6 ways to make sports facilities safe for COVID and beyond

In a time when technology continues to evolve, flexibility — along with a practical sense approach — is key.
By: | July 26, 2021
Clemson Football Operations Facility: Along with increasing the general size of spaces – such as meeting rooms – to accommodate social distancing protocols, one of the efforts being considered is alternative entry and exit methods, which can also include card access.
Yann Coward is senior architect of sports architecture with Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.

Yann Coward is senior architect of sports architecture with Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood.

Even before one of the largest global health crises in modern times began impacting the world of sports, facility administrators were implementing protocols to keep athletes and spectators safe and comfortable. As the pandemic accelerated higher education leaders’ timetables and increased their focus on safety, their efforts became increasingly significant in the face of such uncertainty.

Along with solutions like conducting regular COVID-19 testing, university leaders continue to put a premium on conventional protocols such as social distancing, mask wearing, hand sanitizer stations and informational signage across their facilities.

Yet, they also are taking a closer look at how and why areas like coaches and player lounges are designed—spaces that continue to demand more innovative design mindsets in today’s new landscape. Here are insights.

Smart, practical design.  The mentality behind these innovative approaches is straightforward. The key is not to overdesign in response to the current public health crisis, but instead to be decisive and practical about the design process. In a time when technology continues to evolve, flexibility—along with a practical sense approach—is key.

One of the keys for designers is to understand the daily use and flow for each of the facility’s user groups. For example, creating diagrams that show both vertical and horizontal travel paths for each group as well as times when those groups might cross paths proves decisive. This will help ensure designing ample space in corridors and intersections, which allow ample room for social distancing.

Along with increasing the general size of spaces – such as meeting rooms – to accommodate social distancing protocols, one of the efforts being considered is alternative entry and exit methods, which can also include card access.

Space.  When it comes to space, the pandemic has forced facility leaders to be more conscious about how to space people out. This is particularly important when it pertains to facilities with locker rooms and training areas.

Some of these solutions include strategies such as widening hallways, as well as using aesthetics in carpet patterns and ceiling lights to highlight both distance measures and one-way path directions. In addition to measured diagrams, floor markings and posted signs, reducing the amount of furniture and equipment inside the locker rooms can also be considered (less to wipe down every day).

In light of the current public health crisis, some facilities may see the potential for locker rooms being limited, as more people in facilities opt out of using lockers. For facilities with lockers, finding locker designs that do not require physical contact, like RFID cards used in hotels, may be an option.  And, using RFID identifiers with message boards helps tailor the messaging to a specific user.

Access.  Along with increasing the general size of spaces – such as meeting rooms – to accommodate social distancing protocols, one of the efforts being considered is alternative entry and exit methods, which can also include card access.

This touchless access approach may also apply to hallways, and other access/entry points. While the areas still would remain controlled, access would be via automatic door controls. A staff access control system identifies people based on a match between a personnel tag ID stored in the tag and the tag ID records stored in the database.

Designing touchless systems and utilizing occupancy sensors wherever possible are additional features that can be incorporated into the design to enhance social distancing protocols. For example, using apps to lock and unlock entry points can be both a convenient and safe design feature.

This touchless access approach may also apply to hallways, and other access/entry points. While the areas still would remain controlled, access would be via automatic door controls. A staff access control system identifies people based on a match between a personnel tag ID stored in the tag and the tag ID records stored in the database.

Dual locker rooms: performance + connection.  Access also factors with locker rooms. Today, leaders are using a one-way enter/exit design approach, which could be applied to the general locker room design and in specific areas like shower and restroom zones. In addition, leaders can give closer attention to locker room circulation paths, especially as patrons aim to some level of social distancing.

There also is a paradigm shift regarding how today’s locker rooms could be designed and the multiple purposes they can serve. Leaders are contemplating designing spaces that give players a sense of safety and comfort.

Ventilation, UV + Ozone molecules.  Two of the major locker room enhancements, especially during the pandemic, include adding ventilation systems to sterilize the air from odor and bacteria, as well as integrating UV lighting. Odors, long a huge concern in locker rooms, tend to incubate bacterial growth that can lead to threats like MRSA and Staph infections.

Sports spaces, i.e., locker rooms, weight rooms, etc., can be odorous spaces. By providing alternative spaces, university leaders help keep the smells to a minimum and away from regularly occupied spaces

One of the treatments facility leaders are evaluating is the use of ozone molecules, which can rid locker rooms of odor, as well as purify and deodorize an entire facility.

In the case of lighting, one of the safest and most natural disinfectants is ultraviolet rays. Some facilities are using a series of UV-C lights and filters to help eliminate bacteria and viruses in the environment.

By placing UV or Bi-Polar Ionization in supply ducts, the air can be sterilized before it reaches the locker room.  Other considerations include concealing UV in the back of the lockers—a strategic move that could ensure maximum reach. Unlike ozone, UV only works on what it is directly exposed to, which is why the lights must reach every area of the room.

Safe, comfortable and optimizing performance.  In a world defined by how a facility protects its users from the scope of the virus and its variants, the efficiency of a layout is critical to facilitate social distancing.  Leaders and project teams seek to define and understand needs and design space appropriately for both flow as well as cleanability.

By providing a user-friendly atmosphere that offers opportunities for healing and bonding, university leaders are creating more of an experience. Giving student-athletes that improved sense of awareness is an important factor in their development opportunities.

The goal – to be able to productively move people in, around and through an environment – is the decisive key to evaluating every approach. Use technology as an asset. The users are very adaptable, so providing day to day applications that can be controlled from their phone empowers them and places them in a comfort zone.

Inevitably, the pandemic will fade, so it is important to have the ability to be flexible.  However, a smart design can provide for future safety and keep renovation costs down when events occur.

Ultimately, it is a positive mental wellness effect that every facility can achieve and foster, one where people feel safe, comfortable and able to optimize performance. By designing around all the senses, university leaders provide an awareness of the environment, and confidence in how to interact with it, therefore using everything in the facility to its full potential.

Yann Cowart‚ AIA, LEED AP, is a senior architect of sports architecture with Goodwyn, Mills and Cawood in the firm’s Montgomery, Ala., office. He can be reached at (334) 271-3200, or yann.cowart@gmcnetwork.com.

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