Water, Water Everywhere
Designing Flexible Pools
By Dave Ramont
It wasn't all that many years ago when a lot of folks only ventured out to their local swimming pool on the hottest of days. All that was required of your pool was that it be filled with cool, cool water. If there was a diving board or a Popsicle to be had, that was just gravy!
These days, there's a myriad of options when it comes to aquatic facilities and their programming, amenities and activities. Whether it's fitness, competition, instruction, water therapy, or just leisure and recreation, there are many reasons to visit the local pool. So it's no wonder that pool operators and designers need to get creative to ensure that a facility can handle a number of scenarios to attract the largest segment of the population.
Know Your Needs
Whether renovating an existing pool or designing one from scratch, it's important to know what type of patrons the facility wishes to attract, according to Steve Comstock, vice president of design-build firm, RenoSys Corp. He said that in addition to getting to know the customer personally, his company aims to understand the needs of the customer's community.
"With a design-and-build project, there are no set designs—flexibility is the key. We try and morph our systems into their needs." This includes discussing the budget, since they don't want to recommend a pool layout the customer can't afford. "We feel the key to a limited budget is to design a pool complex that will allow for expansion, whether it's adding additional pool areas for future use or to increase water features and amenities at a later date as their budget allows," Comstock said.
Justin Caron, MBA and principal at Aquatic Design Group, agrees that different designs cater to different programs, so you have to understand the needs of your community in order to know what to design. "If you don't have the resources to engage in a formal study by hiring a good consulting firm to do the research for you, there are inexpensive ways to gain some insight into those needs," he said. "These would include utilizing social media with online polls, having handouts and flyers encouraging input, or hosting town-hall-type meetings."
Utilizing the talents of the staff and local people to see what's missing in the market—and discussing what other markets are doing—is critical, according to Doug Whiteaker, principal at Water Technology Inc. As far as reaching a greater audience, he said that having multiple water temperatures and the correct water depths for the programs the facility wants to offer is important.
"That's been one of the things we've seen lately in terms of desires from owners and operators, is making sure we have the ability to have multiple water temperatures." For example, if you want to swim laps or do water aerobics, then cooler water is great—in that 80-to-83-degree range. But if you're hanging out with friends, going down a waterslide or walking around a lazy river, then you want warmer temps—from 84 to 87 degrees.
Caron said that, in general, "warmer, shallower water is flexible, attractive water. It meets the needs of the majority of programs and is more comfortable for those who aren't as active, as well as those who are proficient swimmers. Deeper, cooler water and rectilinear pools will always be necessary for competitive and fitness users. Multiple bodies of water are typically preferable to a larger, single body of water. Having age-appropriate zones within an aquatics center can help with user satisfaction and safety."
Whiteaker describes some of the things they've done with moveable floors, so you can have a deeper pool with potential for competitive use, but then you move the floor up to have a shallower water depth that appeals to water exercise groups and learn-to-swim classes.
"We've done pools where you can actually move the floor up and if you position a bulkhead that has thermal isolation capacities, then you can actually have two different water temperatures in the same pool. So now you basically have two pools in one."
And while there will be an upcharge for this due to the bulkhead and the need for two filtration systems, Whiteaker points out that the building footprint doesn't need to grow much.
Make It Fun & Flexible
What other kinds of things are owner/operators looking for in new pool designs? Caron said it's simple: fun.
He explained how municipal aquatic centers—as well as smaller, private operators—are interested in providing some of the excitement of waterparks in their smaller venues. "This can range from themed play structures, to slides and climbing walls, to video boards, to river currents and vortexes and anything in between."
Comstock said operators are also looking for flexibility and multiple-use options; the more a facility can offer the community and various swim groups, the better. "Most casual patrons want a multitude of activities within the pool facility, which will ultimately lead to more dollars brought into their complex."
