What's New in Natatorium Design
For many people, the thought of outdoor pools conjures pictures of swimming, splashing and cooling off on a sultry day. But when considering indoor pool facilities, in addition to leisure and recreation, one might think of swimming instruction, swim and dive meets, water polo, water fitness and exercise classes, water therapy, a water basketball or volleyball game, and scuba or kayaking lessons. And while all of these activities take place outdoors as well, it seems that natatoriums are always working to enhance their offerings and draw a variety of users to keep their facilities successful, while also addressing the challenges of air and water quality.
Shutdowns due to the pandemic gave some aquatic venues a great opportunity to give their pools a shot in the arm, according to Justin Caron, principal and CEO of California-based Aquatic Design Group, which offers design and consulting services for the aquatics industry. "Many have done renovations and upgrades to their facilities during the past 13 months. In many cases the work was overdue. In others, overdue work was combined with measures meant to improve the health of the overall facility and deliver a safer experience for all its occupants."
Caron mentioned the significant amount of aging infrastructure, and added that the pandemic has highlighted numerous issues that are more pressing than deferred maintenance, which was often put off until it became an emergency. His firm offers assessments to help facilities determine areas that need improving, and he said these vary case by case. In some cases, "with the heightened awareness of social distancing and safety, we're asked to analyze the efficacy of the water and air systems, as well as the potential for minor renovations that can create more spacious queuing areas, safer one-way ingress and egress and other items that may need attention."
One continuing trend for natatoriums is offering different water temperatures, depths and experiences by having multiple bodies of water, according to Caron, who said the biggest financial drivers of aquatics are swim lessons, therapy classes and group classes. "These programs all call for shallow and warm water and can be challenging to provide in traditional competitive pools, which are often too deep and too cold for users to comfortably stay in for long. As more facilities are opening with multiple bodies of water, more opportunities for warm-water programming emerge, which is translating into more profitable aquatics."
The addition of enhanced programming options is also seen more often in K-12 and collegiate facilities. "It has become more common in recent years for school districts and colleges to partner with other local groups—cities, districts, counties, private entities, etc.—which often translates into multiple bodies of water being offered," said Caron. "Support amenities such as dryland training areas, spectator seating, wet-dry classrooms, multiple locker rooms, inclusive single-use and gender-neutral spaces are all emerging as requirements in modern aquatics centers."
Caron added that traditional school facilities were often built around the competitive teams that used them, therefore a 25-yard by 25-meter or a 50-meter pool was common. But the emergence of water polo has led to a new standard of a 25-yard by 30- to 35-meter pool, allowing for floating cage water polo, the preferred course to use.
Ryan Nachreiner, project director for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm headquartered in Wisconsin, agrees that the strongest continuing trend in competition pools is multipurpose programming. "A large competition pool consumes highly valuable space for any development, so maximizing the utility of these areas is crucial. Activities that can quickly and easily be converted from lap lanes and back again are extremely important as these pool transitions typically occur daily."
He pointed to features such as retractable ceiling-mounted challenge courses as excellent examples of giving competition pools an alternative purpose with new appeal. "We also see strong demand for climbing walls, drop slides, cliff diving and other adventure activities, which are perfect features to combine with the cooler, deeper water of the competition pool."
Another way to provide different use zones in a pool is the use of moveable bulkheads, and Caron said they're seeing more projects incorporating these. "The vast majority of these are long competitive bodies of water, which utilize the bulkheads to create separate courses and allow for disparate athletic programs to cohabitate in a single body of water. However, we're also seeing some bulkheads being installed in multipurpose pools and even in some recreation-based pools." In these bodies of water the bulkhead is often used to separate depths to provide safer shallow areas, according to Caron, or to allow for a space to grow within a pool which may enhance the programming a facility can offer.
