When The Bascom Group bought the 170-unit Park Wilshire in Los Angeles several years ago, the eight-story apartment building lacked a fitness center. But, the Irvine, Calif.-based owner identified vacant space that could be turned into a fitness center—1,000 square feet in a basement that was a speakeasy in the 1920s.

“It's an ongoing challenge to attract and keep residents,” says Paul Diamond, a senior portfolio analyst with The Bascom Group. “They're all about convenience, and onsite fitness centers are very appealing.”

The Bascom Group is just one multifamily owner that has added fitness centers to existing properties. In fact, many are transforming unused space into fitness centers, spending $15,000 to $35,000 to create this popular amenity.

PICK THE RIGHT SPACE Nearly every apartment or condo building has some type of unused space: obsolete maintenance areas, empty garages, or old laundry rooms. Regardless of the type of space, though, if it is going to become a fitness center, the area must be in a visible, safe location and large enough to accommodate bulky and heavy fitness equipment.

TIDIED UP: This former laundry room cleaned up nicely as a fitness center at the ALARA Glenmuir in Naperville, Ill.
TIDIED UP: This former laundry room cleaned up nicely as a fitness center at the ALARA Glenmuir in Naperville, Ill.

“If you have unused space that requires you to go through a dark parking garage or too much out of the way, no one in their right mind is going to want to use it,” says Diana Pittro, executive vice president of RMK Management, a Chicago-based apartment developer and manager.

Depending on the equipment, experts recommend a minimum space of 200 square feet because fitness centers must be handicap accessible. “Rather than lining up several treadmills, design the center to have designated stations with a higher level of accessibility and space around them,” says Steven Kratchman, founding principal with Steven Kratchman Architect, a New York City-based architecture and design firm.

Smaller properties, for example, don't need very large fitness centers, Pittro says, adding that R M K Management's fitness centers range from 600 square feet to 1,400 square feet. Similarly, The Bascom Group managed to create a fitness center in a 10-foot-by-20-foot space, Diamond says. “We made do with a smaller space by being selective with our equipment—just a treadmill, elliptical machine, and exercise bike,” he says.

The unused space also needs to have a ceiling height of at least seven feet because the equipment needs clearance, Kratchman says. If a ceiling is too low, he recommends removing ceiling tiles and relocating ductwork and lighting on walls, which usually provides an additional 12 to 15 inches. Otherwise, owners can choose equipment that doesn't require much headroom, such as stretching mats, recumbent bikes, and rowers.

KEEP IT COOL Once the right space has been identified, owners should focus on the mechanical and electrical systems so there will be enough heating, cooling, and electricity, says Paul Hutchinson, president of Lane Realty Construction, a division of Atlanta-based Lane Co. “Those two areas are the source of most of the rehab expense other than the fitness equipment,” he explains.

Lane Co. installed a completely new A/C and upgraded electrical system as part of the rehab of a 4,000-square-foot maintenance area into a fitness center in the 350-unit Franklin Oaks apartments in Franklin, Tenn.