High Performance Facility Design to Opening: Lessons Learned While Creating a World Class Training Environment at McMaster University

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Bahman Bahrami & Jonathan Brown

The High Performance Area (HPA) is a training centre for athletes of all ages under the direction of the McMaster Performance unit in the Department of Athletics and Recreation at McMaster University. 

With a student centered and community involved model, the department’s strength and conditioning staff uses the HPA to service varsity student athletes, experiential learning opportunities, secondary school students, Olympic athletes, professional athletes, and community athletes and teams. 

A brand new space for the HPA recently finished construction after the design process started in 2018.

Walk through of new centre

The new space is adjacent to an indoor turf facility which will also be used by the recreation department for student intramurals during the school year and youth clinics and camps during the summer months. Although the turf is accessible by a garage door from the 3700 sq ft HPA, the multi purpose 7000sq ft indoor turf gym could not be used for equipment or loose item storage. The dimensions of the weight room portion of the expansion project give a narrow width and vary in ceiling heights; therefore, the equipment and storage for the HPA needed to have specific dimensions, be portable, and customizable in order for the room to function safely and efficiently for the services offered by McMaster Performance. 

This article takes you on a journey from design to completion. Our hope is to follow up on this article and give a 6 month operational review of our thoughts and the reality of how they were put into action. 

History of the High Performance Area at McMaster University :

McMaster Performance is the re-branded program which was formalized as McMaster Strength & Conditioning when Steve Lidstone was hired at McMaster in the early 2000s. Steve built the program into one of the most comprehensive in the country with service to over 300 varsity athletes, experiential learning through a 3 tiered curriculum to over 40 student staff each year, and a revenue generating business called Athlete’s Edge which used certified coaches and student coaches to train athletes external to McMaster competing at levels ranging from olympic/professional to youth community leagues. 

Since 2007 the HPA has been housed on the 3rd level of the David Braley Athletic Centre (DBAC). Over the years, the heavy use of this 2300 Sq Ft facility inside of an indoor track resulted in the area being taken over and S&C staff using every edge of the DBAC 3rd floor. There was a make-shift office, movement area, testing corners, and many more little pods that were taking over general recreation and student use. Although the environment was infectious, the space was clearly too small for the level of use. 

Initial Processes which led to a commitment for a new space:

In 2017, after several years of 1) continued growth in services for student athletes, 2) growth in the number of teams serviced, 3) yearly budget analysis showing great potential for revenue generation, and 4) limitations of the old space clearly communicated with the department, a new space was being considered as part of a larger scale campus project.

Table 1: Space utilization spreadsheet indicating student usage per sft to outline the capacity limits of training spaces.

The requirement for a new space was highlighted in several meetings with management and the following points were emphasized

  • Safety of the student and client training environment 
    • Management was provided with a chart (Table 1) outlining minimum square footage required for an individual to train safely compared to the minimum square footage provided each hour of service based on schedules and groups involved.  
    • Both our recreation department and our strength and conditioning unit had concerns with the High Performance area being housed in a room which was located in the inner circle of an indoor track. Recreational runners and athletes would get in each other’s way when crossing the track at times. 
    • Varsity S&C training sessions at the same time as track club events or our cross country practices were extremely concerning due to the high chance of collisions. 
    • Surface quality of the weight room was a concern when performing powerful movements or Olympic lifts. 
    • Surface quality and air quality during the summer months did not allow for a safe training environment. 
  • Negative impact on other groups
    • Heavy impacts with floor on a third floor space resulting in structural concerns and sound disturbances for offices below. 
  • Limitation of availability during peak hours
    • Most larger Varsity teams (ie. Football, Rugby, Soccer, etc.) need off-season workout times which allow their athletes to workout outside of normal class times. At McMaster the only option we have for outside normal practice time is 6/7am or 6/7pm.  
  • Revenue generation limitation
    • Our primary service and reason for existence is to take care of our student athletes. Even if we were able to balance out the needs of all varsity teams, we were still losing external teams and partners because of schedule limitations.
  • Field Sport athlete injury patterns
    • It is challenging for many field sport athletes to properly train during the winter months with the lack of access to turf/grass.  At the university level this is only recently being addressed with the addition of indoor facilities. This was a need for our university for a long time. Our therapy, S&C, and field sport teams have requested an investment in an indoor turf facility for a long time. It has been our observation that the lack of time in cleats on turf for field sport athletes prior to spring practices/camps or club involvement during the summer months has led to an unnecessary increased injury rate. 
  • Experiential learning workshops and laboratories 
    • The middle of the track was open to the floor below where intramural and drop-in activities were performed. This lack of acoustic separation was limiting the learning environment during experiential learning workshops and formal kinesiology laboratory times. 
    • We needed a space where the building noise did not disturb teaching during student volunteer workshops or kinesiology laboratories.  
  • Being High Performance and attracting talent
    • We needed a high performing environment to attract high performance athletes to our school and as clients. 

