Is an Enclosure the Right Option to Add Seasons to Your Facility?
By Jessica Royer Ocken
What's not to like? Add a cover to your pool or tennis court and you instantly beat the cold, rain or wind for recreation on any occasion. However, while enclosing a facility offers a lot of benefits, it's not always quite as simple as popping a top on the ice rink or soccer field you already have. We've analyzed your options and spoken to several who have taken the plunge themselves. Read on to get started gathering the info you need to determine if an enclosure is right for your recreation venue.
Yes, there are a number of fairly obvious benefits to enclosing a sports or aquatic facility. This allows you to extend seasons or make your venue an all-year destination, with no worries about the weather. But this is really just the beginning. Take things a step further and enclosures may offer even more enhancements than you realize:
Additional Programming Opportunities: Even with year-round access, you'll likely still have a busy season and a slower season, but you'll always have lots more time to fill with activities. Lessons and training seminars can fill off-season hours, and you could partner with a local school or sports league to provide space for their practices and games.
In Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, the Lava Hot Springs Foundation recently garnered the funding they'd long been seeking to enclose a pool at their Olympic Swimming Complex. They now offer a year-round indoor aquatic center with a climbing wall. Many of their clientele are tourists, but "we offer swim lessons throughout the winter months, and aerobics and fitness swimming all year round, whereas it was seasonal before," said Mark Lowe, executive director of the Lava Hot Springs Foundation.
"Definitely our biggest money maker now is lessons," said Matt Pfeil, director of recreation for the borough of Ebensburg, Penn., where the Ebensburg Tennis Center—an indoor/outdoor facility—is located. "Tennis an outdoor sport, but people like to keep their game in tune in the winter, so that's a big part of the off-season." Having indoor courts also allows the center to offer lessons for younger budding tennis stars. "We have a 3-to-5-year-olds program that we can't do outside," he said. "But get them in early, and tennis is a sport they can do the rest of their lives."
Additional Events: Your enclosed space may also be a potential destination for concerts and special events in the area. The McDermont Field House offers about three acres of indoor entertainment space, even though it's based in the relatively small city of Lindsay, Calif. (population 11,000). "We're a regional sports and entertainment destination," explained Brad Albert, director of the Field House. "We have concerts and dances, and we're adding pro boxing in February. We host car shows—a little of everything. Monday through Friday, locals use [the Field House], and weekends are special events. We try to do some unique things."
Additional Memberships: In addition to more activities for your patrons, the more your venue is available, the greater the membership draw it offers. "[We] can sell year-round memberships because we have an option for winter," said Pfeil about the Ebensburg Tennis Center. "We have a large membership base because of that, which keeps us up and running and covers expenses. Others are shutting down in October or November and don't have the income we do for the next four months."
Additional In-Season Options: Enclosing your pool or playground is not just about extending the season. It's also about creating options for patrons during your busiest times. "The [enclosed] facility does add an extra something for our summertime users, too," said Lowe about the Lava Hot Springs aquatic center. "Some like the shade and the indoor toys that are not available at the outside facility. It always amazes me how many people are inside that pool on nice days."
Not to burst your bubble (particularly if that's the type of enclosure you're considering), but before you get carried away thinking of all the enhancements an enclosure will offer, there are a number of practical factors to consider as well:
Cost: Building, staffing and maintaining an indoor facility can be expensive, and even with the array of bonuses your enclosure will provide, it may take some time before you're back in the black. Consider carefully whether your community or customer base can support such an endeavor.
"Additional revenue has been generated, but [the newly enclosed pool] is still a long way from carrying its own weight during the winter months," said Lava Hot Springs Foundation's Lowe. "The only saving grace is our access to natural hot water used for heating the pool and building. There's no way could we afford the cost of natural gas or electric heating."
Part of the reason finances are a challenge for the Lava Hot Springs Foundation is their community's small resident population. They rely heavily on the seasonal wave of tourists, and "it is difficult to change people's attitudes about swimming in the winter," Lowe said. "If we had more of a population base—like a municipal pool or a YMCA has—all-day programming would be great," he added.
How to Build: How will you convert your outdoor assets to indoor? Will your current facility work as an indoor one? Although there are some fairly simple enclosure options, such as air domes or "bubbles" and inflatable enclosures (see sidebar), sometimes, in the long run, it's simpler to build an indoor facility from scratch than to try to convert something that already exists.
Many times adding a permanent enclosure to a structure doesn't work because what exists may be older and doesn't conform to current building codes, noted Jim Lothrop, a partner and architect with Lothrop Associates in Valhalla, N.Y. "People try to enclose old pools, but once you start the project everything has to come up to current codes." However, there's always a way to be creative. Lothrop Associates worked with the village of Ossining, N.Y., a few years ago to convert their aging outdoor pool into an exciting indoor facility (see sidebar). Although they built a brand-new pool, they were able to avoid completely new construction by configuring the locker rooms at the adjoining gym to serve swimmers as well. (The old outdoor bathhouse was not adequate for an indoor pool.)
