Volume 76 | Issue 6
November 2008

Whole Health. Whole Person. Whole Campus. Designing a culture of wellness

Katie Wylie

Now outside the confines of the traditional medical setting, the concept of wellness is spreading into new areas: the gym, the workplace, and the school. On many college campuses, the wellness trend frequently takes the form of a new stadium, increased funding for exercise equipment, or the development of fitness programs. Such attempts to promote student health do bring about a certain level of change, but rarely are they accompanied by a larger, holistic vision. And it is that larger vision—the understanding of the interrelated nature of wellness—that brings about the greatest result. As the California State University–Sacramento community has learned, using the tenets of wellness to unite and explore the seemingly disparate facets of student life yields tremendous potential not only to promote a new kind of campus culture, but also to educate. Calmail112008

As the cornerstone of Sacramento State’s Destination 2010 campaign to secure the university as a destination campus, “Sac State,” as it is commonly known, began upward construction of a new Recreation and Wellness Center in October. The new center will be integral to creating a dynamic physical environment for students and will be unlike any facility in the California State University System. As a part of the Alex G. Spanos Sports Complex, the center will encompass an area equivalent to three football fields and will combine fitness, medical care, and social activity spaces under one roof. Its unique integration of services will be managed under the auspices of the University Union 501(c)3 corporation and will be guided by one mission statement.

This will be a huge step for a campus that currently provides limited health and fitness facilities for a student body of 28,000. With more than 3,000 students per week participating in recreational sports and only two small gyms totaling five courts, coordinating the practice schedules of 65 intramural basketball teams proves to be difficult, not to mention the 25 other intramural teams ranging from badminton to soccer that also need space. Because recreational sports must share the gyms with academic classes and intramural teams, many have difficulty getting court time. And with only three pieces of cardio equipment and the space to offer three fitness classes, most students choose to work out off campus. Sacramento State does have high-quality offerings for varsity athletes, like the modern track and field facility that hosted the U.S. Olympic trials in 2000 and 2004, but varsity athletes represent a fraction of the overall population.

Furthermore, the current health center and fitness facilities bear little relationship to each other. The current medical facility serves 450 students a day, but it is not located near the gym. Students do not make the connection between the two, and there are few shared programs to enforce key messages like the preventative benefits of exercise. And finally, Sacramento State shepherds nearly 3,000 students every year through health-related majors like nursing or kinesiology, but these students must go off campus to find internships—even when all the issues they are studying currently exist on campus.

The forthcoming Recreation and Wellness Center will serve as the new physical and cultural emblem of campus life by providing whole-health care for 28,000 students and 3,400 faculty and staff through a broad spectrum of amenities and services. It will feature a rock climbing wall, four basketball courts, a large multi-activity court for sports such as indoor hockey or soccer, studios for cardio, weight training, and an array of exercise classes. Beyond its exercise facilities, it will include a cooking demonstration area for nutrition classes, a pharmacy, a lab, health offices for check-ups, physical therapy, optometry, primary and urgent care, x-ray, exercise testing, and mental health. Its social spaces will feature meeting rooms and a cafe. Uniting these three vital aspects of student life—fitness, medical care, and social activity—will create synergy as each component directly benefits the others.

Bringing the medical, physical, and social aspects of good health into one location also will generate new programs and unexplored opportunities. What will happen, for example, when students are able to combine basketball and nutrition, or physical therapy and meditation?

As Leslie Davis, executive director of Sacramento State’s University Union and initial visionary for the center, explained, “We want to give our students the ability to go to the Recreation and Wellness Center for a check-up with a doctor, and if it is determined that that student needs to lose 10 pounds, we want the doctor, with the student’s permission, to be able to make a follow-up appointment on the spot with an exercise trainer under the same roof.”

Forming a vision

The pivotal awakening for Davis came not in thinking about creating a new gym, but in thinking about closing the gap between recreation and wellness.

calcampus112008“You can have a health center and a recreation center on opposite sides of a campus, but what’s the relationship going to be between them?” she asked.

This way of thinking led to a series of realizations about the student experience and the connections that exist between areas like medical care and the quality of student life, physical fitness and the ability to learn, lifetime fitness and social skills.

Davis also began to realize the disparities among members of the Sacramento State community. In comparing, for example, what would happen if a varsity athlete, a non-athlete student, and a faculty member were to sprain an ankle, Davis realized that, with the campus’s current offerings, the varsity athlete would receive the best medical care and would be back on the field faster than the student or faculty member would be back in class.

While Davis initially wanted to bring wellness into the University Union, the union facility did not have adequate space for additional services. This led to the idea of connecting student life and wellness in a related, but separate building joined with the University Union by a major pathway. As a former YMCA director, Davis recognized the potential of creating a place that not only supported exercise but also wove wellness into the larger community.