McMaster University Student Activity Building and Fitness Expansion (S.A.F.E.) Project

We were so fortunate that our management team and the university decided to invest in a high performance environment. The new High Performance Area was to be included in a larger campus project called the Student Activity and Fitness Expansion which included an expanded Pulse Fitness centre (fitness facility for students and community), rock climbing wall, indoor turf gym, women’s only fitness area, student counselling spaces, student study spaces, grocery store, multi-use studios, multi-faith prayer rooms, rest and recovery areas, and many more student service locations (Figure 1). 

Figure 1: The location and foot print of the proposed expansion.

Initial Design Meetings

It was critical to be involved early in the design process prior to construction. Although in hindsight there are more aspects we wished we had influenced, the early influences we were able to have was a major reason why we are so happy with how our new home turned out. 

We knew the indoor turf size right away and this was essentially dictated for us. When we first got approval for the expansion there were two potential sizes and shapes the weight room could be. It was either going to be a 3700 sq/ft rectangle or a 5000 sq/ft polygon (Figure 2). Right away we used the free Cybex Gym Planner tool online and came up with preliminary plans based on very limited info we had: 

Figure 2: The two proposed layouts, rectangle and polygon. Rectangle eventually became the choice.

The East Side Expansion of the S.A.F.E. Project

The original request was a space that was minimum 5000 Sq Ft. However, this was a project which needed to include facility space for various populations and services from McMaster Athletics and Recreation. The project was split up into a West Side and East side Expansion. 

The East Side expansion was the area which included the new HPA. This expansion was next to currently existing basketball gymnasiums and behind our 3rd artificial turf. The area also was beside an easily accessible road for drop off and pick up of clients. 

Eventually due to location, budget and encroachment of the road, we were given the 3700 sq/ft rectangular option. Although every coach would always love to have more space, we were thrilled with the extra space we would have compared to the old weight room of 2300 sq/ft with curved walls. The project budget allowed a 107ft by 30ft HPA space and a 107 by 64ft indoor turf space (Figure 3). The indoor turf space was built as a space where the general student body would have regular access during evening peak hours.

Figure 3: Artist rendering of the new building and base blueprints of the space.

Consistently follow up but stay patient with the design and construction:

The most difficult part of the process is the first year of construction where you see the process begin but it is way too early to see if anything was missed during the planning (Figure 4). 

To put it into perspective, we recently got occupancy and this project was scheduled to be completed June 2019 then April 2020 then September 2020 (which equipment was ordered at this time) and finally completed summer of 2021.

Be involved and don’t assume designers and construction personnel understand what we do and what the equipment we use looks like. An example of this was the flooring design in relation to the pillars in the room. When the flooring process started and we were explaining the dimensions of the room and where the inlay platforms needed to be placed, we made sure that the platforms on the window side of the room were moved in due to the first rack needing to be placed in front of a pillar. Although this was communicated, half way through the floor install we had to go in with a measuring tape and show them that the placement of the platforms was done evenly on both sides of the room and this could not happen because of the rack placement. The issue was a project director and a construction manager had to be aware of the equipment enough to realize that the flooring specs needed to be highlighted for the installers as usually they install the platforms evenly away from the walls on each side. 

