Today's student recreation centers are a far cry from their predecessors. The typical student recreation center built during the 1960s and 1970s was a massive, windowless concrete structure. Many education institutions are using innovative methods to upgrade these buildings and bring in light and liveliness.

Texas Christian University in Fort Worth demolished about one-third of its existing 180,000-square-foot student recreation center, added about 100,000 square feet to the facility and re-skinned the entire building. It now presents a unified image on campus.

Some institutions also are interested in creating environments that are unique reflections of the institution's “brand.” A recent project at the University of Missouri-Columbia incorporated numerous visual allusions to the school nickname “Tigers.” At the University of South Carolina in Columbia, the recreation center — a gateway building to both the university and the city — recalls the colonial architecture of the core campus.

When a major addition is not practical or necessary to meet program needs, many institutions are adding transparent elements — perhaps an atrium entrance or curtain-walled fitness center — to existing recreation centers to create a new image.

New components

The majority of today's student recreations centers range from 80,000 square feet to 150,000 square feet. Within those walls is a remarkable array of amenities.

Leisure pools are popular with students. In addition to lap lanes, these pools may feature “lazy rivers,” bubblers, water sprays and spas — much like a community or a resort pool. For example, the leisure pool in the recreation center at Washington State University in Pullman has a 50-person spa. The University of Alabama at Birmingham has a leisure pool in its new 152,000-square-foot campus recreation center. A leisure pool typically is the most expensive part of the building to construct, operate and maintain. It takes a financial commitment from the institution.

In the last 10 years, wellness centers have become common in student recreation centers. These range from health information centers to sophisticated facilities offering an array of traditional and alternative or “integrative” wellness services. The University of Miami offers health information, testing and analysis, an examination room, personal training, a demonstration kitchen for nutrition programs, massage therapy and acupuncture.

A few institutions also have incorporated student health services into their recreation centers. Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles has student-health and psychological services in its recreation center, served by separate entrances. Texas Christian offers drug and alcohol counseling in its recreation center. These institutions report that offering student recreation, wellness and health services can create synergy; however, many institutions may hesitate to offer such services because of concerns about breaching student privacy.

Outdoor adventure is an increasingly popular form of recreation among college-age students. Many education institutions have included rope, challenge, orienteering and team-building courses in their facilities, and offer opportunities for kayaking, camping and other outdoor experiences.

Rock-climbing walls have become a staple offering. The newest walls have more climbing routes and more challenging climbs. A new climbing pastime, bouldering, is practiced on structures that are about 8 feet high so that students can use them without having trained partners with them.

Ice-climbing walls are a regional attraction, and the University of Maine in Orono has constructed one outside the entrance of its recreation center.

Some universities design their multiuse courts like a hockey rink, featuring recessed goals and rounded corners to accommodate a growing interest in floor hockey and indoor soccer. If the centers have a wood floor, these courts can double as basketball courts. Boston University recently completed a large multiuse court with a floor covering that enables hockey players to practice using rollerblades.

The right location

A student recreation center doesn't have to be the focal point of a campus. In fact, the student recreation center can become a catalyst for growing a new area of campus. Ten years ago, the University of Georgia in Athens constructed a recreation center on a “greenfield” site. Today, the Ramsey Center for Student Physical Activities is surrounded by a number of new academic buildings.

Many education institutions are interested in designing student villages in which housing, a student center and recreation center are in a cluster — sometimes as individual buildings and sometimes as fusion buildings that combine these functions into one structure. Boston University, the University of California — Davis, and Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., have variations of this approach.

The hottest trends in student recreation facilities reflect students' interests in many recreational and athletic pursuits and the institutional stake in remaining competitive in recruiting and retaining students. For a designer, the challenge is to create facilities that meet the training and performance demands of both casual and competitive athletes, accommodate multiple functions with ease, and reflect the spirit and character of each institution.

Body, AIA, RIBA, is a principal of Cannon Design, Los Angeles.