We recently scoured the country for five of the most unique fitness facilities we could find, and we think we found a good selection. What makes them stand out from the rest? Well, these days it takes more than high-tech cardio equipment and 100,000 square feet. We selected the following facilities for their distinctive design, inventive use of materials or unusual elements. Flip through the next five pages and prepare to embark on a tour showcasing everything from a former Turkish bath to one of the most secure fitness facilities in the country.

Peek-a-boo

Facility: Crunch Fitness Lincoln Park

Location: Chicago

Web site: www.crunch.com

Owner: Crunch (Bally Total Fitness)

Square footage: 46,000

Visits a day: 200

Architect: Cannon Design

Date of club opening: February 2004

Cost of construction: $4.7 million

Although the American Institute of Architects' (AIA) jurors dubbed the Crunch Fitness in Lincoln Park, IL, “part gym, part nightclub” when the facility won a 2004 Citation of Merit award in AIA Interior Architecture, the club's assistant manager, Pete Gussert, insists the facility is anything but flashy.

“To me it's a much more comfortable, much more relaxing environment,” Gussert says. “[The design] is less in your face. I think the atmosphere isn't forced on you, but it works with you.”

Whether or not the facility reminds you more of home or your favorite nightspot, one thing is certain — this fitness facility is anything but ordinary. The 46,000-square-foot club is located in a new mixed-use development in an upscale, urban Chicago neighborhood and houses a juice bar, children's studio, massage room, sun deck, rehabilitation area and a spin and aerobic studio. The club also boasts a swimming pool, a unique feature for a Crunch facility.

“Crunch's whole image has a very hip look to it, and their whole strategy is to create a unique appeal,” Mark Banholzer, design principal on the project, says. “The merger of fitness and entertainment is really where [the design] came from when they came to us and told us about their corporate identity and branding.”

Besides using bright colors, dramatic lighting and even the occasional theatre curtain to set the club apart, the facility's front entrance displays a fiber-optic, edge-lit glass shower wall silhouetting willing club patrons through a double layer of frosted glass. While this so-called peek-a-boo shower is usually just a stall or two tucked into a remote corner of most Crunch locations, in Lincoln Park, the peek-a-boo show is on full display with several shower stalls illuminated.

“It's the whole idea of burlesque, but in a tasteful and fun way. [The shower] really made it something very special and spectacular,” Banholzer says. “It's all part of [Crunch's] tagline, which is ‘no judgments.’ People are free to do what they want to do and no one is going to judge them.”

Sustainable

Facility: Pentagon Athletic Center

Location: Pentagon, Washington, D.C.

Web site: www.hqda.army.mil/OAASupportServices/pac/

Owner: Department of the Army

Square footage: 127,000

Visits a day: 2,000

Architect: HNTB Architecture

Date of club opening: March 2004

Cost of construction: $25 million

An underground location. Guarded security checkpoints. An ozone filtration system. These aren't typical at most fitness facilities, but they are at one of the safest fitness facilities in the country — the Pentagon Athletic Center (PAC).

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified PAC was redesigned a little more than a year ago, and while the facility's decor may not be flashy, it serves its purpose. The largely subterranean, 127,000-square-foot center houses a six-lane pool, a full-size basketball court, a steam room, racquetball and squash courts, a sauna, hot tubs, locker rooms, a rotating tread wall, and a running track along with increased space for free weights, weight machines and cardio from the previous facility. The center also offers 30 group fitness classes a week, and fitness specialists are on hand to help patrons for free. Due to the facility's location within the Pentagon, most of the 2,000 daily patrons at the PAC are active duty military, but some are family members of the military personnel and others are contractors.

“That's our mission — to support the war fighter,” says Irmtraud Washburn, general manager of the PAC.

And that they do — along with supporting a sustainable design that was built to last for 50 years. The facility has secure physical and electronic access to and from the Pentagon proper. Other considerations, such as installing an ozone-filtration system in the pool, reduced chlorine use over time, which means fewer hazardous materials at the site and a healthier swimming environment.

The facility's subterranean location proved to be challenging, but HNTB Architecture reduced the number of walls to better facilitate circulation and make a more flexible and open environment. Careful attention was also given to outdoor light distribution and brightness ratios to direct natural air and light into the interior spaces through ventilation and clerestory windows.

