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Sacramento State Rec & Wellness Center Reflects Good Design Decisions

Aug. 10, 2009

Unlike other campus fitness facilities that focus on exercise alone, Sacramento State’s new Recreation and Wellness Center will be the heart of student life, uniting fitness, medical care, and social activity spaces under one roof. The combination of these vital aspects of student life will form a synergy in that the success of one will directly benefit the others. Serving as the new physical and cultural emblem of campus identity, Sacramento State’s Center is a fitting example of society’s growing interest in wellness beyond mere pampering.  

The center will provide whole-healthcare for 28,000 students and 3,400 faculty and staff through a broad spectrum of amenities and services: a rock climbing wall, four basketball courts, a large multi-activity court for sports like indoor hockey or soccer, studios for cardio, weight training, and an array of exercise classes, a pharmacy, a lab, as well as health offices for physical therapy, nutrition, optometry, and mental health.

Bringing the medical and physical aspects of good health into one location will not only strengthen the relationship between the two, but also generate a host of unexplored opportunities. What will happen, for example, when students are able to combine basketball and nutrition, or physical therapy and meditation?  As Leslie Davis, executive director of Sacramento State’s University Union explains, “We want to give our students the ability to go to the Recreation and Wellness Center for a check-up with a doctor, and if it's determined that that student needs to lose 10 pounds, we want the doctor to be able to make a follow-up appointment on the spot with an exercise trainer under the same roof.” 

The new Recreation and Wellness Center will be the second building on the Sacramento State campus to pursue LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. As a result of Chancellor Reed’s 2006 mandate, all forthcoming construction in the California State University system will make use of sustainable building practices.

While the Recreation and Wellness Center will not be an iconically green building with easily identifiable environmental features like photovoltaics, it will be a reflection of good design decisions, like orientation to natural light, as well as good construction decisions, like sustainably harvested wood, quality insulation, and formaldehyde-free glue. As Burton Miller, AIA design principal, explains, “The sum of these decisions, while not glamorous or recognizable to the average user, represent the low-tech, common-sense ways that architects can promote the longevity of a building. Above and beyond the LEED rating system is the goal of designing buildings that really work and serve the people and activities that they are intended for. Providing quality at that level engenders true sustainability.”

To signal the center’s significant role in campus life, students will enter through a grand atrium with a monumental, 40-foot-wide oculus. At night, the oculus will emanate a soft light, serving as a beacon for the campus. As Burton Miller explains, “Like many California campuses, Sacramento State has grown incrementally, one building at a time, with no cohesive design vocabulary. Especially given that the center will define the largest quad and hub of the campus, we sought to design a place of memorable form and strong identity - a place where students will feel a sense of belonging.”

The sweeping, largely transparent facade of the center will also reveal the activity and excitement of the building to the main quad. As John Davis, AIA managing principal, explains, “Standing in front of the center’s 420-foot-long facade will be like watching a panoramic, multi-screen movie with glimpses of students exercising on equipment, practicing yoga, or performing martial arts. The large expanses of glass on the facade enabled us to both activate the quad and flood the inside with natural light.”

The Recreation and Wellness Center will not only be a place to go for health and exercise, but also a place to learn.  With approximately 300 opportunities for student employment and special internships available for those majoring in disciplines like physical therapy, the center will strengthen several academic programs. Students in Sacramento State’s fitness facility design class, for example, will be able to participate in the making of the center through researching and ultimately producing the list of exercise equipment that will be used. Students have already decided upon one particular piece of equipment, however: stationary bikes that allow users to check e-mail.

The new Recreation and Wellness Center represents a multi-year approvals effort as many new buildings in the CSU system require a referendum. In short, students vote on the creation of new facilities - a decision that involves an increase in student fees. Given that the students who decide to raise fees in favor of a new building will graduate before the project is ever completed, the referendum demonstrates that students take an active and thoughtful role in the future of their institution.

The referendum also ensures student support for the architectural direction of a project. Architects at Hornberger + Worstell were intimately involved in the visioning and approvals process, interviewing students and administrators about the needs of the campus, and presenting their design work to the student body for review and comment. 

Hornberger + Worstell was in part able to convince the student body of the merit of their design because of how it differed from typical institutional facilities. Because Hornberger + Worstell specializes in hospitality projects like the new Ritz-Carlton Highlands in Lake Tahoe or the W Hotel in San Francisco, the meaning of amenity, comfort, and grandeur were close to heart in taking on the Sacramento State project. As Burton Miller says, “We visited a lot of rec centers, and none of them had a sense of ceremony. It was one maze-like corridor after another. The public spaces in high-end hotels, on the other hand, are choreographed sequences  that ceremoniously guide people through. While the Sac State Recreation Center is not a hotel, we did want the public spaces to activate the experience. Someone who is used to doing low budget academic projects – its just not the right mind set for creating engaging, amenable spaces and experiences.”

Given today’s discerning student population, high-quality facilities like Sacramento State’s Center are essential recruiting tools. While several schools might offer comparable academic programs, having a campus that provides a high quality of life is what ultimately determines a student’s choice. Many California State Universities are commuter campuses in which students could, if they wanted, drive to school, attend class, and return to the parking lot without any social interaction. Building places for students to be together and to feel a sense of ownership of place is therefore a crucial element in the experience of school. As Leslie Davis says, “We're currently thinking of all of the ways that students can celebrate this building throughout its construction process. From a cement-pouring party to a topping out party, we want students to know that this is their building.”

The Recreation and Wellness Center is on course to open in 2010 and will complete the second of four phases of the campus master plan for recreation, sports, and wellness. Promoting physical fitness has long been seen as one of the key roles of education, although as Sacramento State’s new Center and future health-related plans illustrate, the emphasis on such beliefs has greatly increased. Hornberger + Worstell is pleased to be a part of Sacramento State’s new Recreation and Wellness Center with the help of a team that includes health design firm Ellerbe Becket, green build consultants Simon & Associates, interior designer Phyllis Martin-Vegue, McCarthy Construction, Tony Moayed of TMCS, and Entre Prises Climbing Walls. 

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