This gym does not sweat… It glows. From the moment you’re greeted by the crisp-shirted front-desk staff and pass through into each exquisitely designed space, the experience is one of calm, relaxation and nurture. It’s a health club – but not as we know it.
This Menlyn Maine Virgin Active was the fourth in the ‘Collection’ series of clubs to open its door to the public. The clubs are set apart by the fact that all areas of the facility are carefully analysed and designed according to the needs of the typical member. ‘The design had to be simple and timeless, luxurious yet hard-wearing, functional and unique,’ according to the group.
These clubs, aimed at higher-earning individuals, were also a good starting point to strive for green interior ratings, as many are located in new eco developments.
Health and wellness are central to Virgin Active SA’s ethos, so the benefits of eco-conscious buildings and interiors – particularly increased productivity, and the well-being of the building’s occupants – are welcomed. Sustainability is a key driver in Virgin boss Richard Branson’s business ventures, and he is a founder and chair of B Team, a global group of leaders working together to accelerate Plan B, which focuses on sustainability in business.
Closer to home, Virgin Active SA ‘made a decision to be responsibly green in terms of not only the building but also in terms of the operations of our Collection clubs’, says MD Ross Faragher-Thomas. ‘The [Menlyn Maine] club has been consciously designed and built with this vision in mind. We worked closely with our consultants to reach our Green Star rating aspirations, making the journey easier and the rating attainable,’ he says.
The newly won green credentials underpin this commitment. The Green Star SA interiors (from the Green Building Council of South Africa) is a rating tool that assesses the environmental attributes of interior fit-outs. Virgin Active’s Alice Lane Collection gym in Sandton was the first health club on the continent to be awarded a 4-star interiors rating in 2016, and the Silo club at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town has also been submitted for rating.
The heath club is in good company at Menlyn Maine. Unlike many other mixed-use developments whose eco-friendly initiatives are generally limited, Menlyn Maine has prioritised sustainability and earth-friendly initiatives, making it Africa’s first ‘green city’.
The Virgin Active club is one of the development’s shining stars. ‘Our aim from the start was always to achieve a 4-star Green Star interiors rating,’ says Lara Pollastrini Wray, head interior sustainability consultant at Ecocentric, which worked on the Virgin Active project.
At the heart of this was the health and wellness of users and employees. ‘This plays a major role in Green Star interiors through the indoor environmental quality category,’ she says.
To this end, the team looked at, for example, access to daylight, appropriate and good quality artificial lighting and the use of low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, adhesives and flooring, which all contribute to a healthier indoor environment.
Staff members have access to the facilities during off-peak hours, and they have bi-monthly physical training sessions to encourage them to adopt a healthier lifestyle, as well as extended lunch hours if they want to use the gym then.
The Collection clubs are inspired by their environment, says Lizl van Wyk, the interior architect on the project from Design Line. ‘When designing a Classic Collection club, we take our clues from the greater area, the precinct of which we form a part and, most importantly, the member profile,’ she says.
The design principles for Virgin Active Menlyn Maine were, says Van Wyk, ‘bringing the outside in and taking the inside out; accentuating and funnelling natural light; and softening the linear structure with organic shapes and materials, ultimately to create a more comfortable member experience’.
The team considered all aspects of space, and ensured they resonated with the members’ needs. ‘We made sure that the proportions of the space, the light we created and the finishes we chose all supported the usage of the space, as well as the feelings a person would experience while using it,’ she says. ‘The finished product is just that – each space doing its job for the people using it.’
More than with other health clubs in the group, the team focused on using natural materials such as wood and stone. The timber staircase at Menlyn Maine is unique in the Virgin Active environment, and aims to recreate a sense of honesty and simplicity.
‘When choosing materials, we kept it simple,’ says Van Wyk. ‘The colour palette was derived from the tones of oak and concrete – and all finishes were selected to align with this.’
According to Van Wyk, the allocation of space when designing a health club is dictated by its use. ‘Through years of experience, we understand the optimal space to be allocated to the different functions,’ she says. There is no waste – all space was designed and used sensibly. The flow was determined by a typical member’s journey – what would they would want to do first on entering the property, then second, and so on, she says. At the Collection clubs, members can spend the entire day with everything they need on hand – training, food and beverages, business and meeting facilities, health treatments, grooming and relaxation.
The non-training activities are grouped together on the ground floor while the training areas are upstairs. There is a visual connection between the public spaces, creating a synergy between work and play. ‘The facility becomes a space where social, work and fitness [is] integrated – adding convenience to members who are strapped for time.’
The use of light was also a major consideration, especially how natural light could be introduced into the building. The vision? ‘To control the natural light and make it softer,’ according to Van Wyk. The team funnelled light into the space by creating light tunnels on the training floor; punching a hole through the southern facade and then shaping the room, which houses the V-Cycle studio, to follow the curve of the window. They thickened the walls in the spa area, which allowed the glazing to be set back, reducing the light entering the area.
They also introduced greenery just outside the spa windows to create privacy and filter the light even further. ‘Natural light also accentuates the green wall in the outside shower area leading off the spa, but again the walls surrounding this opening were angled to create a light funnel into the area,’ says Van Wyk.
The facility is south-facing, so no window treatments are required. The double-volume shopfront on the south facade offers members a clear view over the Central Square with its trees and greenery. The lounge area also spills out onto a balcony where the temperate Pretoria weather can be enjoyed. A shaded external training area allows members to train outside and an outdoors ‘sensation shower’ area spills off the spa pool zone. This facility allows activities typically reserved for the indoors to be taken outside.
There is a strong linear order to the lay-out, which is organised around the main circulation routes of the club. The training floor, for example, is arranged around a circulation spine, starting with the main staircase on the one side of the training floor, across which another staircase leads to the external training area. To soften the strong linear lines, natural materials and furniture in organic shapes were used.
Studios were designed to be more intimate and organic, giving the member the feeling of being ‘cocooned’ and protected. ‘The open-plan training area is light and airy, with views over the square from any position on the training floor,’ says Van Wyk.
Her favourite? The spa is everybody’s favourite, she says. ‘The controlled way natural light enters the space while accentuating the vertical garden outside, creates a beautiful, relaxing and [warm] interior.’
Consideration was also given to the choice of workout equipment. Technogym’s premium Artis range, says Liam McLoughlin, senior key account manager at Technogym SA, respects the highest ergonomic and biomechanical standards. ‘Not only does it reproduce natural body movements, it also recreates that unique feeling that turns exercise into pure pleasure,’ he says.
Besides its myriad high-tech offerings, sustainability is also a priority. ‘Its unique technology enables members and operators to reduce their carbon footprint and contribute to the creation of a more sustainable gym,’ says McLoughlin.
The U-GO display, for example, can be powered by the energy produced by the person working out on the equipment. No wires or batteries are required, and you can choose the most suitable layout for your strength equipment. The flashing of a green light signals that the treadmill needs attendance. Members can still use the product, but a speedy maintenance service will prevent equipment downtime and energy waste.
At the end of the day, says Faragher-Thomas, green buildings are healthier buildings. ‘Virgin Active Collection Menlyn Maine is not only distinct from a design perspective, [it also] provides a healthy workout environment in which to achieve fitness goals,’ he says.