Other simple amenities that can be added to an old-fashioned 50-meter pool to inject a little more pizzazz include zip lines, diving boards and jumping platforms. Spraygrounds are ideal for attracting families, provided you have the deck space. Water volleyball, water basketball, water polo and underwater hockey are inexpensive additions combining recreation and competition, with some facilities hosting leagues or tournaments. Other facilities have found success using temporary features, such as inflatable obstacle courses, which could be set up during times when lap swimmers or exercise groups aren't as likely to be using the pool.
But, as Whiteaker pointed out, those inflatables do require extra effort to unpack, inflate, install, deflate, dry off, patch, store, etc. Therefore, some indoor facilities are looking at retractable components that go up into the ceiling. "So now you push a button and—much like doing a gym set-up where you have retractable basketball goals and volleyball nets—you can do that with these types of retractable courses."
Whiteaker explained how some swim coaches are installing climbing ropes or chinning bars into the pool that retract from the ceiling, since they're always looking for ways to make training more fun and less monotonous. Others may add retractable basketball goals to play basketball on inner tubes, or maybe they'll play water polo off of surfboards. "Now you're still using the same kinds of muscles, and it's also transferrable to recreational uses."
Just Like New Again
There are many reasons a facility chooses to undergo a renovation. Whiteaker calls these "rejuvenations," and said it could be as simple as maintenance or code upgrades. Or perhaps the pool is a "little tired" and has lost market appeal. "So in that rejuvenation mode, it's either an expansion of their core amenities, or it's a repurposing of their facility venue to make it relevant to today's desires and market demands."
Sometimes this means subtracting instead of adding. For example, Whiteaker said some parts of the country are going to almost year-round school, making it harder to secure lifeguards. "So they've actually looked at their pools and they've scaled back water to add things like splash pads to appeal to younger users, that don't require the amount of lifeguards for safety."
Comstock said that a majority of his company's projects involve renovation, since it's a way for communities to save money and time while enhancing their facility. "So many times older pools are one-dimensional," he said. "Renovations, while providing savings, allow for pool expansion and added play areas and features."
The other added benefit is updating to meet current codes and compliances. "It's imperative that patrons are safe, and renovations allow the opportunity to modernize their facility," Comstock added.
Pottawatomie Pool opened in St. Charles, Ill., in 1938—championed by Park Board member Algert Swanson at a time when public improvement projects could mean the difference between success and failure to a community, post-Depression. The pool underwent a major renovation in 2011, re-opening under the name Swanson Pool.
Holly Cabel, director of Parks and Recreation, and Rosie Fasching, aquatics supervisor at the St. Charles Park District, shared some insights into the renovation, which was in response to both community and aquatic surveys.
"The survey information was used to work on outlining the changes necessary to address community needs in the facility, operations and programming. The next step was to develop cost estimations for the desired changes," they said. This information was then used to educate the community when the park district went to a referendum, which was successful.
Swanson Pool already consisted of two separate pools—a shallower pool for younger users, and a larger, deeper pool with lap lanes and diving boards. In the large pool, specific amenities were added to attract older youths, such as drop slides, deck water cannons and a pad walk. From the surveys, it was understood that the community felt strongly about keeping the lap lanes and diving boards, and the staff was aware that these amenities were not often found in newly developed waterparks and, therefore, would be great components to keep in the newly-designed pool. "We also knew that we had a huge advantage of having a fair amount of deep water—also not found in many waterparks—so we wanted to use that to our advantage for recreational open-swim as well as rental opportunities," according to Cabel and Fasching.
Rentals are offered and marketed to the community, with pricing structured around resident or non-resident status, number of guests, and if one or both pools are desired. Additionally, the facility worked with the local competitive swim team to rent the pool to them during times not easily programmed, such as early morning, as well as one weekend a year when they host a swim meet that brings more than 1,000 people to the pool.
In Swanson Pool's activity pool, zero-depth entry was desired to create an accessible entry point, which was located closest to the public entrance of the pool deck as a safety precaution. Interactive water features appealing to younger children were also added to this area. "The sand play area was enlarged, as the community has always enjoyed this amenity. There was a desire to increase the shaded area, and so that also became a focus," Cabel and Fasching added.
