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Engaging the Community Through Flexible Design

In the 1980s, with the rise of indoor track as a recognized NCAA sport, field houses were a novel design solution primarily designed to help universities keep pace. Today, the value and prevalence of the field house lives on, but renovations and new construction projects are no longer driven solely by the needs of collegiate athletes. Instead, universities are investing in multi-use, large-volume facilities that provide access to shared amenities for the broader campus and even sometimes a neighboring community.

The following article was written by Sasaki principal Bill Massey, AIA, LEED AP, and was originally published on the NIRSA website.

Engaging the community through flexible design

From varsity, intramural and club teams to casual sports enthusiasts and local community members, not many schools can afford to offer individual, state-of-the-art facilities to meet the diverse needs of each distinct user group. The flexible, functional design of field houses provides space for competitive athletes while also meeting demands for a wide range of other activities. Programming options such as group exercise, nutritional classes, yoga, physical therapy and more all become possible with flexible design. Their versatility also means students don’t have to be NCAA athletes to take advantage of the space.

Ultimately, multi-use facilities help schools maximize on investment—they are especially important for schools looking for compelling ways to remain competitive in attracting incoming students. As colleges and universities seek to accommodate varied activities, these institutions are actively courting those that make up the expected increase of 2.1 million students between 2013 and 2024 (National Center for Education Statistics).

Without compromising on athletic functionality, designers are helping campuses engage their communities and meet these myriad challenges. Here are a few key aspects of developing a field house that provides shared access amenities for the broader campus and even beyond.

Integrating versatility

Embracing versatility through design can help your department serve not only the needs of a growing student body, but also help serve the needs of your local community. Versatility addresses questions of how to design a space that can accommodate as many varied activities as possible for the most people without compromising the facility’s primary function.

Considerations for not only layout and size but also programming and events can help lead to a versatile field house that meets a greater variety of daily needs without compromising your campus’s capacity to accommodate larger events like concerts and speakers, commencement ceremonies, or summer camps. The Virtue Field House at Middlebury College in Vermont was designed to serve more purposes than the previous athletics-only facility—known as “the bubble”—that formerly housed Middlebury’s indoor competition track and floor space for field events.

Along with the team from Middlebury, our team sought to increase the width of the field house by placing the sprint lanes outside of the track oval. This design, combined with the use of synthetic field turf in place of traditional indoor athletic amenities like basketball and tennis courts, opened up the inside of the track for use by athletes of many different sports. They can now use the field area to train year-round, regardless of the weather conditions outside. The turf also provides a space where friends can throw a Frisbee around, or for community sporting events on evenings and weekends.

The teams also found creative ways to put otherwise underused space to work—transforming a hallway into a cardio balcony, and a timing room that was used infrequently into a flexible event-ready space that can be used for group exercise, spectator viewing, or alumni gatherings. Designing with versatility in mind leverages spatial synergies and accommodates flexible programming to ensure that the space has the potential to cater to a broad range of user groups.

Engaging with end users

When designing a facility that will serve both students and members of the community, thought must be given to how each user group will interact with and experience the space. The arrival experience at the Virtue Field House was specifically designed to be welcoming to the public. The entrance features a generous, pedestrian-friendly plaza marked by minimalist plantings and pre-cast seating, which offers a human-scaled place to rest and socialize. With glass as the dominant exterior material, the activity and energy of the field house’s interior is clearly visible from the outside. The glass eliminates barriers, inviting visitors to enter into and engage with the space.

Inside, the entrance lobby features a digital wall and interactive screen that showcases the history of Middlebury sports and student life. This space is the central hub of the complex, and provides access to a variety of specialty facilities including a pool, squash courts, the hockey and basketball arenas, and the new field house. Care was given to ensure intuitive circulation and way-finding for community members who might be experiencing the space for a single event, or only sporadically.

Reducing environmental impact

Sustainability is a central consideration of any modern design, and Virtue Field House designers embraced the challenge of implementing sustainable strategies without sacrificing design and utility. At Middlebury, we were able to eliminate the need for air conditioning by installing eight 24-foot wide ceiling fans. Other design elements that reduce energy usage include high-efficiency LED lighting, super-insulated walls and ceilings, and fine-tuning the building’s siting and use of exterior glass to enable significant daylighting. These design details contribute to the school’s larger sustainability initiatives and will help this project achieve a rating of LEED Gold from the U.S. Green Building Council. In addition to adding to a campus’ larger sustainability goals, high-efficiency strategies such as these also offer significant reductions in operating costs over the life of the building.

On projects such as Middlebury’s Virtue Field House, designers enjoy working with schools that are looking to make the best use of space, keep operating costs to a minimum, and also captivate student athletes, the general student and campus community, and the public to use the facilities.

At Middlebury, many of the challenges we faced along the way also presented new opportunities as we found exciting ways to transform a historically utilitarian and functional building into an inviting and inclusive space. We wanted to create a space that wasn’t just for athletes, but where students could run on the cardio deck or parents could watch their children’s soccer games. The teams took advantage of underused space while also incorporating unique design elements to attract and engage the public even if they were walking by the field house for the first time.

By embracing a creative approach to Middlebury’s athletic facilities, our teams established a new way to welcome current and prospective students, reinforce town-gown relationships, and design a building that celebrates the school’s traditions while serving as a building block for its future.

“Since opening this field house, we’ve seen a notable increase in physical education class sizes and intramural teams, who use the field house for indoor soccer and baseball scrimmages,” says Bob Smith, head coach of Middlebury’s baseball team. “The football team uses it on extremely hot preseason days, and the quality of practices—whether for track, baseball, soccer, or lacrosse—has increased immeasurably. Visiting teams and coaches are continually impressed at how professional our track meets are. The flexibility that the Virtue Field House offers has had a huge impact on engaging the athletics community here at Middlebury.”

Bill Massey is an architectural principal and leader in Sasaki’s sports practice. Sasaki Associates, Inc. has been an associate member of NIRSA since 1997.

Photos courtesy of Jeremy Bittermann.

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