When Ben Franklin laid the roots for America’s first university, the University of Pennsylvania, in 1749, spinning classes and step aerobics didn’t exist. Students came to the Ivy League school to study. And only study.
Now, more than 250 years later, students still attend the Philadelphia university in quest of stringent scholarly pursuits. However, they also understand the importance of fitting in a regular physical fitness regimen between cracking the books.
When it became obvious to University officials that the campus had outgrown its existing recreational facilities, new construction was in order to meet the demand for more modern recreational amenities.
Space for building within the urban campus was limited, leaving administrators to ask this question: Did they want to demolish the existing facility, Gimbel Gym, and rebuild on the same site or did they want to build upon the existing facility and use space there to streamline costs and still provide students, staff, and faculty with a recreational outlet that met their needs?
They chose the latter option. New York City-based Richard Dattner & Partners Architects PC and the construction firm Skanska USA Building Inc. in Parsippany, NJ, worked to carve out a feasible building plan.
The end result? The $21 million, 102,000-square-foot David Pottruck Health and Fitness Center, which combines about 67,000 square feet of new recreation and fitness space as well as a juice bar, with the pre-existing space in the Gimbel Gym.
“You build a facility to run your programs,” says Michael Diorka, director of recreation at the University of Pennsylvania. “We ran our group exercise classes, like aerobics and spinning, with very little space to do it in the old space.”
Built in 1962, Gimbel Gym housed three basketball courts; a weight room; and a competitive, Olympic-size swimming pool and locker rooms, as well as the Katz Fitness Center, which opened in 1996.
Members of the design team and University officials were determined to save as much of the functional Gimbel space as possible. The building plan focused on the fact that Gimbel Gym had three usable basketball courts and a swimming pool.
“We already had those and didn’t need new ones,” Diorka says. “Instead of spending money on the big things, we were able to spend on fitness space, dance rooms, and new locker facilities. Our game plan was to devote as much square footage to program space as we could.”
The design team worked with the University’s Department of Recreation to maximize the use of space, as well as satisfy the program needs. The new facility provides areas for cardiovascular fitness, weight training, and studios to host aerobics, dance, yoga, and boxing, as well as the department’s administrative offices.
The facility consists of five levels, which are cantilevered in order to fit the building between the existing Gimbel Gym and a parking structure. The center maximizes its space vertically rather than horizontally, as is common with many other fitness centers.
“It worked for us,” Diork says. “Instead of having a building that’s sprawled over an acre or so, we went up with the space in an architecturally aesthetic kind of way.”
Its aesthetic exterior, a combination of aluminum windows and a terra cotta rainscreen system, is also one that is groundbreaking in the United States. It is the first to use the German-manufactured terra cotta, a common European building material, says Mike Healy, project executive with Skanska USA.
The terra cotta panels were manufactured in a controlled environment and shipped to the site, where they were erected like a precast panel. The back-ventilated rainscreen cladding system allows the wall to breathe so that condensation exits into the cavity, resulting in better insulation values and lower maintenance costs to the building façade.
The construction schedule posed one of the biggest tests of the team’s creativity. The University was adamant that Gimbel Gym would remain in operation during the 12 months it would take to construct Pottruck, despite the fact that areas of it would be closed off in order to connect it to the new construction.
While closing the entire facility during this period of time would keep costs down in the sense that construction could be completed in a shorter period of time, the closing would have had a dramatic effect on campus life without the use of the Gimbel facility. The gym remained open during the school year.
“The biggest challenge in doing major construction around a fully operational building was keeping both the construction site and Gimbel Gym safe at all times,” says Healy. “We were given the challenge to duplicate the functions that were housed in Gimbel during the school year.”
The gym was closed during the summer to allow the construction team to build temporary cardio rooms on top of one of the basketball courts, providing gym users a space that was two times the original. Designers also used existing space on the basement level to construct temporary locker rooms that were not as large as the original space but provided sufficient space for the one-year period.
“The conditions were not ideal,” Healy admits. “But to everyone’s credit, few complaints were registered during this period of time by students and staff.”
Robin Suttell, based in Cleveland, is contributing editor at Buildings magazine.