Trends in Municipal Aquatic Facility Design
By Deborah L. Vence
You don't necessarily have to go far to find a top-notch aquatic facility. Many municipalities today offer aquatic centers that mimic larger waterparks, equipped with popular features such as drop slides, lazy rivers and lily pad walks. Families can experience almost a mini vacation, you might say, with the opportunity to take their children all summer long to swim in the pool and zip down winding waterslides.
"Municipal facilities are becoming much more advanced than the simple town pool of yesteryear with a couple of diving boards and maybe a slide or two. Innovative, first-to-market attractions are becoming more commonplace as municipalities begin to embrace the waterpark model of offering excitement and entertainment to their members," said Jessica Mahoney, marketing manager at Aquatic Development Group, a Cohoes, N.Y.-based company that specializes in waterpark design and construction.
"Dual-entry wave pools, boogie boarding surf pool rides—both were first implemented at municipal parks," she said.
The fact is that the modern aquatic center has increased in popularity and use. "This increase is attributed to the expansion of programs, services and amenities that appeal to a wider range of the population," said Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Design Group, a full-service aquatic architecture and engineering firm based in Carlsbad, Calif. "It is also attributed to an increase in health and fitness lifestyles and an ever-aging population that is well suited to aquatics activities."
One of the latest trends in municipal aquatic facility design includes specialized areas to serve specific programs—areas designed for water play, fitness and exercise, competition and lessons.
"For example, [an area] within the deeper water to support inflatable water play is a popular feature in modern aquatic centers," Berkshire said.
"Swim lessons are typically the greatest source of revenue for a municipal swimming pool, so pool configurations that can support this are important," he said. "Waterpark amenities are also popular to better serve recreation programs and facility rentals."
With multi-programmable water, municipalities benefit from bodies of water that can be used for a variety of activities—"opportunities for leisure, exercise, rehab, competition—all happening in the same body of water (as much as possible)," said Tom LaLonde, AIA, LEED AP, vice president and managing principal, Williams Architects/Aquatics, an Itasca, Ill.-based architectural firm that specializes in municipal, recreational, residential and commercial design and construction.
"Current channels are very popular. By nature, building and operating lazy rivers can be cost-prohibitive. Offering some form of water movement in a smaller feature provides the fun more economically. Current channels can also be used for exercise, as well as gathering spaces," LaLonde said.
In addition, you can make use of existing spaces for waterslides. "Waterslides that don't require a dedicated body of water makes them more flexible and cost-effective, yet just as fun," he added.
Municipal facilities are becoming much more advanced than the simple town pool of yesteryear with a couple of diving boards and maybe a slide or two.
In some cases, aging swimming pools are being replaced with spray pads.
"Spray pads provide dynamic, zero-depth aquatic fun for the entire family. Elements typically combine various types of water features—flowing, misting, spraying and jetting—offering patrons an immersive aquatic experience, at much lower maintenance, operating and staffing costs," said George Sells, AIA, director, creative studio, Water Technology Inc. (WTI), a Beaver Dam, Wis.-based architectural firm that specializes in planning, design and engineering qualifications in the waterpark industry.
LaLonde agreed. "Spray pads are continuing to evolve and offer opportunities for very young to older children. Many manufacturers now offer customization of features to better meet client wishes," he said. "The newer spray pads typically are located on continually draining decks so that the spray features are not in a standing body of water, thus not requiring certified guards. By separating this area with a fence, it allows for a longer, extended season."
Municipalities now are building aquatic facilities incorporating many of the features and attractions of private waterparks. "Interactive multilevel play structures, wave pools and waterslides are becoming essential to the success of new municipal developments," Sells said, adding that other trends he sees include restroom and changing facilities that are being updated with improved finishes, ventilation and lighting.
Also, "Patrons are seeing better foodservice options, as well as small retail venues."
In addition, "Shade has become increasingly important to skin care, and municipalities are responding with abundant shade structures and umbrellas. Overall, patron accommodations are constantly being improved," Sells said.
Miklos Valdez, project manager at Counsilman-Hunsaker, an aquatic engineering and design firm in St. Louis, said he sees "zero beach entries with shallow water being a top priority as well as other play features like slides, crossing activities, children's play structures and climbing walls."
Crossing activities are installations that have floatables underneath a rope or cargo net. They are sometimes referred to as lily pad walks, as well.
