Energetic. Impactful. Transformative. These are the three words Laurie Braden, the Executive Director of University Recreation at Louisiana State University (LSU), used to sum up the new Student Recreation Center. As a bystander it would be nearly impossible to find the words to describe this breathtaking facility, but it is without hesitation that Braden is able to conjure these adjectives that perfectly embody the new flagship building on campus. These three descriptors move beyond the physical bricks and mortar, but instead focus on the impact the new and improved facility intends to have on the students of LSU.
Of course all great things take time. This project was first conceptualized in 2010 when Braden was hired as the Executive Director. She was immediately given two tasks: revitalize the department and work with students to see what they wanted in terms of expanding the current facility or building a new recreation center altogether. The original facility was 120,000 square feet. It had undergone a redesign in 2005 to add updated features such as a dedicated cycling studio, climbing gym and 13,000 square feet of additional fitness space, but it was clear the students wanted and needed more.
As Braden explained, the National Recreation Space Standard is 9 square feet per student. In Louisiana, the average collegiate recreation facility has about 8 square feet per student. SCC schools have approximately 10 square feet per student. In contrast, LSU had 4 square feet per student. “The national space standards clearly indicated that we were not serving our students adequately when it came to recreation, health and fitness needs,” said Braden.
Braden took members of the staff and the student government on trips to visit other schools across the nation in order to see what recreation looked like on other campuses, get a vision of what it could embody on their campus and garner a dialogue around next steps. After visiting several schools in Alabama and Texas, the students decided an expansion and renovation of the current facility would be the best option, rather than constructing an entirely new building.
HOK won the bid and in the summer of 2013, the three-phase construction process began. The project was a joint venture between GraceHebert and HOK. The first year consisted of students and architects brainstorming collaboratively to envision what they wanted the building to embody. The first phase was the UREC field complex project. They moved intramural and club sport fields to one central location and expanded from three fields to eight multipurpose fields on 26 acres of land. The area also features four lighted softball fields with covered dugouts in a wagon wheel configuration. The second phase involved relocating the tennis courts and adding a parking lot, since students had expressed a desire for parking near the facility.
The third and final stage was the long awaited facility expansion and renovation. Braden easily recalls the exact date they began construction — October 24, 2014. Now, almost three years later, they will have their official grand opening when students return this fall.
The 231,335-square-foot facility is innovative and bright. Laced with purple and gold, the branding is on point. Everything from the light fixtures to the open floor plan creates a welcoming and inclusive environment.
Inspired by the breathtaking atmosphere, students have a plethora of fitness options to choose from: a functional training space featuring a synthetic turf floor and various equipment such as sleds, tires, ropes, kettlebells, medicine balls and more; a mind-body studio; 1/3-mile indoor running track that weaves all throughout the facility, inclining and declining around every curve; a 25-yard turf ramp for short sprints or any other exercise imaginable; various fitness neighborhoods each featuring a diverse equipment selection so anyone can find an area where they are comfortable working out; a 35-foot climbing wall and bouldering area; powerlifting room including power rack and bench stations as well as Olympic lifting platforms; a leisure pool in the shape of LSU, and so much more.
The facility is one-of-a-kind. But Braden stressed that it is more than just a facility. Located on one wall in the center of the building is an art graphic. It spans the height of the entire wall, which has been painted purple. Etched into the wall are the words: Learn, Play, Succeed — the department’s tagline. According to Braden, this new facility will help students not only achieve their health and fitness goals, but it will work toward a bigger mission.
“I think what it will do for the student experience is create energy. The space is so light and inviting and it is designed with a sense of excitement that just walking through the space, the energy is so exciting,” she explained. “So I think students will feed off that energy, they will expand and contribute to that energy and most importantly, they will transfer that energy from UREC to their efforts in the classroom.”
Undergoing a substantial renovation is never easy. While the reward is great, it does come with an exorbitant amount of stress and numerous challenges. But for Braden, it is precisely this ability to transform students’ lives that makes the job so worthwhile, even during these stressful times. “In the last 10 to 15 years more people in higher education recognize that collegiate recreation is a vital part of the educational process,” said Braden. “Every day we work in a place with dreamers. Everyone is coming here because they want to improve themselves. People engage in the educational process and go to college because they have a dream, they want to make themselves better, and they dream of ‘becoming.’ What makes me most proud is that I work in a place that helps people ‘become.’ Collegiate recreation centers are space where dreamers activate and become the creators of their future.”
It is safe to say that Braden has achieved the two tasks she was hired to accomplish. With the help of her team, University Recreation has become a united team that is enhancing the lives of the campus community. Braden describes the UREC staff as “amazing, talented, hard-working, driven people who love students.” It is with the help of this team that she was able to accomplish her second task of providing the students with a recreation facility that not only meets their needs, but exceeds them.
The dust has barely started to settle from construction, yet Braden shows no sign of slowing down. Her sights are focused clearly ahead on the future and the continued impact University Recreation will have on campus. “I see us really continuing to contribute to campus success and then institutional success by helping LSU attract and retain the brightest talent,” said Braden. “This is an incredible asset for the citizens of the state of Louisiana and for our students. I see LSU University Recreation being thought of as a leader in our field and continuing to rise in the minds of our collegiate recreation peers. I hope that both our programs and our facilities speak to the highest levels of excellence that we can achieve each day.”