Feature Article - July 2013
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Jumping Off the Deep End

Daring Trends in Aquatic Facility Design

By Kelli Anderson


In the case of the Stephens Family YMCA, changing their design to accommodate the needs of not just the physically disabled, but also those with sensory and social/emotional challenges as well, turned out to save money in some cases and proved the old adage that "if you build it, they will come."

The process of designing for ADA was made especially easy with the addition of key players to help inform their process.

"A lot of this stuff wasn't money, it was thought," Johnson said of the aquatic facility and its success. "Putting in a rubber floor in the sensory room saved money and changing the way a door would swing—this was easy stuff. A push button door? That's cool. Beyond just helping those with wheelchairs, it helps the elderly and those pushing strollers. These things just make peoples' lives easier."

Of course, the most noticeable accommodation in the aquatic area is the accessible waterslide, visible through glass walls in the entrance of the building. Once Johnson and his team decided they wouldn't take "no" for an answer to the rebuff that an accessible waterslide had never been done before, they began to problem-solve and discovered that by merely moving an elevator from one side of a hall to another, and by lowering the slide by two feet (with a price tag of only $7,000), that the impossible was very possible, after all.

The process of designing for ADA was made especially easy with the addition of key players to help inform their process. By inviting parents of disabled children, an occupational therapist, a consultant and local architect to their roundtable discussions, the result was a facility that broke barriers, opened doors and allowed those of every ability to enjoy what should be a common experience for every child.

"It's a common attitude that there just aren't disabled people in your community," Johnson said, understanding how many managers conclude that there isn't a need for this kind of effort in designing for special needs patrons. "I understand the frustration, but they don't realize how many of those with disabilities just stay away. Of course you aren't going to see them if you don't make a way for them to come!"

Of course, ADA regulations aren't the only ones forcing change in aquatic facilities. With the changes in FINA regulations in recent years for deeper diving well depths (now 11 feet, 6 inches for a 1-meter spring diving board) and starting block depths (now 4 feet, 5 inches), many American pools constructed when the depths were more shallow are no longer permitted to be used in competition. As a result, competition pools are scrambling to adapt.

"Pool depth concerns have risen for starting blocks and for diving wells," Matzke said. "The U.S. is using 12 feet as a minimum now, and insurance companies are saying you can't use the diving well anymore, so people are putting drop slides in, but there is a backlash. If our kids aren't learning to dive in our pools, where are they learning? Off of a cliff? And people are recognizing that diving is entertainment and competition. It's beneficial, so we have to make the pool deeper."

Some schools have been able to skirt part of the issue by moving starting blocks to the deep end of their pools, often straddling the diving boards, but not all pools have this option and with the new implementation of ADA laws, schools are seeing now as a good time to deal with both issues.