From Simple to Stunning

Trends in Nonconventional Recreation Structures


As recreation managers consider how to build new facilities to house recreation, sports, aquatics, fitness and more, they're faced with a growing array of options in the form of nonconventional building structures. These include everything from air-supported fabric domes to tensioned membrane structures, translucent daylighting systems, retractable glass roof enclosures, pre-engineered steel and beyond. As the technologies behind these structures continue to advance and diversify, many of these options are becoming more attractive to recreation facilities because of the cost and functional benefits they can provide in a variety of different applications.

The Seasonal Approach

One option that many recreation facilities on a budget are turning to are air-supported structures. Steve Flanagan, president of a company based in Minneapolis, Minn., that manufactures the structures, sees them being used in both seasonal and year-round applications.

In the past, he saw the structures mainly being used as a winter solution for tennis courts and pools that wanted to continue operations during colder months, while being removed to provide the outdoor experience in warmer weather. Today, however, he's seeing the sector's growth being driven more by the multisport industry.

"A lot of facilities are covering a turf field, but it's still their stadium field," Flanagan said. "They don't want the dome up into the summer and fall when they're playing outdoor sports for the school on it. But they do want it up for the wintertime when those sports are done." This instantly provides a cost-effective way to create an additional programmable space in the winter months without sacrificing the benefits of an outdoor field.

An example of such an application can be seen at the Academy of Holy Angels (AHA) high school in Richfield, Minn., which first built its StarDome athletic facility in 1996. According to Scott Daly, general manager of the StarDome, the school normally puts the dome up after the last home football game in November and leaves it on until sometime in April. AHA originally looked at building a full fieldhouse, but this air-supported dome solution cost roughly $1 million less and offered the option for outdoor play on the artificial turf field during the warmer months.


Daly noted that while the dome is costly to heat in the winter because it doesn't have much insulation, the school is able to more than make up for its operation costs by renting out the space when it's not being used by the school's teams. "From that standpoint, it's been great for us," Daly said. "It's an asset for the school that doesn't really cost anything because it supports itself. So it's a win-win for the school and for everybody else who gets to use it in the winter, too, and who wouldn't otherwise have a place to play." These include youth soccer, baseball and lacrosse teams as well as a 55-plus softball league that rents space during the day.

The seasonal coverage from Minnesota's harshest weather also offers the school a competitive edge. "In the spring especially, it's huge for our school," Daly said. "We have open time where kids can come in a month or two before the season starts, to get ready for the season. And when it rains and is so soggy you can't get on the fields, we can get our teams in and play, and it's a huge advantage."

Daly noted that the original fabric dome lasted 13 years, but estimates that it probably would have lasted longer had it not been stored outside during the off-season. The facility now stores the new fabric dome in a pool barn and wraps it for extra protection. Flanagan noted that an air structure should typically last 15 to 20 years unless a special fabric with a life span of 25 years or more is chosen.

"The big benefit of an air structure is cost per square foot," Flanagan said. "It tends to be the lowest cost on the market when you're talking about 50,000 square feet and on up structures." Because of their seasonal use, they also are often subject to less stringent building codes regarding things like insulation than other year-round solutions.

From Temporary to Permanent

Another type of structure once thought of as temporary, but that now is engineered for and found in a wide variety of lasting permanent applications, is tensioned membrane structures. Jim Avery, vice president of a company that manufactures these structures and is based in West Jordan, Utah, sees them used most often in applications such as athletic pavilions, fitness facilities, community pool enclosures and ice arenas.

"Because of the advances in the architectural exterior of the membrane and the way it's tensioned, you can get 30-plus years out of that membrane, and then all you do is replace it, just like you would the roof on a building," Avery said. "But on the inside you get a much taller peak height, it's bright, it's white on the interior, and it's exceptional from a sound and lighting perspective."


The structures are available with a variety of options, including energy-efficient insulation as well as color options that can match any team's colors. The solution also normally comes in at a lower cost than a conventional building. Avery noted the example of the Collingwood Community Pool and Ice Arena in Collingwood, Ontario, where the town had received an original bid of more than $35 million for the arena and pool project. "We did the whole thing for $12 million and they couldn't be happier," Avery said. The company was also able to complete the project in under 10 months, far faster than the norm for an equivalent conventional structure.

The tensioned membrane structures also offer the flexibility to be installed over existing facilities. One such example is the Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center in Kearns, Utah, where a structure was installed over an existing Olympic-sized 50-meter swimming pool. This enabled the Oquirrh Recreation and Parks District to considerably enhance the programs, activities and events it could offer during the winter months. At the same time, a series of roll-up doors maintain the ability to create an outdoor environment in the warmer months.

"They have made it possible for swimmers inside the structure to see the beautiful mountains, trees, outdoor pools and other swimmers outside the structure," said Brent Sheets, executive director of the Oquirrh Park Fitness Center, in a reference letter for the project. "We have clearly created an atmosphere where our patrons feel like they are outdoors, with shading overhead!"

The structures are also relocatable, providing a benefit for certain applications such as ski areas, where Avery estimates that his company has worked on roughly 40 projects. "Ski areas often have a master plan whereby they want to utilize space, but in 10 years they might want to build a giant condo tower," Avery said. The quick install potential is also attractive for these applications, since the projects can be completed in the off-season. "You don't want to build through the winter. So you get it up in the winter, they like the space it delivers, and if you want to move it later, so be it," Avery said.

Bringing the Outdoors In

For an even greater feeling of being outdoors in the indoor environment, some facilities have opted for retractable glass roofs and skylights that can provide open air in warm weather and full sunlight during the colder months.


Dave Bolwerk, vice president of sales and marketing for a manufacturer of these products based in Oakville, Ontario, sees these structures used mainly in pool applications in the recreation sector. "The idea is that this is a building where you can get the best of both worlds between having an outdoor facility and an indoor facility at the same time," Bolwerk said.