"Children use the rope or net to … walk across the floatables from one side of the pool to the other," Valdez explained. "It's a challenging activity that engages balance, strength and coordination, but is really just fun."
What's more, climbing walls are very popular right now.
"Climbing walls are easy to add to an existing facility at a reasonable cost when considering the popularity," said Rich Klarck, lead aquatic engineer at Williams Architects.
To boot, slides are becoming more interactive with lighting and "racing slides" with timed events. Users can "race" one another, and try to beat the best time.
"Small play features/structures are continually becoming more interactive, focusing on social interaction and learning for the younger/toddler-aged children," Klarck said.
Today, the public has greater expectations than ever before when it comes to municipal aquatic facilities.
"As they have the opportunity to see other pools and facilities, their expectations at home increase. In addition to greater expectations in features and programs, patrons today expect better water and facility quality," Berkshire said. "A successful facility will balance the levels of technology that it uses with the capabilities of their staff."
Community members are looking for activities the family can enjoy together, such as lazy rivers, double tube slides and aquatic play structures.
"They tend to be multigenerational activities and are low risk," Valdez said.
The proliferation of private waterpark venues has shown community members what opportunities exist for aquatic attractions, and many are expecting similar experiences, though at a smaller scale, at their local municipal aquatic center, Sells noted.
"While the experience expectation has increased over the years, community members typically demand the admission cost of their centers to be far less than private waterparks," he said.
Sells noted that school districts are taking the lead more and more in developing swim venues for competition and teaching. "This has allowed municipal aquatic centers to shift their focus to facilities that offer increased entertainment value to patrons," he said. "Community leaders are not only listening and responding to the needs and desires of their constituents regarding leisure activities, they also see the success of existing similar facilities. The 'country club' atmosphere offered by many municipal aquatic centers provides families with an affordable leisure experience close to home."
Mahoney said communities are looking to offer more than just a town pool these days.
"As competition for people's dollars and attention gets more sophisticated, communities need to keep pace by offering new experiences for their members," she said.
Skill-based attractions, such as the surf simulator, provide a path for repeat visitation as members return more often to improve their skills.
"These skill-based platforms also provide a path for entertainment and group gatherings, community contests and events that are always important in a municipal setting," she said.
As municipalities increase the amount and types of attractions they offer, they provide a viable option for a day of entertainment.
"People continue to look to spend their time and money on rewarding experiences for the entire family. As parks develop their programs and add attractions to meet this demand, they increase and grow their membership base substantially, generating community pride and keeping entertainment dollars within their community," Mahoney said.
"Unique, attractive and entertaining town centers and water recreational parks," she added, "are a high source of pride for a community and serve as a draw to potential new residents, setting communities apart."
LaLonde said community members want to have programmable water for use by all ages (toddlers, teens and adults).
"Expectations are to spend a better part of the day at the aquatic facility," he said. "Providing opportunities for all the different demographics (young kids, teens, parents) ensures every age group has something to do, from lap swim/resistive walking to waterslides to splashing in the water with young children."
Concessions are a nice amenity, too. "Offering foodservice within the facility keeps the patrons from leaving, and the concession/shade area is a perfect opportunity for families to gather," LaLonde said, adding that rental cabanas are gaining in popularity, too, as a place families can congregate throughout the time they are at the pool. In turn, it brings in additional revenue.
Community members are looking for a facility that allows them to monitor children of different ages at the same time.
"By placing amenities, such that a parent can watch the toddler in the spray play area and the older children on a slide, makes for a more enjoyable, relaxing day," Klarck said.
Moreover, community members also expect a variety of experiences to keep them entertained. Examples of this include the drop slide, waterslide, current channel, lap swimming, exercise programs, lily pad walk, spray features, zip line, concessions, etc.
As a general rule, municipal aquatic facilities typically appeal to a certain age group (parents with toddlers, elementary school children). "Once the children reach a certain age they are typically involved in other activities, diminishing the time available to visit the local aquatic park," LaLonde said.
"We have found that facilities that add and promote new amenities every three to five years continually have good attendance," he added. "It is important for municipalities to revisit the amenities offered at their facility every few years in order to add interest to keep attendees returning and continually attract new visitors."
The approval process for any aquatic development or expansion presents its own challenges, and never truer than "in the municipal setting when dealing with the necessary red tape requirements and town codes," Mahoney said.
