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New Lessons in Design Learned From the Pandemic

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Bruce CarterBruce Carter

COVID-19 has affected every aspect of club operations and planning. The initial reaction of Governments related to clubs was understandable: Close everything, ensuring that no one could get COVID in a club. Many other types of businesses faced the same fate. Then, clubs quickly became proactive with better cleaning practices, social distancing with equipment and individuals, masks, temperature scanning and better filters for HVAC systems.

COVID has been a dramatic "game changer," one that, up until this time, has never been experienced by the industry. It appears that many Governmental entities, without much supporting data, felt more (and continued) restrictions were better. A club's environment was in question for safety, and no matter what a club did, it often seemed not to be enough. Yet, as a result of COVID, clubs and (businesses in general) are starting to learn new lessons from what they initially did to make their environments safe. Now, with vaccines becoming available in the near future, clubs will get back to some kind of "new normal," and these new lessons will shape the future of club design and operations.

The first thing that clubs quickly incorporated was increased cleaning practices. Hand sanitizers, wiping down everything with wipes and spraying hard surfaces with disinfectant have proven to be invaluable in making people feel safe, yet different studies promote that the virus gets transmitted more as an airborne pathogen and not so much from touching surfaces. The jury still seems to be out; however, it can be assumed that clubs will continue their new levels of cleaning practices, but probably not to the extent they do so now.

Yet, one side effect that will have to be dealt with in the future is the added amount of cleaning chemicals that are in a space. In addition, one of the things that has been strongly promoted is the use of antimicrobial finishes and materials. These surfaces resist bacteria but are covered with strong chemicals to do so. As a result, a number of the major architectural firms are no longer specifying such surfaces, and many health care systems, such as Kaiser Permanente, have banned such materials.

So, the question becomes: What can be done with increased chemicals used to fight an increase of viruses? The answer relates to one of the most significant things a club can do to achieve a healthier environment, and this will have a strong impact on future club new design and renovations. This is the HVAC system. Existing clubs have added UV filters and other types of filters, such as the new HEPA or MERV-13 filter to better remove bacteria and viruses from the air. Adding an advanced air cleaning unit and/or air purification device to an existing unit can increase the ability to collect pollutants from indoor air and how much air it draws through the cleaning or filtering element (expressed in cubic feet per minute). To get the optimal setup requires dealing with a HVAC professional to determine necessary system changes.

In addition, in rethinking air-filtration systems, clubs should look into operable windows. This, when designed with air-filtration systems, will bring more fresh air into spaces. The advantage of operable windows is that they not only bring in fresh air and dilute the airborne contaminants that pass from person to person, but they give the occupants of a space a greater feeling of safety. It is also recommended to reverse ceiling fans to mitigate polluted air.

Whatever the norm was for air movement and ventilation prior to COVID, assume that new systems will have up to 50% or more capability in achieving safer air quality.

The second lesson learned is that adding outdoor space can be a powerful asset to a club now and in the future. However, it is understood that adding outdoor exercise options are not available to most clubs due to restrictions of space, landlord restrictions and accessibility. Obviously, weather plays a strong role and feedback from different clubs is that the usage of outdoor space dropped noticeably when indoor space became available. Historically, outdoor exercise space has not been in strong demand when indoor space was available, yet COVID may change this dynamic. The lesson is that, if a club has the space outdoors, it should pursue programming options for the space, ideally making sure the space is covered, safe and exciting.

Doing push-ups in a parking lot next to an old Buick won't do in a post-COVID club offering. Probably, large multi-purpose clubs with available and accessible land are best able to optimize this option and any club that can provide such a well-planned-out offering should have a competitive advantage. One note to consider is that, where parking space is utilized for outdoor exercise, landlords are also requesting additional insurance coverage from the club for anyone who may get hurt in an area not covered in the club's policy.

Another asset for a club now and in the future is to implement biophilic design elements. Studies have shown that humans have an instinctual desire with nature (known as biophilia) and that plants (indoors or outdoors) helps people feel calm and relaxed. Plants typically have been used minimally in clubs, one reason being it is difficult to keep plants looking vibrant and healthy. If you work with a professional, they can best provide the proper indoor plant and tree offerings and the necessary ongoing upkeep.

The cost is worth the wonderful effect they have in dealing with the effects of COVID. They help to purify the air, add beauty to a space, absorb sound, reduce stress by making a space "feel" safer and overall add to the positive experience people are looking for in being in a club. Clubs of the future will have different areas of "plantscapes" as a key focal point (such as in the center of a workout area). Pandemics cause people to go into nature to feel safer, and adding nature to an indoor environment adds to the favorable effect someone feels when in a club.

Another lesson that was known but is now more at the forefront is because of the increased cleaning practices, it is more important than ever to select materials and finishes that are durable enough (and continue to look good) to withstand intense cleaning regimens. Also, designers need to make sure the spaces they design are easily accessible for cleaning, such as hard to reach spots. Even janitor closets in the future should be bigger because the role of cleaning will be more important than ever in a post-COVID world.

Obviously, wherever possible, touchless options will be the norm, and no new club will be built without touchless toilets, urinals, sinks, point of purchase stations, etc. Even doors entering into locker rooms will become a thing of the past.

One last thing that needs to increase as a result of COVID is communication. Communication of all of the things a club does to make for a safer, more enjoyable environment need to be regularly communicated. Everything that a club does has to be communicated by email, attractive signage, club monitors, website and word-of-mouth. No one will ever see an advanced ventilation or air filter system, but they sure need to know about it. And, this needs to be an ongoing communication.

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Safety has never been a key selling point, but COVID has changed that. Clubs in the future will be looked at by their programs, facilities, service and safety. Providing a wonderful, safe experience of excitement, inspiration and variety will once again make clubs the best option for many millions to improve their lives.

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