Pause for sport

Andrew Kane from FaulknerBrowns Architects makes a case for investing in sustainable university sports facilities

All universities are being placed under increasing pressure to attract the most talented applicants to their institutions in what is fast becoming a hugely competitive marketplace.

As university fees continue to soar and the number of international students paying premium fees grows, so do expectations as to what they get for their money. The quality of the lifestyle on offer is becoming an increasingly significant factor for many institutions and is seen as a key differentiator to help them compete against their peers. With their potential to promote self-improvement and the all-important health and wellbeing agenda, university sports facilities are at the forefront of this lifestyle offering. This is forcing universities to seek new, appealing sports design solutions which impress students on open days and jump off the prospectus pages.

Higher education drivers

With a proud heritage in designing sports centres for both local communities as well as universities FaulknerBrowns Architects have seen at first hand the similarities, but more importantly the differences, between these two environments. “At face value a local authority sports centre is similar to a university campus sports facility,” says FaulknerBrowns partner Andrew Kane. “Yet if you speak to HE sports directors and look below the surface some distinctly different drivers soon become apparent.”

In recent months, following dialogue with a range of stakeholders, the firm has developed a new evaluation framework based on the key university sports centre drivers. This framework has become an essential tool in assessing the success of, and helping the briefing process for, new and improved facilities.

According to Kane, four key drivers have emerged:

* Fitness – to support improved health and wellbeing
* Participation – promoting engagement in a wide range of diverse sports
* Performance – competition-driven engagement in sport
* Community – sharing of facilities as a ‘bridge’ to the local community.

It is these drivers that form the basis of the new evaluation tool. Kane adds: “By presenting data in the form of a spider graph, we can identify the balance in emphasis of existing facilities but also use this to inform new projects. Once the balance in emphasis has been defined we can then focus on the design factors which support these four key drivers.”

He says that a number of specific design factors have emerged in response to these four drivers.


Quantity of cardio-vascular equipment is a high priority but increasingly students are becoming more body conscious so providing a ‘cool’ location to see and be seen in is vital. Separating performance sports training, for example the so-called ‘grunters and groaners’ using free weights equipment or weights machines, is also important in order to encourage a wider uptake for general fitness purposes.

Balancing usage profiles across the three terms needs to be considered because typically university use will peak in term one and then tend to fall off significantly towards terms two and three. Multi-purpose studios play a very important role because they support such a wide range of fitness activities as well as wider university activities during off-peak periods.

Kane says: “A recent trend is to have more than one of these spaces to allow for multiple events to be held at the same time. These areas can also be used for holding health and wellbeing fairs or educational classes. The space therefore needs to be prominently located and by being so can encourage a healthy lifestyle at the university and throughout the wider community.”


Participation seeks to increase the student engagement in individual or team sports. Flexibility and utilisation are essential for sports halls too. ‘Niche’ single-sport facilities can have poor usage and can fail to support a range of activities. For this reason the focus should be on flexibility, efficient use of space and high utilisation rates. Conversely, multi-purpose sports halls, or multi-use studio spaces can support a huge range of activities, sometimes even concurrently.

“Institutions need to remember that specialist competition facilities such as dedicated spectator seating, although nice to have, are unlikely to improve space efficiencies and don’t maximise utilisation,” says Kane.


Performance is all about training to the highest level possible for competitive sport, whether on behalf of a university club, representing the university at a local, regional or national level or even national representation.

For performance sport, dedicated specialist facilities are vital for training and development. Where space is limited the balance of participation use and performance training becomes difficult, requiring complex timetabling. The key, where possible, is to provide a greater quantity of space, a 12-court rather than four-court hall, for example, enabling participation and performance sport to occur simultaneously.

Dedicated fitness facilities, so called ‘strength and conditioning’ suites, allow the separation of rigorous training regimes from more casual fitness work. Space for coaches, perhaps in combination with testing suites, is also an important consideration.

A further consideration is the provision of elite competition facilities. However, this comes with the associated issue of space efficiencies and utilisation rates. Bleacher-type seating arrangements can offer a more flexible and space-efficient method of delivering general competition facilities.


Accommodating community use alongside university use may come at a price, both financial as well as in terms of the availability of facilities. Some institutions, though, actively promote such a sharing of facilities because it plays an important role in connecting town and gown. Lancaster University, for example, has incorporated a floating floor within their new swimming pool to support a greater diversity of community activities alongside the university usage.

Another benefit is that increased community use can also balance the peaks and troughs of university demands through the academic year.

The holy grail of sports facility design

Careful briefing and consideration of carbon footprint can massively improve utilisation as well as emissions performance too. New designs need to help institutions meet stringent carbon emissions targets set by funding bodies. Architects therefore have a responsibility to reduce environmental impact and implement energy-saving solutions in a bid to help save money, enhance corporate reputation and tackle climate change.

According to the Carbon Trust, by making a 10 percent improvement in the management of energy use, UK leisure facilities could save up to £70million each year and reduce carbon emissions by hundreds of thousands of tonnes.

Lancaster University, as an example, is ranked fifth in the UK in the THE Student Experience Survey 2013. The design and development of the university’s sports hub took two years, and ensured a high-quality facility which shows consideration to the surrounding area. The hub is 30 percent bigger than the university’s previous centre for sport and recreation which was opened in 1967. The building was designed to achieve the BREEAM ‘Excellent’ rating, which sets the standard for best practice in sustainable design.

The resulting development at Lancaster had a particular emphasis on sustainability, participation and community engagement. In fact since opening, the centre has seen an increase in membership of over 55 percent, together with a fivefold increase in community membership.

“By focusing on the balance of these four key drivers we can aim for the holy grail of sustainable university sports: an enhanced lifestyle offering, high utilisation and reduced carbon footprint,” adds Kane.

FaulknerBrowns Architects W:


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