Davis’s shared vision evolved into a community-wide vision when the proposed center went through a referendum and planning process. During the referendum process, students educated each other about the merit of such a facility, and subsequently voted on its creation—a decision that involved an increase in student fees. In the largest voter turn-out in Sacramento State’s history, 55 percent of students voted in favor of the new center with its $110 fee increase per student, per semester. The partnership between the new University President Alexander Gonzalez, the University Union, Recreation Services, the Student Health Center, and most importantly the students, was critical to the success of the initiative. Given that many of the students who decided to raise fees in favor of a new building will graduate before the project is completed, the referendum process ensured that students took an active and thoughtful role in the future development of their institution.

The referendum also ensured student support for a particular architectural direction. In 2003, architects at the San Francisco-based firm Hornberger + Worstell became involved in the visioning and approvals process, interviewing students and administrators about the needs of the campus, and presenting their design work to the student body for review and comment. At the same time, Sacramento State brought on board project manager TMCS to act as a liaison between the university’s user groups and the design team. In 2004, the referendum passed with three main objectives for the architects to pursue: the future Recreation and Wellness Center would unite health, wellness, and social spaces; be a new hub of activity; and have a “wow factor.”

Designing the facility to match the vision

To signal the center’s significant role in campus life, students will enter through a central atrium with a 40-foot-wide oculus. At night, the oculus will emanate a soft light, serving as a beacon for the campus.

“Like many California campuses, Sacramento State has grown incrementally, one building at a time, with no cohesive design vocabulary,” Design Principal Burton Miller explained. “Especially given that the center will embrace the largest green and campus hub, we wanted to design a place of memorable form and strong identity—a place where students will feel a sense of belonging.”

The sweeping, largely transparent facade of the center will also expose the internal activity and excitement of the building to the main quad. Calglass112008

“Standing in front of the center’s 420-foot-long facade will be like watching a panoramic, multi-screen movie with glimpses of students exercising on equipment, practicing yoga, or performing martial arts,” John Davis, managing principal, said. “The large expanses of glass on the facade enabled us to both activate the quad and flood the inside with natural light.”

Hornberger + Worstell was, in part, able to convince the school officials and student body of its design’s merit because of how it differed from typical institutional facilities. Because the firm also specializes in hotel projects, the ideas of amenity, comfort, and scale were in the forefront while taking on the Sacramento State project.

“We visited many recreation centers and none of them had a sense of ceremony,” Miller said. “It was one maze-like corridor after another. The public spaces in high-end hotels, on the other hand, are choreographed sequences that ceremoniously guide people through. While the Sac State Recreation Center is not a hotel, we did want the public spaces to activate the experience. Someone who is accustomed to designing low-budget academic projects doesn’t have the right mind set for creating engaging, amenable spaces and experiences.”

The new center will be the second building on the Sacramento State campus to pursue LEED Silver certification, representing “health” on yet another level, strengthening the holistic wellness message. The facility will reflect sustainable design and construction decisions like orientation to natural light and the use of responsibly harvested wood, quality insulation, and formaldehyde-free glue.

“The sum of these decisions, while not recognizable to the average user, represents the common-sense ways that architects can promote the longevity of a building,” Miller explained. “Above and beyond the LEED rating system is the goal of designing buildings that really work and serve the people and activities that they are intended for. Providing quality at that level engenders true sustainability.”

One of the noteworthy green design elements will be a series of six skylights made with an environmentally friendly material that uses pockets of air as insulators. Now widely known for its use on the exterior of the Beijing Olympics’ “Water Cube,” “Foiltec” is a web of transparent cushions that surpasses traditional glass technology in its ability to insulate, withstand weather, and support acoustics. The skylight above the rock climbing wall, in particular, will take the form of a pyramid and allow rock climbers to climb up into its peak.

Architects also took care in addressing the way-finding issues that typically accompany buildings of this size. Unlike the notorious airports, malls, or health care facilities with awkward corridor connections and poor functional adjacencies that force users to walk down long hallways searching for the right direction, the center will situate people upon arrival. The oculus-topped atrium will serve as the main lobby, providing a radial passageway system that will lead students to the key areas of the building. Furthermore, with all of the recreation spaces programmed on one side of the building and all of the medical spaces programmed on the other, students will be able to quickly decide which direction to choose. Looking for medical care? Turn left. Looking for fitness classes? Turn right.

Given the diverse needs of the campus community, it was important to consider accommodations for those with special needs. The locker rooms in the center, in particular, will accommodate different kinds of people—from transgender students, to students in wheelchairs, to the male faculty member who might come to the center with a young daughter. As a result of conversations with Davis, as well as an interview with a student in a wheelchair about how he dressed, dressing “cabanas” were designed in addition to the men’s and women’s locker rooms. These cabanas will be fully closeable spaces with their own bench, sink, shower, and commode to support anyone who needs extra privacy.