If you're considering an air dome or inflatable enclosure, these may be classified as temporary structures and require fewer (or no) building permits, depending on the laws in your area. (Be sure to check!)
Lothrop also noted that control is an important feature of community and recreation buildings. "You want to know who's going in and coming out, and you don't want people wandering in unsupervised," he said. While newly designed and constructed buildings typically include one front door to serve as a checkpoint, this sort of flow "can be a challenge if you're enclosing an outdoor pool." He added that when enclosing an existing structure it may also be difficult to ensure that offices and first aid stations and supervisory posts are all located in appropriate areas, not to mention coordinating things like mechanical systems, hot water and electricity.
Despite the splash of cold water in the previous section, our goal is not to discourage you. Those we spoke with are largely thrilled with their enclosures, and you can be, too. Just be smart about how you proceed with the project:
Think Carefully: "My best advice for starting the process is to be completely honest with yourself about the cost of construction and performance of the facility," said Lava Hot Springs Foundation's Lowe. "It is going to lose money for quite a period of time in a tourist setting—unless you do things that are very unique or you have access to a captive market. Our best hope is to someday break even on the operating costs of the facility. We will never recoup the construction costs."
Evaluate your audience (and potential audience) and talk to those in your community about what they would like and what they'd be willing to support. Do a careful cost analysis—perhaps with professional help—to find out exactly what sort of financial outlook you'll be dealing with. (See sidebar for an example of one village's process with this.)
Choose Wisely: You'll also want to determine the best type of enclosure for your venue and situation. Do you need something more temporary and seasonal, or are you looking to make a permanent change? What type of materials will work best for the facility you'd like to enclose?
"A more affordable option would include bubbles, or air tents," Lothrop said. "That's an initial cost, but then they're less expensive after that."
However, he cautioned, don't think these options are worry-free. Because they're made of lighter, more flexible materials, by nature they won't last as long as a permanent structure. And if you're taking them down and putting them up for various seasons, that maintenance time and cost can add up. Sometimes condensation is an issue inside a bubble, Lothrop added, and they're not known for their fabulous acoustics, so if you're looking to maintain a specific level of humidity or are planning to host events you'd like to be clearly audible, a more temporary enclosure may not be the best choice.
"Usually for pools and tennis courts you see a pre-engineered metal building," Lothrop said. "Those are less expensive, and for a tennis court they're usually fine, but for swimming they're not so good because of the humidity. That's tough on structural steel." Instead, when Lothrop Associates has a pool-enclosure project, they opt for an enclosure with an aluminum frame, which is not corroded by moisture. "Ice rink enclosures are OK made out of steel, but when you get to a big thing like a soccer field, [enclosures are] usually bubbles because that's only thing that will stand big enough…. Structural steel is not affordable if [the space is] too big."
Lothrop also noted that, in general, the size of the space and the amount of humidity involved (i.e., is it a pool?) are the most important factors in determining what type of enclosure to build. "It's easier to enclose some things than others," he said. And enclosures involving water are the toughest. But there are plenty of manufacturers out there who specialize in enclosures, and lots of designers and architects have experience with these sorts of projects, so it's a good idea to seek professionals with previous practice at building the sort of structure you'd like.
This way you can avoid ending up with a corroded enclosure over your pool—or even a less drastic, but rather annoying situation like the indoor pool Lothrop was called in to consult on. The lighting had not been installed appropriately, "so they had to have the custodian put on a bathing suit, put a ladder in the pool, and change the light bulb from there," he said. "There are some simple things you can miss if you haven't done this before."
More seriously, he also noted that glare from lights or coming through glass walls onto the water can be a problem in enclosed aquatic facilities. Not only does glare make it difficult for spectators to see what's happening, it can prevent lifeguards from seeing below the surface of the water and being able to do their job.
Get Creative: No matter how daunting the project may seem, if you've determined that an enclosure could really help you better serve your community and customers, be bold and resourceful as you look for ways to accomplish your goal. Be inspired by Lindsay, Calif., which is home to the luxurious McDermont Field House, despite being a rather small community.
To start with, they worked their way into just the right spot via a land swap. "This has been about five years in the making, just looking at all the different options and thinking out of the box," Albert said. "It worked out well for the [land's] owners because they found better spot to build houses, and [the Field House was built] right downtown. This develops the community because of all the people who come in…so we get great buy-in from the Chamber of Commerce and community in that regard."
In addition, the Field House project garnered some grant money and redevelopment funding because it used existing structures—the old McDermont orange packing house and cold storage—and expanded them via a new structural steel building, yielding a wooden core with metal structures on either side. "We spent $18 million for the entire project, and in reality it should have cost us lots more," Albert said.
So start surveying the scene—and more importantly, your community members—and before you know it an enclosure may give you the all-year access your facility needs for maximum enjoyment.
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