Figure 4: Late stages of the construction process when we first were permitted access.

There were many challenges we faced in the project management process, including:

  • 1 year delay and no construction due to budget negotiations
  • 3 University project directors left within the first year and 1 left within the 2nd year. 
  • 3 different construction supervisors throughout construction. 
  • Major equipment supplier sales person let go and had to start the planning all over again 1 year into the equipment purchase process. 
  • Covid construction shut down and excuses easily available because of the pandemic. 
  • Local equipment supplier bought out and had to catch up a new company with an order placed. 
  • No real hallway designed for athletes to come to the facility so we needed to use a hallway from another department. 
  • Major equipment supplier needing letters from higher up university administrators to be able to cross the border
  • 4 different handover dates which were off by years and months
  • Equipment supplier getting turned away at the border for not having proper documentation.
  • No WiFi spec in initial drawings so we had to ensure we add that. 
  • Flooring installed incorrectly with many deficiencies.
  • Jump measurement pad concept not understood and random design implemented instead. 
  • Indoor Turf walls designed to be drywall and a big process to convince them that is not a good idea. 
  • Storage room having mechanical equipment implemented (apparently happens with every construction process). 
  • Ramp and exterior not finished upon opening. 
  • AV not set up upon opening. 
  • Over 300 email chains consisting of 10-45 email messages trying to organize various companies, architects, construction personnel, and facility managers. 
  • Equipment storage for an entire year due to construction delays. 
  • Outdoor turf around the container was installed incorrectly. 
  • Missing parts during major equipment installation. 
  • Ordering a 90 tonne crane to lift an outdoor container only to find out it was empty after being told it was full and 25,000 pounds. 
  • High Performance Training is a foreign concept to most so explaining the rationale to individuals over emails and meetings being almost impossible. 
  • Telling athletes the area will be ready and then they graduate and it is still not ready. 

From a big picture view, this project was just part of someone’s portfolio at all levels but one of our key focal points. We found that the key in dealing with these frustrations was by educating each group we interacted with. Whether it was the architects on how the athletes will feel about the place, the construction supervisor on equipment requirements and functions, or our project manager on the impact of timeline; the key was not taking the level of detail we wanted in the room for granted. It was our job to ensure that our students and clients received the best product possible. 

We hope the above information provides those who are lucky enough to build a facility with some insight and perhaps help those who want to get a new space have an idea of how to start those conversations. We are very lucky to be able to have this opportunity and even luckier to be part of an organization which invested in a space for our athletes to call home. An investment in performance centres allows all athletes to benefit and as most spend the majority of the year in the offseason, their experiences as a student athlete will undoubtedly improve. We also are lucky for our department to be able to work as one and be innovative and flexible with schedules in order for all users to have access. Lastly, the technology incorporated into the daily training environment will allow us to collaborate with our world class Kinesiology department. We will follow up with this article after a few months of use and provide an update on how the space is working.

Ben is entering his eighth year at McMaster and his sixth year as coordinator. Ben is responsible for overseeing the varsity programs and working with return to play athletes. In addition to his work with athletics, Ben is a sessional instructor at the school of Kinesiology.  Born in Iran and relocated from Vancouver, Ben is no stranger to Ontario. A graduate of University of Western Ontario, Ben played four years of varsity football and went on to complete his Masters of Kinesiology with a coaching specialization while competing for University of British Columbia as a linebacker.  With experience ranging from national teams, university, college, private sector and coaching at the youth level, Ben hopes to continue to build on an already extensive student-athlete support system at McMaster.

Jon is entering his seventh year as the Performance coach for the football and rugby teams. Born in Toronto, Jon is a graduate of the Sport and Physical Education program at Laurentian University. Growing up Jon played a wide range of sports from football and rugby to basketball and soccer at rep and club levels. After University Jon traveled to Birmingham, Alabama where he did an internship at NCAA Div I school Samford University. At Samford Jon worked with football, basketball, track and soccer teams. Having completed his internship with McMaster before he was hired, Jon also has experience working with national teams, NHL, AHL, SHL, OHL, University, College & private sector athletes.

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