The rise of sports facilities


Sports facilities are evolving, from destinations for the select and passionate few to community facilities with universal appeal. Tom Drew, head of sports development at LK2, which specializes in sports and leisure development and architecture, discusses the role that good design plays in making venues a success. 

Investment in new, state-of-the-art sport facilities has traditionally been reserved for elite sport and even then, stringent budgets have sometimes limited their scope. Furthermore, ongoing support and investment is needed to maintain the London 2012 legacy alongside Team GB’s recent success at Rio 2016, to support less popular sports, to engage with the younger generation, and to encourage women to try traditionally male-dominated sports.

However, the strength and popularity of sport is grounded in its social nature and, thankfully, we’re starting to see a real recognition of this, with value attributed to how it relates to the wider population and a sense of community. As a result, new types of sport and leisure projects are being established, presenting the architecture and construction sector with a number of different challenges.

The most noticeable change is the rise of multi-site locations or sporting ‘hubs’. It makes sense that busy people want family friendly facilities to be near their homes, or that families need something for their children to do while they are taking part in an activity. Accessible destinations, much like retail parks and greenspace, are ideal for these kind of facilities.

All of this contributes to the broader move toward ‘place making’ and feeds into the idea of these new leisure facilities being part of a wider network or community to align with Sport England’s new strategy. A great example is the increasing popularity of GP surgeries in close proximity to sports and physical activity provisions. Amid recent discussions around referrals focusing on lifestyle and dietary changes for those who smoke or are overweight, it makes sense that linking these services together would be beneficial to communities across the country.

With greater ties to other sectors or private businesses, and the increasing pressure on the budget of local authorities, it’s understandable why there’s a rise in initiatives from organizations such as Sport England and the Football Association (FA), which are looking to tackle dropping participation rates, common health issues, and unsatisfactory public facilities.

The Parklife Football Hubs Programme was launched by the FA to revitalize facilities for grassroots soccer and improve the standard of coaching. The first of an estimated 150 projects are now coming to fruition, some of which our team at LK2 have been a part of, such as the relocation of Middlesex FA’s headquarters in west London and Market Road in Islington, which is widely considered to be the forerunner to the Parklife project.

Soccer is the number one sport in this country with participation levels at nearly 2 million, plus more than 1 million volunteers in the shape of parents, coaches, and referees. Although clearly ingrained in our culture and communities, activity levels continually threaten to drop in younger age groups and at an amateur level.

Like many of the sport and leisure facilities we are working with, the aim of Parklife is to create local, accessible facilities. Situated in the heart of communities across the country, these schemes must encourage people to undertake more physical activity in high-quality, and affordable environments.

All Parklife sites work with an already designated area of land, which is usually in a dense, inner-city area, that will reach the intended audience. They typically comprise two or three individual hubs, with each hub site containing a minimum of two full-size artificial grass pitches and accommodation for changing. This requires a minimum area of around 2.5 acres.

In addition to addressing these challenges, the design and construction process must also prioritize accessibility – in the sense of the building itself and its facilities, as well as through its location.

Some features will naturally support the program’s objectives; for instance, a well-maintained natural turf pitch can offer between six and eight playing hours of soccer a week, whereas artificial pitches can easily accommodate double that volume on a daily basis, massively increasing the number of playing opportunities.

However, this type of project presents additional challenges for architects and contractors. Affordability is, of course, an overriding factor, with the limited allocation of space secondary, especially when working with city center sites.

Architects working on these schemes must be collaborative and flexible as a number of agreed measures and set briefs will already be in place. Due to these, LK2 Architects is frequently working with standard layouts and a drive for consistency. Our projects with the FA have been driven by uniform layouts for changing rooms and increasingly, the use of modular buildings. This not only reinforces the FA as a brand and its messaging around supporting participation, but assists with the comfort factor that comes with a recognizable and familiar environment.

In order to future-proof these facilities, the design must work to accommodate the required technology which tracks how regularly they are used. Each Parklife facility will have a card and barrier system to capture data which, in turn, improves the capability for monitoring and evaluation, marketing, and communication.

The program is already showing signs of success; the Market Road facility in Islington has had a huge impact on the community, securing the future of over 125 teams in the area. There was greater design freedom for our team on the project which led to the use of metal cladding which is not only low maintenance and aesthetically complements an adjacent tennis center, but also renders the building virtually vandal-proof. This was supported by technologies that deliver both energy efficiency and value for money, and the replacement of what were London’s first artificial pitches. This all combined to produce a significant milestone for the high profile site, which will continue to support the community for years to come.

Britain has created a strong, positive, and engaging sporting legacy. To continue this, while benefitting both the economy and the health of the public, investment in well-designed sporting facilities is vital. Working with a stringent list of requirements – while making the design aspirational, and creating a destination people want to return to and spend their time at – is the real challenge for architects. However, thanks to initiatives such as the Parklife program, real progress and success is emerging and driving change.

September 29, 2016

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