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Cover story: Fun with at-home sports center

- - Thursday, November 10, 2011

If you want your home to become the center for neighborhood activity, one of the best ways to do it is to create an indoor sports space for your children and their friends.

"A lot of people want their place to be the one where people gather," said Steve Kirstein, a principal with BOWA, a design-build and remodeling company based in McLean. "The places with the best toys are always where everyone wants to go. Creating a space in your home where the kids and you can be active is also a healthy alternative or addition to a home theater."

Whether they are facilities within a home or located in a separate building on the grounds, many Washington-area properties include indoor basketball courts, racquetball courts, swimming pools, private bowling alleys and even a private indoor skating rink.

"People put a lot of things in their homes that they think they will use and then don't, but most of the people who add sports facilities really use them," said George Fritz, chief operating officer of Horizon Builders in Crofton,Md. "People are trying to provide something their kids will really want to use and to create a place where they can build a strong family."

Jim Rill, principal of Rill Architects in Bethesda, said homeowners can add sports facilities when they are building a home or can add one as part of a renovation either in a separate building or in a remodeled basement or garage.

"We're currently working on a detached barn that we added to the property and functions like an entire athletic building," Mr. Rill said. "It has an indoor infinity pool, a whirlpool tub, a workout room, a spa area with both steam and sauna rooms, and a lounge area with a Wii station."

Rill Architects has built another barn with a three-quarter-size basketball court, a batting cage with a pitching machine, a golf practice range and a tennis court. While that barn rests on a 10-acre site, Mr. Rill said adding a sports facility does not necessarily require an extensive amount of land.

"In another home, we dug underneath a garage to create a full-size basketball court with the garage space above it," Mr. Rill said. "If you don't have a lot of land, you do need to have an oversized basement with a big footprint or a three-car garage that you can build above to create a sports facility."

Mr. Fritz said his company has built an attractive barn that fits into the landscape and offers a space for year-round basketball, badminton, ping-pong and lacrosse practice, with an area for adults to watch their youngsters play.

Sometimes the spaces within a home lend themselves to a particular activity.

"We were renovating a home with a long and wide corridor in the basement and chatting about how it would make a great bowling alley," Mr. Fritz said. "The homeowners thought it would be fun, so we tracked down a company that takes out older equipment that is still functional from bowling alleys that are upgrading. They set up the bowling alley with some old and some new parts."

Mr. Fritz said the homeowners liked the idea of creating a place for their kids to use, and they found it has been great for impromptu gatherings for children as well as adults.

BOWA completed a remodeling project for homeowners in Potomac in 2010 to finish a full basement along with a 450-square-foot addition to the space.

"We created a sports court which basically functions as a rumpus room with cushioned walls and composite resin floor for cushioning," Mr. Kirstein said. "The space has low basketball nets that are the right height for the kids, but they can also play roller hockey and just roughhouse in the room."

The basement also has a dance studio with a ballet barre and mirrored walls for dance and exercise, a pub for the adults with a restaurant booth similar to one from "Seinfeld," a billiard and game room, and a craft room. There even are Murphy beds for sleepovers.

"Typically, we'll do things like this in larger homes, but for little kids, you need less space," Mr. Kirstein said. "You need less space than you think you do to add a sports facility, but the space needs to be well thought out."

Sports facilities can be costly, both for the equipment and the embellishments to the space, typically starting at $200,000 or more, depending on the type of structure and equipment.

"You're usually adding either a detached structure or finishing a basement or a garage, but you also need things like special flooring, Plexiglas windows that won't break if they get hit by a ball, cushioned walls or floors, and sometimes an observation area," Mr. Kirstein said. "But this is money well invested because this kind of space can be enjoyable for the owners and then really turn buyers' heads when the owners are ready to sell the property."

Some sports facilities are very specific to the owners' interests and may not have universal appeal to buyers, except perhaps for the novelty factor.

"I saw a home in this area that had an indoor ice-skating rink in a separate building that was attached to the house," Mr. Fritz said. "The rink was about one-third the size of a regular rink, but the whole family used it for practicing for ice hockey and figure skating."

Mr. Fritz said racquetball courts are more common because family members of all ages can enjoy the sport and get exercise.

Indoor swimming pools also are popular and require special design elements to make sure the space has adequate ventilation.

"You can add an indoor swimming pool to a garage or possibly a basement, but you need to make sure you have a layer of insulation and deal with the moisture right so that the whole house doesn't smell like chlorine," Mr. Rill said.

While adding a complicated sports facility to a home may seem over the top, the expense is often worth it to families who reap the benefits of the exercise and social interaction.

"Almost everyone wants an exercise room these days, and a sports facility is just an extension of that," Mr. Rill said. "You can take two bays of a three-car garage and turn it into a sports or exercise space or get a prefabricated barn for the shell and then finish it with whatever equipment you want."

Keeping the family home and physically active is the main goal for many homeowners who choose to add a sports facility, but the extra benefit often is pure fun.