While the glass roof and sides can be opened to let in natural air, this solution also lets in an abundant amount of natural light even when closed. "So even in the winter time when you've got everything closed up, you still get that outdoor feel because there's so much light in there," Bolwerk said.

Bolwerk claims that despite the increased heating costs over the winter, people are surprised to learn that in many applications this solution can actually result in lower overall operation costs. Because it's an all-glazed building, lighting isn't needed during the daytime. The ability to let in open air can eliminate the need for air conditioning in the building during the summer. The open roof and sides also creates a chimney effect that improves air quality and eliminates the need to run the dehumidification system in good weather.

"Many people look at the open roof and think it's a luxury item—so many times they ask how much it is if I don't have an opening roof," Bolwerk said. "And the answer is that it's not as much of a difference as you think because I've still got a hole to fill. All your glazing is the same. For what you get and save on the operational costs, the opening panels will pay for themselves in the long run."

For an even greater feeling of being outdoors in the indoor environment, some facilities have opted for retractable glass roofs and skylights that can provide open air in warm weather and full sunlight during the colder months.

At Zehnder's Splash Village, a waterpark in Frankenmuth, Mich., the resort chose a retractable glass roof-and-door structure when installing an expansion of the existing waterpark. The original waterpark had been constructed inside a timber building. While the air handling units in the original park need to run 24/7, 365 days a year, Zehnder's can turn the air handling units completely off in the summer months in the new waterpark. The open-air structure also creates a completely different look and feel than the older facility.

"I will say it is a more dramatic environment than the existing waterpark," said Al Zehnder, CEO of Zehnder's. "We wanted to create a sense of, 'Wow, this is different,' and I think we've accomplished that." The new facility has also been a big hit with visitors. "I think what they're drawn to is the bright indoor/outdoor feel even in the wintertime. Even in January, when it's sunny outside, it's a really beautiful environment," Zehnder said.

More Daylighting Without Glare


Other nonconventional structures can offer the benefits of additional daylight in a more diffused form through the use of translucent paneled walls or skylights. According to Mark McNichol, director of sales for a manufacturer of these products that's based in Bow, N.H., these solutions are being used in a variety of recreation applications, including natatoriums and skylights for large entry areas of recreation facilities.

These translucent solutions are also a popular choice in facilities that want the benefit of additional daylighting without glare and without sacrificing privacy. For this reason, McNichol has seen translucent paneled wall solutions being used in pro and college indoor practice facilities such as those for the Denver Broncos and for Colorado University. "They want to be able to get natural daylight in there, but still retain the security so people can't look in and film their practices," McNichol said.

The 120,000-square-foot Ray & Joan Kroc Corps Community Center in Camden, N.J., uses the translucent daylighting structures in several areas of its fitness and recreation facility to create a more open effect and provide more natural lighting. These areas include the main entrance, which features a large lounge area that can seat 300 to 400 people. "It has a raised ceiling and then that type of structure on top, and it definitely provides a great atmosphere upon entering the building," said Kroc Center Administrator Major Terry Wood. The daylighting structures are also employed to create a more open effect in entrances to several other areas of the building.

For other applications, particularly those that aren't for pools or in other environments requiring a non-corrosive material, pre-engineered steel buildings are also being used in more applications.

In addition, the translucent daylighting structures also appear over both the competition lap pool and the waterpark pool, where they create a more open effect. "You don't feel like you're outside, but you also don't feel like you're in an enclosed space," Wood said. "I think it gives you more flexibility to make it look like you're in a much more expansive area than you're actually in."

These kinds of solutions can also provide long life if cared for properly. According to McNichol, some of his company's panels are still in use after 30 years or more. "There are so many skylights out there where they've replaced the roof two or three times and they've never replaced our product," McNichol said.

Quick, Spacious and Cost-Effective

For other applications, particularly those that aren't for pools or in other environments requiring a non-corrosive material, pre-engineered steel buildings are also being used in more applications. While they may not necessarily be non-conventional, they can provide the option of a more cost-effective solution that can fast-track the building process for a permanent installation. They are also suitable for applications requiring large, open spaces without interruption from columns or beams.


"We can build wide up to 300-foot clear spans across building lights for indoor arenas, indoor football, practice facilities and other athletic applications," said Jim Peckham, manager of marketing for a manufacturer of pre-engineered steel building systems based in Memphis, Tenn.

Fort Hays State University (FHSU) in Hays, Ky., went with this approach when it built the 50,400-square-foot indoor practice facility it completed in March 2013. "You have to evaluate every project based on what system will best serve your end need and what makes the most economic sense in your budget," said Dana Cunningham, director of the office of facilities planning for FHSU. "I would guess that this is about the most efficient, perhaps the most economical approach to large open-span buildings such as this."

Because the building has heat but not air conditioning, the facility includes large overhead doors at each end and exhausting that can help circulate air. Because the facility is a backup for practices during inclement weather for all sports, it also features plywood up to a certain elevation and netting above that to protect the lighting fixtures, wall surfaces and insulation.


In the end, many of these solutions offer long life and benefits for a variety of applications. They may not always be the proper choice over a conventionally designed and built structure. But all of these approaches are proving their worth in specific applications where factors such as budget, quality and quantity of light, seasonal flexibility, and high ceiling heights and wide-spanning open spaces are considerations.

Given the cost advantages and functional benefits they can sometimes provide, recreation managers should at least investigate these options when considering a major recreation facility project. If nothing else, it can pay to investigate the potential results firsthand. "If you're recommending a course of action, you need to go see an example," said Avery. "If you're ever going to consider a membrane structure, go see one." The same could be said for other nonconventional structures.