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Feature Article - May 2018

Swimming Ahead

New Currents in Natatorium Design

By Dave Ramont


Outdoor pools these days often resemble waterparks, with bigger and better features and increasingly upscale support areas. But indoor pools are also morphing, as facilities look to attract visitors encompassing all ages and interests.

"There are general trends to make indoor pools more interesting, fun and inclusive, incorporating a variety of elements that were once only found in exotic resorts or waterparks," said Allen Clawson, principal and managing partner at Cloward H2O, Utah-based design firm, specializing in "all things water," designing pools, waterparks, waterscapes, fountains and aquariums.. He described one recent design where a small natatorium incorporated a zero-depth entry with spray play elements and a small ripple wave, a current river, a vortex pool, two lap lanes, an indoor/outdoor hydrotherapy spa pool and a slide, all within 2,500 square feet. "The same facility would have been happy with a 30-foot by 60-foot rectangular pool just a few years ago."

It's true that indoor aquatic facilities now are installing separate pools under one roof to satisfy a wider range of user groups. Clawson pointed out how newly designed facilities are almost always combining leisure/recreation pools with competition pools in order to provide more general use. "Even the traditional natatorium facilities in schools and universities are adding rivers and activity pools to engage the larger demographic and make better use of the facility."

Multiple Demographics, Multiple Pools

"We're seeing an uptick in the demand for therapy areas," said Dave Schwartz, a principal at Waters Edge Aquatic Design, a Kansas-based aquatic engineering firm specializing in the evaluation, planning and design of aquatic centers. "These are distinct bodies of water with easy-entry ramps, lifts, steps, underwater benches with straps on them so you can hold yourself there and exercise, underwater jets and exercise equipment like treadmills and weight equipment that are in the water. And the water temperature could be 90 degrees or more."

Schwartz said these areas are also good for beginning swim lessons. "So the water temperature is the focus that we're seeing more and more drive how the designs fulfill the client needs."

Even the traditional natatorium facilities in schools and universities are adding rivers and activity pools to engage the larger demographic and make better use of the facility.

Schwartz said that competition and recreation pools can work together well, but water temperature is always the sticking point, since competitive swimmers like cool water but kids and older adults prefer it warmer. "So those two uses are a designer's challenge, how to balance that."

He pointed to a recent project where the diving area was separate from the lap area, since divers like warmer water than swimmers do, and that was perfect for adults or seniors to exercise in. If they couldn't swim they'd

just wear life jackets. "So there's ways to get around those differences. You have to identify what the client wants to do: What will the programs be? Who's going to use it? And how do you make that work?" The project also featured a recreation pool, so there are three separate systems. "It makes the filter rooms a little bigger, with a little more equipment, but that's the only way you can accomplish the temperature difference."

One thing that's advancing is the idea that aquatic recreation and wellness is for everybody, according to Doug Whiteaker, president of Water Technology Inc., a Wisconsin-based waterpark and aquatic planning, design and engineering firm. "It really has that appeal to the youth of all ages, especially us older people that want to be in the pool again and maintain our ability to be flexible."

He explained that while indoor pools are great for learn-to-swim programs, they're also becoming social outlets for older adults who want to work out and be among friends.

Whiteaker agrees that the trend in natatoriums is the desire for multiple water temperatures. "It used to be, let's just have maybe two: a warmer-water leisure pool and a cooler-water lap pool that can be used for high school swim teams or lap swimmers."

But now, he said, there's often four potential water temperatures: the competition pool is around 80 degrees while the leisure water is around 86 to 88 degrees. Water wellness/therapy pools might be 88 to 92 degrees, making them perfect for morning water exercise classes and afternoon learn-to-swim classes. Finally, the popular whirlpool spas operate at around 103 degrees.

When it comes to having multiple pools under one roof, Whiteaker says there are different points to consider regarding putting the pools in one room or in different rooms. "Acoustical separation is one of those things, and controlling operating expenses is another. Maybe we can shut down certain pools and not have to lifeguard them if they're not being used at certain times of the day." Additionally, if there's a competition pool that's holding training or events, "They can keep the leisure pool open and competition going on at the same time without sacrificing that level of service to the community."

Another consideration, especially in larger metropolitan areas, according to Whiteaker, is that as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse, certain populations aren't allowed in the presence of members of the opposite sex when swimming. Therefore, some areas might be equipped with shades so they can hold classes that appeal to these populations, with respect to their religious beliefs.

The same might apply to wellness and therapy pools: A lot of users are new to swimming suits and don't want to be on display, so keeping these pools in their own areas off the main circulation patterns of the building is a consideration. "How these all work, and how they're lifeguarded, are important design solutions that have to work best for each facility," Whiteaker said.

As facilities look to boost attendance by providing such varied offerings, from water sports to therapy and exercise to competition and play features, designers face new challenges. "Working flexible-use design elements into the aquatic plan affects water quality management, storage, deck space, changing facilities, etc.," Clawson said. "You can't just have folks bringing their personal gear, such as scuba gear or kayaks for kayaking class, without serious risk of impact to sanitation in the pool. So we either need to provide storage for kayaks and such or have provisions for a cleaning station for personal gear."

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