And what about a pool's guts, or mechanics? The technology is always evolving, with a focus on sustainability and saving resources. Regenerative filters use minimal water, therefore less heating and chemicals. Variable frequency drives (VFD) are also optimal for conserving energy, as are high-efficiency water heaters. Plus, these innovations require a smaller footprint. System controllers can monitor the entire filtration system and can be accessed from smartphones, tablets or computers.
At Swanson Pool, Cabel and Fasching said that filters, pumps, chemical controllers/feeders and heaters were all part of the renovation. "These were all upgraded with the focus on efficiency to reduce annual operational costs associated with pool operations."
As Comstock pointed out, pools are expensive to build or renovate. Therefore, many facilities turn to additional ways to generate capital, such as classes, water therapy and exercise offerings, theme nights, special events and promotions.
Caron believes that "It's all about programming. A really good aquatics manager is worth their weight in gold. Creative thinking, empathetic understanding of their users' needs and the trust from their superiors can allow that manager to make any body of water highly successful."
Over at Swanson Pool, the staff is experimenting with many programs and events to attract a wide variety of users and keep them coming back. On the programmatic side, they offer swim lessons for ages six months through adult, both private and group. There are stroke clinics, diving lessons, scuba, lap swim and water polo. They also have a recreational swim team. You can take water aerobics or water Zumba, or sign up for lifeguard camps and training.
Some of the special events include Float Nights (bring your own inflatables), Pool Bingo, Biggest Splash Contest, Sink or Swim Cardboard Races, Sundae Sundays and Family Olympics. There's the World's Largest Swim Lesson, Lifeguard for a Day, Deck Art Days, Beach Parties and DJ Nights. Theme nights have included Monster, Princess and Superhero categories. They celebrate Father's Day, Parent's Day and Senior Citizens Day with special promotions. The month of June is Swim Safe with the St. Charles Park District, featuring daily pop-up activities, including a Cannonball Contest with a Lifeguard, facility tours and drop-in classes.
Get Some Support
Another important consideration in designs and renovations are the support features—concessions, comfortable seating, Wi-Fi, family changing rooms, shade features, etc. Caron said that "Nicer dry-side amenities are accompanying the wet-side amenities to increase overall user experiences and encourage longer use."
Whiteaker agrees, adding that it's the designer's job to work with the owner to maximize a customer's enjoyable experience from the time they step out of their car to enter the facility. "That's where we start to create those memorable experiences so that they want to come back next time, hopefully tomorrow," he said.
Whiteaker added that accessibility and inclusion are also important, pointing to the lazy river amenity as an example. Some may use them for water exercise by walking with or against the current, while others use them for therapeutic floating, and some just use them to be, well, lazy. "So that helps to become more inclusive in the design, but it becomes multipurpose because it appeals to a lot of different user groups."
Other ways to increase accessibility include adding handrails on both sides of stairs leading into the pool, installing lifts or elevators for water entry, and providing waterproof wheelchairs. Make sure changing rooms are accessible and easily navigable.
Caron is encouraged by these trends. "Finally there seems to be an understanding on almost every project that each facility should not only meet the letter of the law, but that they genuinely desire to meet the needs of every user in a fashion that no special requirements are needed," he said. This has translated into increased participation numbers and better facilities for everyone.
Back at Swanson Pool, Cabel and Fasching explained that each locker room received an upgrade by adding more bathrooms to meet demands. In addition, the community desired a different restroom option for families with young children, so family individual bathrooms were also added. The lobby area became more accessible for those coming in and out, and the staff counter was built to be more user-friendly, not just for those with disabilities, but also more efficient so that those with passes could scan themselves.
The concession area was completely remodeled with the intention of contracting out the concession service. "The idea was to provide a great shell of space with sinks, electrical, and service windows to attract food vendors to run the actual operation," they said.
Pool owners understand that to stay afloat, their body of water needs to be many things to many users: a destination for fun, thrills, competition, social interaction, therapy, fitness, learning or just simply a spot to cool off on a hot day. And thanks to resourceful operators, creative programmers and innovative designers, many facilities are accomplishing just that.
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