Wellness facilities gain new look, new importance
Wrapped in custom lumber cladding and glass curtainwall, the Cahill Fitness and Wellness Center set a new bar for city rec centers when it opened last year.
The 32,000-square-foot facility in Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park offers all the standard fitness resources – fully equipped cardio and weight training areas, a basketball court and a swimming pool. And there’s so much more. The pool is designed to accommodate lap swimming, shallow-water aerobics and children’s learn-to-swim classes. There’s a large splash pad immediately outside the pool’s windows, multi-purpose rooms, a dance studio, nature-inspired playgrounds and a large, well-equipped performance space. The center’s unique design includes wood cladding—specifically, poplar, walnut, and ash—made by Baltimore’s Camp Small Zero Waste Initiative, which funnels trees cut down in the city to local mills. The design also ensures that 80 percent of occupied floor areas within the center have direct views to the surrounding woodlands.
“Historically, gyms have been closed off and devoid of natural light,” said Kate Scurlock, Associate at GWWO Architects. “When stepping inside the gym at Cahill, which is surrounded by glass on three sides, you immediately feel a direct connection to the natural setting, creating an inspiring space for athletes.”
Thoughtfully designed to meet the community’s unique needs and to make optimum use of a woodland site, Cahill is an extraordinary and award-winning project. (It won the AIA Baltimore Good Design=Good Business award in 2021.) Yet it is also a prime example of new trends in fitness and wellness facilities. Two years of a pandemic heightened America’s interest in physical fitness, mental wellness, social interactions and connecting with nature. Now, that trend is spurring the development of new fitness and wellness facilities or amenities in public and private developments.
In South Baltimore, Baltimore City Recreation and Parks (BCRP) is currently building another modern and customized center. Set in Reedbird Park, the 40,000-square-foot Middle Branch Fitness and Wellness Center will include modern fitness rooms and equipment, multi-purpose rooms, playing courts, and a pool which is also designed to serve everyone from toddlers to serious swimmers to seniors participating in therapeutic aerobics. Like Cahill, Middle Branch also includes unique elements designed to meet priorities expressed during community input meetings.
“The Cherry Hill community was passionate about having a comfortable year-round walking and running track for all ages and abilities,” Scurlock said.
Rather than adding a standard track that encircled the gymnasium, GWWO designed a walking track that extends throughout the building.
“We used this opportunity to create an active connection throughout the building. The track loops through the gym, natatorium, and fitness space delivering views out to the landscape and to all activities within the center,” Scurlock said. “By engaging the entire building with the track, we created not only a longer walking loop for the community but also one that is dynamic.”
In response to community requests, the center also includes a teen lounge. An unprogrammed space set beside one stretch of the track, the lounge includes a television, video games and seating, providing young people with a place to simply hang out.
Heightened interest in spending time outside and reconnecting with nature has added elements to fitness and wellness projects. At centers like Cahill and Middle Branch, include nature playgrounds, multi-purpose fields and onsite walking paths that connect to the Gwynns Falls Trail.
At Druid Hill Park, city planners and community members are currently envisioning massive changes to promote fitness, wellness and the community. The installation of underground water tanks at Druid Hill created new usable land within the park and opened up opportunities to use Druid Hill Lake for recreation (since it would no longer be a drinking water source).
At community input meetings about the future park design, “the level of excitement has surprised me,” said Amanda Pizza, Project Manager at MK Consulting Engineers. “People want to get back to nature and reconnect with the outdoors. They want outdoor basketball courts and paths where they can walk, bike or skateboard.”
Community members have proposed numerous new uses for the lake itself – creating a swimming area, providing paddleboats and kayaks, restocking the lake to support fishing and restoring onsite streams.
“People have asked, could we host triathlons or other activities at Druid Hill so the site is not just a draw for local residents but a destination park that people around the region will want to visit,” Pizza said. “Druid Hill Park is an awesome piece of real estate in the center of the city that is being underutilized. The vision plan is about bringing Druid Hill Park back to life and drawing people in.”
City planners aren’t the only people hoping to draw attention to their fitness and wellness facilities. Developers and owners in the very busy multi-family market are also looking to distinguish their properties with amenities that appeal to health-conscious residents.
Positioned next to the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge (PWR), the Watershed development in Laurel has branded itself as a community that supports a healthy, active lifestyle. In addition to linking its walking paths to the trails at PWR, the Watershed development includes community gardens, creative play spaces, a multi-purpose field, an amphitheater and pavilion for movie nights and other outdoor gatherings, an outdoor pool, fitness center, yoga studio, bark park and a pump track – a 50 foot by 70-foot looping, bumpy track for mountain bikers.
“Designing spaces that support people’s fitness and mental wellbeing is extremely important, especially the design of spaces that connect people to the outdoors,” said Brian Reetz, Principal at Design Collective. “In the housing market today, every project is trying to outcompete its neighbor. A connection to nature and focus on mental health is setting projects apart and making them highly marketable and desirable to renters looking for work/life balance.”
Increasingly, those amenities include pickleball courts and a revival (but modern take) of the 1980s-style outdoor fitness circuits which place outdoor exercise equipment at points along a walking/running path.
Developers, however, don’t need a sprawling space next to a wildlife refuge to deliver fitness and wellness amenities. Reetz points to the example of the Arrowwood — a five-story apartment building in North Bethesda. An outdoor pool would not have made efficient use of space on the tight site so instead Design Collective designed an interior courtyard focused on wellness. A clubhouse and fitness center support the courtyard and are complemented by a yoga lawn, gardens and a plethora of social spaces. A dynamic water feature replaces the traditional pool winding through the landscape “so wherever you are in the courtyard, you can hear and experience water whether it’s water rolling over the edge of the fountain, dipping your toes in the water or subconsciously feeling the calming presence of water. It’s an amazing experience,” Reetz said.