"Working with a developer that understands the codes and how to navigate the process is essential for a smooth project transition," she said.
"The right company can also help with providing the right training and operational management guidelines, from setting up lifeguard skills clinics to operating and maintaining your wave system in a wave pool or river attraction," Mahoney added. "And, a clear understanding of staffing needs at the outset allows the municipality to prepare for the hiring and budgeting process to run and maintain the park."
As greater demands are put on hours and the number of people using an aquatic facility, control of water quality becomes more challenging.
"Many aquatic centers operate seven days a week with little or no time for preventative maintenance," Berkshire said.
In that case, "Systems must be designed to operate at such levels," he said. "Automated systems have the ability to monitor conditions of a facility or pool water and automatically make adjustments for quality control. Some of these systems can become complicated and difficult for staff [to] operate. A successful system is one that the staff can fully understand and operate."
Berkshire also said it is unacceptable to say that "poor air or water quality is simply due to more use (over-use) than expected. Systems must be oversized to plan ahead for such use."
Meanwhile, Sells suggested that proper aquatic construction requires industry specialized companies.
"New aquatic construction is flourishing, and as such, the opportunity exists for companies with marginal aquatic construction experience to secure build contracts, often resulting in substandard facilities," he said.
Proper aquatic construction is expensive, and the cost of construction and operation must be understood by the community thoroughly prior to moving forward with that type of project. Municipalities constantly are pressured to incorporate sustainable design into their projects. Securing the proper design team to facilitate a responsible design in an efficient way is not only desirable, but also can minimize operating costs.
Automated mechanical rooms have simplified the filtering operation and stabilized the treatment of the water, allowing for fewer maintenance staff. Operational safety and consistent water quality continue to be the ongoing challenge in any aquatic venue.
Valdez added that some issues and challenges today include the "current rise of construction costs and the challenge for communities to make the proper investments in maintenance to continue operation through the expected lifespan of the aquatic facility."
So, municipalities need to determine how to pay for construction.
"The upfront cost for aquatic facilities is significant. In Illinois, grant funding has dried up, which makes it more difficult to fund," LaLonde said.
The selection of pool equipment is important in reducing operating and maintenance costs.
"Regenerative filters are much more economical to maintain and require a much smaller footprint, thereby reducing building size, which in turn saves money," Klarck said.
LaLonde said municipalities that spend more money up front on higher quality materials and finishes will effectively reduce the cost of upkeep and long-term maintenance.
"The challenge is to come up with the capital in order to do it right so that your long-term maintenance and operation costs are reduced," he said.
Klarck added that municipalities need to be open to using other technologies (i.e., premanufactured stainless steel pools in lieu of poured-in-place concrete).
"Stainless steel pools require less maintenance. For example, a painted concrete pool needs to be repainted every two to three years. A stainless steel pool has a floor liner, which can last 10 to 12 years before requiring any maintenance," he said. "If done properly, the life of the pool can be significantly extended."
Fees and Budget
Aging swimming facilities still can charge a modest fee for admission. A wide selection of activities and an enjoyable experience will entice patrons to stay longer.
"A longer stay can justify a higher admission cost. Newer municipal aquatic facilities with waterpark-like amenities can certainly charge accordingly," Sells said.
"The cost to maintain [a facility] varies based on several factors: the size of the facility, the numbers of features and the level of finish for the facility," Valdez said.
Also, "We have seen construction cost prices rise between 7 and 10 percent per year on average," he said. "These costs are inherent to any project, but a proper design and a thorough feasibility process will help to ensure the project funds are being well spent, and that the facility will be financially sustainable in the future."
And, you don't need to look back 30 years, either, to see how prices have changed.
"Costs have roughly doubled in the past 10 to 15 years. Twenty to 30 years ago, most aquatic facilities did not have the sophisticated features you would find in modern aquatic designs," he added.
Mahoney said adequate upfront budgeting for development and operation, including staffing and equipment maintenance, should be outlined prior to undertaking any project so that the municipality has a realistic picture of operational costs.
"Costs, including the price for admission," she said, "will vary depending on the size and location of the project and attractions that are included."
Similarly, Berkshire noted that daily admission rates vary greatly depending on the levels of service provided, the economic conditions of the community, and the political environment.
"It becomes an issue of both the ability and willingness of patrons to pay and the municipality to charge for services," he said.
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