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Designing a fun, healthy, and more inclusive future


The belief that nobody should be left behind is one of the foundation stones of creating a fairer society. Making sure individuals and groups are not overlooked or forgotten when it comes to the design and operation of buildings is a bigger consideration today than ever before.

In this blog, Richard Dobson, area director for Morgan Sindall Construction in London, discusses the team's experience when it comes to inclusive design for Leisure Centres, using the Hackney Britannia Leisure Centre as the most recent example.

Inclusive building design means many things, but it’s a great deal about accessibility, supporting individuals' dignity, encouraging a sense of community, and creating a welcoming environment that nurtures physical and mental wellbeing for all who use it.

Leisure centres are an interesting case in point – not least because it’s generally accepted that if more people used them society would benefit in terms of better health outcomes. At the same time, it’s clear more needs to be done to cater for a broad spectrum of users and the facilities themselves are often starved off investment.

Facilities need to appeal to as wide a range of their potential demographic as possible. For the public sector this is increasingly important in the post-Covid, working from home shift. We all need and deserve to have access to good leisure facilities and local community centre needs often fulfil that requirement.

Picture of the completed Hackney Britannia Leisure Centre from the outside (Image credit: Diane Auckland, Fotohaus)
The Hackney Britannia Leisure Centre scheme featured a number of examples where inclusivity had been considered for a variety of users

Sport England produced data last year showing that almost a quarter of council sports halls and swimming pools had not been refurbished for more than two decades. Local authorities will not find the challenge any easier in the current situation but financial barriers have to be balanced against community health benefits, for example reducing diabetes and loneliness.

Small design points can have a huge impact on inclusivity. In the case of traditional swimming pool changing rooms, for instance, many are cramped and lack privacy. They are not conducive to inclusivity. Across a range of Morgan Sindall Construction projects, we have worked with leisure clients to reimagine 'changing villages', informed by the needs of a diverse range of people.

It is vital to appreciate and understand the end users and their privacy requirements. On a recent project, for instance, religious, LGBTQ+ and body shaming organisations were consulted on the design and layout of the changing area. This was done at an early stage of the design process and embedded inclusivity into the scheme. We also talk to specialists within our supply chain to extract and leverage knowledge they may have which might otherwise be overlooked.

Gender and religion have to be considered if any scheme is to be truly inclusive. For example, at the state-of-the-art Britannia Leisure Centre in Hackney, completed by Morgan Sindall Construction this summer, there are black out blinds around the swimming pool to give women – and Muslim women in particular – dedicated swimming sessions with a level of privacy that will be a huge factor in whether they feel comfortable enough to use the facility.

More people will use leisure centres if hurdles are removed. One study found that 85% of caregivers said it was incredibly difficult to deal with the challenges of a leisure centre – particularly when alone. Where to put a child while you get changed? How to get into the pool safely if your child cannot stand by themselves?

Sharing and publicising best practice projects and design ideas is important, as it helps to move the construction industry forward – encouraging faster, wider uptake of inclusive practices. We're seeing innovation in parts of the industry but there is still far more that can be done to boost inclusive place-making.