas where weight training equipment is used or practice drills are performed will require higher clearance than changing areas. Not all spaces and equipment can fit seamlessly into an existing building. This is where the creativity of the designer becomes critical.

Recently, increases in both material and labor costs have greatly affected previously established construction budgets at many schools, forcing limits on the amount of square footage in a construction project. Other times, limited square footage is dictated by a constrained site.

In either case, designing more versatility and adaptability into a structure at the onset will maximize its utility and extend its lifespan, resulting in a more sustainable solution economically and with regard to social and natural resources.

Another option that may help in times of limited budget is to build the entire exterior shell and then partition off the interior, furnishing and equipping only the space that is needed immediately. Completion of the remainder of the facility can be completed over subsequent budget years.

Keep the athlete in mind

School administrators, leaders, and coaches have many priorities when planning and budgeting for new or renovated locker room facilities. The most effective way of arriving at winning solutions is by designing with their athletes in mind. By focusing on their specific needs and habits, and customizing designs accordingly, facility planners can achieve cost-efficient and sustainable outcomes and provide a cutting-edge experience for students as they evolve from recruit to athlete to proud alum.

About the Author

Rachel Crafton-Stiver

Rachel Crafton-Stiver, AIA, is a sports architect with Goodwyn Mills Cawood in Auburn, Alabama. As a former college athlete, Rachel brings a unique perspective to the design of athletic facilities, using her expertise as both end-user and architect to achieve the desired outcome. 

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