“The facility is wholly different from our old facility. It's bigger, and the high ceilings are different,” Washburn says. “It also feels great to see light. The old facility never had light, and now we have light shining.”

Efficiency and the environment were also important considerations in the design and helped earn the facility a LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council in 2004. Building materials were chosen for the environmental qualities of their low volatile organic compounds emission and recycled content. They were also selected from regionally manufactured and rapidly renewable materials. For example, cork tile was used for the flooring, composite wheat board for millwork panels, and 100 percent post-consumer recycled plastic was used for the bathroom partitions and toilets. When it comes to light, heating and cooling, sensors were installed to turn down unnecessary lights; recycled rubber covers the gym floor and cork covers the hallways; low-flow fixtures conserve water; and Green Roof technology provides outdoor garden space and better insulation, and acts as a natural water filtration system. A radio signal even adjusts the watering system when rain is on the way.

Rustic

Facility: The Lodge, City of Des Peres Community Center

Location: Des Peres, MO

Web site: www.desperesmo.org

Owner: City of Des Peres

Square footage: 76,365

Number of members: 9,000

Architect: Hastings & Chivetta Architects Inc.

Date of club opening: November 2003

Cost of construction: $19.42 million

Employees of what has affectionately been named “The Lodge” are almost celebrities in the 8,500-person town of Des Peres, MO.

“If we go out in public, they recognize [our employees],” says Susan Trautman, director of Parks and Recreation in Des Peres. “We're starting to make a name for ourselves; it's kind of cool.”

Based in an affluent suburb of St. Louis, The Lodge has done tremendously well since its opening in the fall of 2003 by creating a community center that looks, acts and feels like a private club and a lodge. Built from scratch, the 76,356-square-foot facility was built to impress. Amenities include more than your average health club. Besides the typical fitness center, group exercise studio, locker rooms and child-care room, this facility offers 1,500 square feet of meeting rooms, two basketball courts, a multi-purpose gym, a three-lane track, a classroom, a concession stand and an expansive aquatics area. The aquatics area includes a wave pool with zero-depth entry, a 25-yard six-lane lap pool and a toddler pool not to mention a lazy river, spray fountains and a 220-foot slide that drops 25 feet to a splashdown pool.

What's more unique than the center's amenities are its details. The fitness center has two-story ceilings with soaring windows. Different types of wood accentuate multiple areas of the facility giving it a rustic feel. The lounge sports a big screen television, comfortable chairs and a fireplace.

“We wanted a facility that was more like a country club — not institutional looking,” Trautman says. “We wanted it to be residential in its appearance.”

Fifty percent of Des Peres residents belong to the club — the highest market penetration of any other facility in town, Trautman says. Currently, the facility boasts 3,000 members (mostly families) resulting in 9,000 memberships. Both residents and non-residents of Des Peres may join, but because of high demand, non-residents have been wait-listed to avoid overcrowding.

Most of the staff have been on board since the center's opening, and Trautman is proud of the staff's customer service skills, which have been helped by an in-house training program called Lodge Life. Most employees know the members by name and face, says Julie Adams, fitness supervisor.

The Lodge experience is also heightened by an impressive list of programming including children's camps, aquatic classes and specialty training programs including those for youth, brides-to-be (Buff Brides) and mothers (Hot Mamas).

“People really enjoy having this facility,” Adams says. “People come here because they like to run into someone they know. It provides a great feeling for them.”

Ocean Liner

Facility: 12th Street Gym

Location: Philadelphia

Web site: www.12streetgym.com

President of the company: Rick Piper

Square footage: 60,000

Number of members: Just under 5,000

Date of club opening: 1986

Cost of renovation: Capital investment since 1986 was just under $5 million

The owners of 12th Street Gym not only have a stubborn commitment to their members, but they also have a commitment to their facility's history and design.

Just under 100 years ago, the site on which the 60,000-square-foot club sits was a traditional Turkish bath facility catering to about 7,000 members with swimming pools, ice saunas, hot saunas and salt saunas.

“It was very much a fat-guys-in-towels-in-steam-rooms-with-cigars type of place,” says Rick Piper, president of the company.

