Feature Article - January 2020
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Planning for Flexibility & Wellness

The Ongoing Evolution of Natatorium Design

By Dave Ramont


In 1868, the Cabot Street Bath opened in Boston, and according to the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming in America, this was the first indoor swimming pool in the United States. Of course, chlorination and filtration systems weren't introduced until the next century, so swimming in a public pool was a pretty dicey proposition back then.


In our lifetimes, natatoriums have always been there, perhaps conjuring memories of vacations past, those first swimming lessons or attending a swim meet. And through the years they've evolved to keep up with changing demands, offering opportunities for leisure and entertainment, competition, fitness and exercise, instruction, therapy and socialization. And as technologies advance and users' desires change, aquatics planners and designers are always looking to improve and enhance the way that natatoriums operate and serve the public.

"As patrons have more frequent visits with longer stays, the actual and perceived health and wellness of a facility is in greater demand," said Dennis Berkshire, president of San Diego-based aquatic planning, design and consulting firm Aquatic Design Group. "To achieve this, engineers are turning to integrated computerized controls that monitor and manage the air and water systems. These systems have the capability of adjusting conditions based on bather use and other environmental conditions."

Berkshire explained that rather than a single disinfectant—chlorine, for example—these systems use both a primary and a secondary disinfection system. "The secondary disinfection is often ultraviolet or ozone disinfection systems. When managed correctly they can provide better air and water quality in the natatorium."

Another trend is to oversize the systems to allow them greater turnover of the air and water circulation and filtration systems, said Berkshire. "During peak loads the systems can increase the turnover and filtration of the water and air systems to maintain a quality chemical-free environment."

Scott Hester, president of Counsilman-Hunsaker, an aquatic planning and design firm headquartered in St. Louis, weighs in on how technology is driving designs. "Probably the biggest technology trend we are seeing today is with system controllers and the ability for equipment to communicate with each other. Today's chemical control systems have advanced to the point of being a pool system-wide controller whereby pumps, filters, heaters and chemical treatment systems are all communicating with each other.

"We are also seeing technology brought into the day-to-day operations in terms of record-keeping, pool testing, incident reporting, lifeguard certifications and other operational and risk management factors through the use of web-based digital documentation tools," said Hester.

Flexibility is another trend found in modern natatoriums. To serve the ever-increasing number of patrons, designs must be flexible to serve simultaneous use for a vast array of programs, explained Berkshire. "Water that is used for a competition swim team one hour may be used for recreation or swim lessons another. Spaces, pools and configurations must be designed to allow for multiple programs and uses to achieve a maximum utility and revenue potential for a facility."

Of course, Berkshire points out that mixed-use facilities require much more planning and forethought than a single-use facility, such as a competition pool. "Variables such as water temperature, water depth and pool configuration are all part of the pre-planning process. Planning must consider not only the multiple programs a facility is to support but also simultaneous programs as well. With the correct planning and construction, a facility can keep people and programs in the water all day long, which is key to a maximum operating cost recovery."

Of course, in these types of facilities, Berkshire stresses that staffing is also a strong consideration. "For example, a facility that will have lifeguards and constant supervision can stretch the limits in programming and amenities. Facilities that do not expect to have such staffing will be required to have a simpler design."