A New Dynamic Hub for Campus Recreation at Northern Kentucky University

Northern Kentucky University

Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and its suburban Cincinnati campus have been all about growth in recent years.  Welcoming an increasing number of students to campus each year, the current student population is around 15,000.  Also growing its reputation in Kentucky, Ohio, the Midwest and nationally, NKU has needed to respond to its success with dynamic new facility investments. These investments have been hallmarked by a new College of Informatics, a Student Union and a rejuvenated campus recreation center.

Northern Kentucky University’s new Student Recreation Center expansion / renovation was initiated after the University’s Student Government Association passed a resolution requesting a comprehensive study be undertaken to determine the feasibility of improving the existing facility to align with the expectations of today’s students. The University teamed with CannonDesign and Omni Architects to develop and assessment of current and future needs for both indoor and outdoor campus recreation facilities. This assessment led to the 164,000 sf expansion/renovation of the existing Albright Health and Wellness Center and development of a new outdoor turf field complex — incorporating new offerings responsive to the shifting needs of student recreation.

Completed just over a year ago, NKU’s revitalized Student Rec Center is already driving dynamic results for students and the university. NKU has been tracking the facility’s success and recently shared the following achievements in the expanded facility’s first full year of operation:

  • The Student Rec Center attracted over a quarter million visits in its first year of operation, which is more than double the number of annual visits for the previous facility.
  • The new facility has also brought back more than 1,000 alumni to campus as Campus Rec members.
  • The center hosted over 450 events in its first year, ranging from a student welcome week to homecoming and the annual university faculty staff picnic along with area high school after proms.
  • The new facility has become a focal point during campus tours and new student recruitment and orientations visits. Early signs suggest the center is paying dividends in recruitment and retention of students.
  • Early research indicates students utilizing the new campus recreation center have higher GPA, higher retention rates and higher credit hours earned than non-users.

The success NKU is realizing with their new Student Recreation Center is exactly what most universities are seeking:  greater student engagement; broader diversity of student participation; stronger student recruitment and retention; greater participation of faculty, staff and alumni; and in NKU’s case, greater opportunities for community engagement, etc.  Here’s a look at three key steps NKU took that helped them realize this success.

For Students, Inspired by Students

Any institution seeking to create a recreation center students will love needs to engage students in the design process. NKU took this to heart and implemented numerous student engagement practices (brainstorming, surveys, design input, feedback sessions, etc.) early on to ensure they achieved strong ROI on the project. One of the top priorities identified by students was the inclusion of windows on the exterior (and interior) to bring natural light into the facility. The design solution response was to remove the windowless exterior precast concrete skin and wrap new building program around the existing structure. This along with the removal of large interior walls completely transformed the exterior of the building as well as the interior allowing spaces to suddenly become open, unified and filled with light. Weight-fitness equipment on the upper level offer users an unexpected view of downtown Cincinnati. By acting on this student feedback, NKU has truly created a center that thrives on openness, natural light, connectivity and helps forge a new identity for the campus.

Strategic Expansion of Programmatic Space

An obvious lack of adequate and diverse program space was also validated with student input and feedback during an early programming phase. Heavy student engagement ensured prioritization of desired program elements such as additional weight-fitness space, indoor pool, bouldering wall, and group exercise rooms.  Again, one of the key reasons the facility has seen such an increase in usage is because the spaces strategically respond to the needs and wants of NKU students.

The renovated areas include conversion of a three court gymnasium to four-courts; a rejuvenated overhead jogging track; improved racquetball courts; conversion of an existing natatorium to a MAC; a bouldering wall; new weight-fitness area; and a new circulation spine that cuts through the facility.

An 86,000 sf addition doubles the size of the existing recreation center while unifying the old with the new and includes:

  • New building entry, lounge and control station
  • New performance gymnasium
  • New natatorium with 25 yard X 8 lane competition pool, separate deep water diving well, recreational pool and spa
  • Additional weight and fitness space
  • New administration suite
  • Outdoor sand volley ball courts, courtyard and covered plaza
  • An outdoor turf field complex with soccer and softball fields

All of these space combine to create the comprehensive recreation experience for all students, faculty, staff and alumni on the NKU campus.

Welcome Technology

Because technology has become such an integral element in the life and routine of students, integration of technology into the campus recreation environment is another critical element in creating a positive and welcoming experience for students while in the facility. Lounges and seating areas throughout the building are equipped with USB ports readily accessible for charging of devices. Digital classroom schedulers provide easy access and programming information for all of the group exercise rooms, meeting rooms and conference spaces.  A large digital LED screen in the natatorium not only serves as a scoreboard but can be used to show indoor movies or other displays during events.

Moreover, looking to engage students beyond just recreation, the University has purposely infused a variety of student meeting/collaboration spaces in the recreation center including computer workstations, breakout meeting areas for small and large groups and casual seating areas of all types throughout the facility. These spaces provide opportunities for students to meet, study, collaborate, research and more before or after a workout or in between classes and help attract more students, both on and off campus, to engage with the dynamic building.

Every university has its own culture and requires its own, unique campus recreation solution. Still, Northern Kentucky University took several steps that could help inform recreation programs across the country. Their lessons learned and measurable success may serve as guideposts for others looking to enhance recreation opportunities for a broader student base.


Reed I Voorhees, AIA, dedication to sports architecture spans more than two decades of planning and designing sports, recreation and athletic facilities for higher education institutions to best serve students and communities. Reed brings in-depth knowledge in the programmatic, functional, and technical aspects of sports architecture, with a focus on the exploration of design innovation and program evolution and a belief that public architecture should be mentally stimulating and emotionally uplifting.

Emily Harbourne was a previous editor for Campus Rec Magazine.

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