In the late 1970s, however, the Turkish bath closed as the neighborhood's residents began moving out of the shadow of Philadelphia's City Hall and into the suburbs. In the 1980s, a new owner planned to demolish the building. Protests from the historical community and residents stopped the demolition, and in 1986, as America became more interested in fitness and nutrition, the 12th Street Gym was born.

“We kept much of the spirit of the facility — a certain décor with an ocean liner feel,” Piper says. “We boomed and the business boomed because we were first. There was a demand. Younger people were interested, and the [fitness] movement was beginning.”

The club kept the design of the “wet” areas similar to the design in the original facility by using small tiles and designing the areas to be intimate with a steam room, sauna and pool. The design was restored even after a small fire in 1998 damaged the area.

Another distinctive feature of the facility is its floor plan. The club is spread over not one, not two, but eight floors, and each floor has its own purpose. Four floors are set aside for cardio, and one of the floors includes a series of seven well-defined rooms that focus on working out different parts of the body.

“We are in an urban setting and in a vertical urban setting,” Piper says. “Our members like that the various facets of their fitness experience are well defined.”

The club also boasts five differently designed group exercise studios — one studio features an eastern arts style and holds classes in Tai Chi and kickboxing, two studios are traditional, and another two studios are used for lower key activities such as ab work and mind/body practices. Together, the studios offer 67 diverse classes a week including ballroom dancing and African dance.

The gym also has racquetball and squash courts, a strength circuit, personal training, massage and chiropractic services, a full-sized basketball court, and what many Philadelphia “city mice” are drawn to — a landscaped sun deck that provides members with a chance to get outside for some sun and air.

“Our philosophy has been to boutique ourselves a bit,” Piper says. “We're a single club, and we have the expertise and the money to focus on the member's experience, not to make it luxurious, but to make it clearly thoughtful.”

Engineering

Facility: Georgia Institute of Technology Campus Recreation Center

Location: Atlanta

Web site: www.crc.gatech.edu

Owner: Georgia Institute of Technology

Square footage: 300,649

Number of visits: 500,000 a year

Architect: Hastings & Chivetta Architects Inc.

Date of club opening: August 2004

Cost of construction: $43 million

When Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) asked Hastings & Chivetta Architects Inc. to give its new Campus Recreation Center (CRC) a design that was “outside of the box,” the architects delivered.

“The term outside of the box is overused a lot, but there is no question that the term can be used when you see this facility,” says Michael Edwards, director of the CRC. “Had the architects not thought outside the box, we probably would have gotten a box.”

The major feat at the CRC was to add a floor above the Olympic pool. Originally built for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, the aquatics venue seated 15,000 spectators, but that was much too big for the school's post-Olympic needs. To further complicate matters, as part of a 25-year research project being conducted by Georgia Tech, Georgia Power and the U.S. Department of Energy, the photovoltaic panels on the roof could not be moved. The solution? A 175-foot prestressed concrete floor span (said to be the longest in the world) that created a fourth floor above the pool. The extra floor provided about 60,000 square feet of vibration-free gymnasium and multipurpose space. The space houses six basketball courts, three dance studios, an inline hockey rink with rounded boards and an elevated four-lane running track (see top right photo).

“[The 175-foot prestressed concrete floor] is quite an engineering feat,” Edwards says. “It was suggested by some that it couldn't be done. We believed that it could be.”

Besides the Olympic-sized pool with a moveable floor that can expand the pool's depth from zero feet to nine feet, the center also features a 15,000-square-foot fitness center with a combination of 204 cardio pieces, select weight machines, weight plate machines and free weights; an individual television with 116 cable stations on all cardio pieces; racquetball courts; a climbing wall; offices; locker room; a café; a 500-car, three-level parking deck; and a separate leisure pool that includes an 184-foot water slide, a 20-person hot tub, a current channel, six competition lanes and a patio for sunning.

If that wasn't enough to dazzle the socks off of the students, faculty and staff who use the facility, the view is. When a member first comes through the door, only walls of glass separate the fitness center from the Olympic pool allowing a full view of the entire facility.

“Probably the best comments we've had from our student population is, ‘this is like a mall,’ which I took as a compliment,” Edward says.