Aquatic Pros Talk Design

Plan Ahead for Operational Success


For an aquatic facility to be successful, proper attention needs to be given to its creation from the very beginning. That is, in order to best achieve operational success, you need to start with the design of an aquatic facility and factor in everything from knowing the audience and market to creating aesthetic appeal.

Determine Operational Success

One of the greatest operational expenses at an aquatic facility is staffing and lifeguards, said Jen Gerber, business development leader for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), a Beaver Dam, Wisconsin-based aquatic planning, design and engineering firm.

"We often hear from operators that they struggle to find staff for their facility, so as designers we can work to implement layouts that require fewer staff to safely operate, thus reducing the total operational expense for the facility and the staffing burden," Gerber said.

As an example, Cherry Park Pool in Weatherford, Texas, only requires four guards and is easy to operate following its renovation.

Cherry Park Pool, which originally opened in 1949, went through a renovation that involved WTI's engineering team designing a pool within the existing pool shell to reduce construction expenses.

Now, the new pool features six lap lanes and an attached zero-depth-entry area with a play structure. The multipurpose pool provides space for lap swimming to take place concurrently with family swim and splash hours for younger users. In addition, a small spray pad was added to the site for additional recreation opportunities for families that visit Cherry Park.


After Cherry Park Pool opened in 2019, it achieved a 30% increase in revenue over 2018; 47 after-hour party rentals, which were completely sold out; a 33% increase in pool attendance over 2018; 827 kids in the learn-to-swim program; and an average of 47 adults per day in the water aerobics program.

In determining operational success, Gerber also talked about "'transparent design' as one of our fundamental methodologies for aquatic design when working with communities and owners. 'Transparent design' provides a design that can function at a variety of attendance levels with minimum staffing and without compromising user safety or staff risk.

"There are several design decisions for both indoor and outdoor facilities that can significantly impact the staffing burden for managers," she added. "Interactive play structures are often sizable components that can easily inhibit sight lines, which will increase the requirements for lifeguarding the areas where young children play. By including a cornucopia of individual pieces that do not obstruct sight lines, staffing can be reduced without sacrificing the user experience."

For example, one of the most popular features in recreation facilities is the lazy river.

"The layout and orientation of lazy rivers can make a significant difference in the number of lifeguard staff required to maintain safe usage of this multi-generational feature," Gerber said. "By keeping these current channels as linear as possible, and by reducing the amount of winding, meandering curves, staff can be positioned on the deck surfaces at each end with clear sight lines to either side," she said, adding that "by keeping island walls as low as practical, lifeguards can see users on both sides of the wall."


Yet another piece of equipment that can affect sight lines is the waterslide tower and how the riders exit the flumes.

"It is often desirable to locate the waterslide tower on the external portion of the natatorium or outdoors in a location that does not obstruct view and often acts as an 'advertisement' to demonstrate the excitement and opportunities inside the facility," Gerber explained.

"In natatoriums," she added, "the slide tower is placed in an area where it does not impede the connectivity to any landscape views. Then the waterslide flume can continue to stay in the building at upper elevations, then exit the building as it transitions to the lower elevation where the rider enters a splash down pool or a deceleration runout. One important consideration is the use of runout flumes to have one lifeguard on the attraction instead of the two lifeguards required for a splash down pool. This 50% staff reduction can be a significant benefit for operators."

For the outdoor swimming pool facility at Clarksville Family Aquatic Center in Indiana, WTI was contracted in 2015 by the City of Clarksville Parks and Recreation Department to assess the pool facility's structural integrity, equipment operational integrity and operational efficiencies.

The approved plan to redevelop the facility resulted in changes that lowered operating costs and energy and water usage. Additional play features and amenities for guests were added as well.


Clarksville Cove opened in the summer of 2017, and experienced positive results. Total attendance in 2015 was at 22,754, and in 2017 reached 25,487—an increase of 12%. What's more, total sales reached more than $200,000, increasing about 30% from 2015. Concessions also saw a 20% increase over 2015, and brought in more than $45,000. Two large increases were in revenue from daily admissions and the sale of passes. Daily admission revenue was up 29% and pass revenue was up 59%. Also, the number of guards needed on staff was decreased from more than 30 to nine total guards. And, birthday party attendance increased 263% with a newly renovated birthday party area.

Michelle Gable, an associate at Aquatic Design Group, an aquatic design firm in Carlsbad, Calif., that provides architectural, structural, mechanical and electrical design services for swimming pools and water features, said that "Aquatic facilities designed spaciously for both patrons and staff [is] well- suited for successful operations. Dedicated spaces for changing clothes, concessions/sales, events and staff-only activities make a big difference for operations."

Aquatic facility spaces that don't adequately accommodate people's needs and wants not only limit revenue potential, but lead people to seek out a competitor with a better facility design as well.

"The experience from entrance to exit at an aquatic facility is truly a factor that keeps the lights on," she said.

Besides designing desired spaces for patrons, staff also should be considered in the design process.


