Building Blueprints (Facilities in Focus)

Sustainable Athletic and Wellness Center

Sustainable Athletic and Wellness Center


The design for convent of the Sacred Heart’s (CSH) Athletic and Wellness Center is a one-of-a kind facility supporting excellence of spirit, mind and body. The 53,000-squarefoot center features an extensive athletic program within a tight footprint. Located on the Upper East Side (NYC), the center sets the stage for a diverse range of activities. Key spaces include a competition-sized six-lane swimming pool, a NCAA regulation-sized volleyball and basketball court, a dance studio, a cardio and weight room, and several multi-purpose practice rooms, with space for regulation-sized fencing pistes. Additional areas include four locker rooms, classroom space, storage and mechanical spaces, and a grand daylight-filled stairwell that encourages physical activity beyond the bounds of sports.

Located at the opposite end of East 91st Street from the school’s main academic building, the historic Otto Kahn Mansion, the new center houses a densely packed program on a 12,500-square-foot site. Despite the large open volumes required of an athletics center, the design team was still able to translate some of the elegant intimacy of the Otto Kahn Mansion into the interior design of the new building. The center’s muscular but graceful street presence befits the physicality of its program, simultaneously relating to adjacent warehouses and residences while upholding the institution’s sense of tradition. The gravitas of the main building is also felt in the new structure, with its masonry-driven solidity and underlying classical proportions. Furthering this effect is a combination of brick recesses, projections, corbeling and wall thickness, which are complemented by steel accents that enhance the center’s neighborhood-appropriate scale.

Sustainable Athletic and Wellness Center


Given the limited resources in the neighborhood for a competition-sized swimming pool and volleyball/basketball court, these amenities soon became the main programmatic drivers of the building. Since these spaces require a significant amount of cubic footage, the team diligently tested all possible orientations for both. A striking truss system was one of many design approaches devised to ensure that both facilities could be included and fully structurally supported.

Notably, the new center was always intended as a resource for neighboring academic and recreational communities; there are currently 1,500-plus non-CSH students using the facility from other independent schools in CSH’s sports league, as well as a range of local organizations and non-profits with fitness programming. The project team was acutely aware that the center was serving a large population of users, many of which were young children, in a city with significant air pollution. This led to indoor air quality being a major priority throughout design and construction. An intensive IAQ management plan was developed, resulting in the use of low-emitting materials that also met standards of durability, cost, aesthetic quality, and regional availability. The team also conducted a robust pre-occupancy flush out of airborne toxins prior to the facility’s opening.

Sustainable Athletic and Wellness Center


Supporting Wellness

To further support human health, the center is designed so that physical activity arises not just through classes and leagues but also by the nature of the building itself. Key characteristics include access to daylight, inspirational environmental graphics featuring CSH students in action, centralized areas for staff, and a grand staircase that invites movement. This staircase also encourages impromptu gathering and a closer connection with the bustling activity on the center’s many floors. The appealing design of the stairs also leads to the conservation of nonrenewable resources, since it reduces reliance on the center’s single elevator.

A host of additional sustainable design approaches contribute to energy efficiency and long-term cost-savings, as well as the health and comfort of the center’s users. Particularly notable are the Solatube daylighting tubes, a solar hot water system, a cooling tower supplied through rooftop retention tanks, high-performance windows, and a pool dehumidification heat recovery system. Highly visible sustainable components such as the rooftop array of evacuated solar hot water tube collectors or the cardio and weight room’s flooring, which is made of recycled tires, also act as teaching tools for building users by inspiring self-guided learning, particularly in regards to environmental stewardship.

Sustainable Athletic and Wellness Center


Similarly supportive of both long-term cost-savings and school’s environmental goals was the team’s commitment to crafting a facility that would adapt with the institution over time, demonstrating the tenants of “Long Life Loose Fit.” Thanks to a new furniture program that is intentionally compatible in office, classroom, and general assembly contexts and a host of flexibly designed spaces — including a gym with FSC-certified flooring that serves the needs of basketball, volleyball, multi-sport gym classes, and non-athletic events — the center supports a variety of evolving programming. Much like CSH’s main academic building, which originally served as a private residence, the new center is a learning laboratory and source of physical activity for current and future users. In addition, the team worked together to successfully implement a variety of low-impact building practices during construction, leading to the diversion of over 95 percent of construction debris from landfills. Thanks to these sustainable design and construction approaches, among others, the project achieved LEED Gold certification.

This article originally appeared in the May 2016 issue of School Planning & Management.

About the Author

Julie Nelson, AIA, LEED-AP BD+C, GRP, is a partner at BKSK Architects, where she serves as a lead design partner as well as partner-in-charge of sustainability. She is a frequent lecturer on issues related to sustainable architecture and the design process.

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