San Francisco health design firm Ellerbe Becket partnered with Hornberger + Worstell in the planning and design of the medical spaces clustered on the south side of the building. While the center’s 34,000-square-foot medical facility will not provide hospital-level accommodations like operating rooms, it will offer a range of medical services such as primary and urgent care, lab and x-ray, physical therapy, as well as retail pharmacy and optometry. Its spaces will be leased from the University Union, but facility users should not realize from their experience that two entities are involved.

Ellerbe Becket developed a series of floor plan studies for the medical spaces that represented different operational models. These studies were aimed at providing privacy for one-on-one student-staff interactions as well as integrating the medical spaces into the flow and activity of the recreation center to encourage relationships between medical services, wellness teaching, and fitness activity.

Director of Student Health Services Joy Stewart-James also joined the architects in refining the design of the center’s medical facility. By analyzing the practices and inefficiencies of the existing medical facility, Stewart-James and her staff helped to craft a flexible and hospitable new facility that would be better organized, staffed, and operated.

In addition to learning from the strengths and weaknesses of the existing medical facility, a committee of students, faculty, and campus community members with special needs reviewed the center’s architectural drawings at various stages of design. These sessions added another level of thought to accessibility issues such as where to position information monitors or what kind of Braille graphics best suit student users.

Wellness learning and leadership development

The Recreation and Wellness Center will not only be a place to go for health and exercise, but also a place to learn. With approximately 300 opportunities for student employment and special internships available for those majoring in disciplines like physical therapy, nursing, and health care administration, the center will strengthen several academic programs. Students in Sacramento State’s fitness facility design class, for example, will be able to participate in the making of the center through researching and ultimately producing the list of exercise equipment that will be used.

Calrockclimb112008The center will teach students about how to be proactive about their health. Traditional campus health facilities emphasize clinical services over prevention programs. The new center, on the other hand, will have a strong prevention-oriented mission with an emphasis on an integrated model for delivering care and programs.

“Physicians will be able to engage students in preventive health practices by referring them directly for consults and classes in the building,” Stewart-James said. Similarly, the center staff will be able to consult with medical providers regarding any health issues. The beauty of this building will therefore be the interconnectedness for students, staff, and health providers.”

In short, as she added, “We are making good health care consumers.”

With a culture that celebrates professional sports stars and their college counterpart—the varsity athlete—many overlook the power of supporting the fitness pursuits of the everyday student. As studies show, however, undergraduate involvement in recreational sports provides great opportunity for leadership development, especially for those who take on coordination roles in venues like sports councils. In April, the Journal of College Student Development published a study that identifies the seven leadership skills that undergraduates develop through participation in recreational sports. They are: organization, time management, mentoring others, problem solving, communication, working with diversity, and the giving and receiving of feedback.

As one of the students in the study stated, “I have learned to manage my time a little bit better because of all of the weekly meetings. It has had me spend a lot less time sitting around watching TV and being lazy because of the fact that it does take up so much time. So, I have a lot more that I have to do in a shorter amount of time. It has forced me to be more organized in how I spend my time doing things so I can get everything done.”

Time management and organizational skills also are outcomes often identified with student employment programs. The University Union already is planning ways to make an educational employment experience available to more students by cross-training some staff to serve in both the union and Recreation and Wellness Center. Such positions include information desk staff and building supervisors.

The center also will provide space for various student groups that range from exercise-related activities such as the Salsa Club to the more leadership-oriented Peer Health Educators Program. In this program, students receive training in helping fellow students who do not feel comfortable in approaching a professional with their health concerns. Providing space for such clubs will give students the ability to take on new challenges such as the Peer Health Educators’ forthcoming online health chat that will connect trained students in the Recreation and Wellness Center to other students on campus seeking answers to health questions.

Promoting physical fitness has long been a key role of education. As early as 1918, the National Education Association listed “health” and the “preparation for the worthy use of leisure [time]” as two of the seven goals of a good secondary education. Today, that belief system continues with an effort to raise the bar in collegiate health as the American College Health Association has set forth 200 health objectives with baselines and targets to achieve by 2010. However, as Sacramento State has shown, achieving these objectives can become an opportunity to weave health into the broader academic mission, rather than the addition of an extraneous program.

As an incubator of positive change, perhaps the effect of the new Recreation and Wellness Center at Sacramento State will be greater than the sum of its parts.

“We are trying to create a system that encourages our student population to become active participants in their health,” Stewart-James said. “This is also what we, as health professionals, are trying to do on a macro level with the general population. Our hope is that students will hold onto the lessons that they have learned at Sacramento State throughout their lives.”

Student growth results from gaining competence across multiple arenas, including health. Wellness is therefore an important tool in helping students to grow.

“In caring about the whole person, Sac State is adding value to its degree,” Davis said. “People will recognize that you will get better students from Sac State than other schools because they have been supported and educated holistically.”


Renderings and photos courtesy of Hornberger + Worstell