"Staff wants to work at an aquatic facility that dedicates space to them beyond the pool deck. Otherwise, they too may seek out a competitor facility," Gable said. "Happy staff who feel valued and comfortable are more likely to go the extra mile for your patrons. Happy patrons who have strong connections with staff are loyal, utilize more programs and spread the word to their friends. All of these factors directly ensure operational success and financial stability."

Aquatic facilities that have multiple pools have become popular designs because they maximize programming, appeal to a wider range of interests and increase participation numbers.

"Having more than one pool also means limited operations rather than zero operations during a pool closure. Not having to turn everyone away during an unexpected pool closure is added value only achievable with multiple bodies of water," she said.

"Lastly, creating an aquatic center that has amenities and programs for people of all ages and abilities will help create sustained interest and success," Gable added. "Like diversifying financial portfolios, diversifying user amenities and experiences across ages and abilities will help the facility adapt and thrive regardless of changing demographics or fitness and recreation trends."

Know Your Audience

Another important factor to consider in the early stages of designing an aquatic facility is your audience and market, in order to create aesthetic appeal.


"There are many different factors in creating a design aesthetic for an aquatic facility, "Gerber said. "Before design aesthetics are considered though, our first step is to identify the program of the facility by determining the number of pools, their intended uses, temperatures, age groups, etc. Once a program is identified, we can then begin to lay out conceptual designs that will illustrate how the space functions as a collective. When we are working with design teams and end users, we often talk about balancing the program, the social interaction and the 'watertainment' in the aquatic areas."

Design aesthetic can be achieved by creating spaces that speak to the community or users that will be occupying that facility.

"For example, when working with Grapevine, Texas, the aquatics area has some great theming elements that pay homage to the city of Grapevine and Texas. A large, decorative 'Texas Star' welcomes swimmers as they wade into the zero-depth entry of the pool, and the interactive play structure features grapes and vines and allows children to navigate the exciting areas of the 'grapevine.'"

In another example, Gerber noted that when working with the city of Williston, N.D., the focus was put on the primary funding source, oil, as design inspiration when key amenities and themed pieces were chosen.

"Aesthetic appeal can be derived from the theme or from how the pools and users can interact with the space," she added. "By creating a balanced program, swimmers should be able to enjoy a variety of recreation amenities in aquatic facilities that fit their needs."


Gable said that "Less really is more when it comes to aquatic facility design aesthetics. Water is the main appeal at an aquatic center. As a result, other features of an aquatic center can be fairly basic, but absolutely must be highly functional. Functionality is of great appeal to a typical community aquatic center audience, even when [the] focus is on water."

Dedicated storage spaces is a design trend that Gable often sees take high priority for both aesthetics and functionality.

"Dedicated storage spaces allow pool decks to be clear of equipment, providing a clean look for a facility, keeping patrons and staff safe, and protecting the initial investment made in the equipment," she said.

"If you know your audience wants competitive water, permanent spectator seating that flows with overall facility design becomes a high priority. However, care should be taken to balance spectator space with day-to-day use. Providing a proper balance between daily use and peak event use can increase the functionality and aesthetic appeal of the overall facility as well as increase programmatic capabilities and versatility."

What's more, themed spraygrounds and recreational pools have become increasingly popular.

"Specific themes incorporating vibrant colors are not only aesthetically pleasing, they can relate directly to the community culture—for example, an ocean theme designed for a sprayground in a city known for its sea life and beaches," she said.

Understand the Budget

Now, how do you take all of this into account—your design elements and audience—and create aquatic facilities that won't break the bank?


"We often say that design begins on a spreadsheet. By understanding the budget before the project even begins, we as designers can focus our energy on providing solutions for aquatic spaces that will be affordable and balance the needs of the users," Gerber said.

"If we know that the budget will be prohibit[ing] larger amenities, then we can work to find smaller solutions that will still bring great play value for the guests," she noted. "This will save time later in the design process as well. With a design that reflects the budget, the design team won't have to circle back later to value engineer amenities out of the facility that break the budget."

To factor in the design and the audience and stay on budget, Gable noted that "It all starts with an iterative, informed and deliberate programming session or sessions with the owner/operator. Aligning the programmatic goals and fiscal parameters with [a] program is one of the most crucial steps in any project."

More facilities are looking for multi-use spaces to accommodate the needs and wants for programs while being budget-conscious.


"These rooms in aquatic facility buildings serve as gathering spaces for staff, teams and events, maximizing spatial effectiveness," she said. "This style of design will continue to be more and more popular as the price of buildings continues to increase and the need to accommodate disparate programs within the confines of a set budget continues."

Gable added that the "The financial and programming benefit of multi-use space exists outside the aquatic facility building. Multi-use pools accomplish what multipurpose rooms do, but even more effectively.

"Differing depths of water, open areas vs. laned sections, and equipment for games such as water basketball, slackline, splash ball and volleyball in combination with strategic program scheduling, allows up to six different activities to occur simultaneously in the average multi-use pool design," she said. RM