In Indiana, Lafayette Jefferson High School opened its 29,500-square-foot natatorium in January 2020. It was designed to grow the school district's swimming and diving program and offer lap swimming for the community. WTI provided aquatic design and engineering services for the facility. The 25-yard, eight-lane competition pool has two one-meter diving boards and a three-meter diving platform. A state-of-the-art video scoreboard shows live streams of events. There's also a moveable bulkhead that can create unique configurations, which Athletic Director Joe Hernandez said has been a tremendous part of the new pool. "We utilize it at home events to have a separate diving well in addition to swimming at the same time.
"We offer many classes, youth leagues and lifeguard training options," continued Hernandez. "We also allow upper-level club teams to practice in the pool, as well as other area schools that don't have a swimming facility." The spectator seating—able to accommodate 450 people—is elevated to a second level with lockers and showers underneath. And although COVID has largely prevented spectators from attending events, admission is charged, which generates additional revenue. The space is programmed to accommodate dryland training for swimmers, masters swimming for adults, scuba training and kayaking. "We've been extremely happy with the locker rooms, offices and community restrooms," said Hernandez. "Our design also included a classroom that is used for educational purposes and hospitality for judges and officials."
Leisure and recreation pools need to provide opportunities for fun and enjoyable experiences for users of all ages and abilities, and Caron stressed that diversification has always been a constant driver of financial success. "Diversification equates to two main opportunities: differentiation from local competition and a multitude of programs within a specific facility." He pointed out that the lack of revenue from other dry programs has shined a light on the fact that aquatics has continued to provide consistent revenue even during a pandemic. "Waterpark-style amenities are incredibly valuable pieces of a successful and proven formula in indoor aquatics. New offerings such as [ninja courses] will continue to gain momentum in allowing a facility to cater to both competitive and recreational programs in a more compact, and thus, economical space."
Mark Johnson is president and CEO of YMCA of Virginia's Blue Ridge, which has five locations. Three of those locations have indoor pools, with each facility offering a lap pool and a rec/exercise pool. Johnson said that each location offers some sort of water features, primarily water sprayers, buckets, etc. "Kids like them, but I do believe people need to take a good look at the cost and the force of the water so they get something that works for them long-term. Heavy water movers are loud and churn up a lot of water and chloramines. They can also scare smaller children because of too much water.
"We offer free swim in all of our pools since people use them so differently," said Johnson. "Truthfully, our lane space stays pretty packed between swim teams, lap swimmers and water exercisers. We attract people through programs like water exercise and master's swimming, and have more demand for swim team space than we can generally provide."
In addition to their own swim teams, Johnson said high schools and local colleges also utilize the facilities. "We have meets and practices at all competitive pools, and we have small viewing areas."
Additionally, he said some groups pay to use the warm pools for therapy while some members do water walking therapy etc. on their own.
Natatoriums continue to be ideal venues for learn-to-swim programs, and Johnson confirmed that swim lessons are popular. "We also give water safety instruction to every second grade child in the region through the schools. This serves roughly 3,000 children a year. We have some adult lessons that are generally just done as private lessons. These often come from a child learning to swim then the parent deciding to learn as well."
He added that their lifeguard training is also popular, with some of the participants going on to work at the Y. "Lifeguarding is desperately needed just about everywhere, so we value our opportunity to provide that both within our Ys and to other aquatic facilities in the region."
In the past decade, there have been great advances with mechanical pool equipment, according to Johnson. "At our newest pool, we have UV, evacuator systems to pull chloramines, high-efficiency pool boilers and better HVAC/dehumidification systems. We've found that separating the water temperature from the air temperature altogether makes diagnosing and managing each area easier."
Instead of trying to manage both of these with one piece of equipment for efficiency, Johnson believes that with the new boilers and air units that utilize dew points and other features, separate is better. "Pool environments are difficult to manage because of the chemical makeup and the heavy amounts of evaporation into the room. You have to be able to figure out what's going wrong quickly." He added that they're in the process of changing over to similar technology at the other pools.
Johnson also shared that their new "evacuator" system has worked as advertised, taking chloramines out right at the water surface. For those still utilizing older equipment, he suggested that UV systems can help. He also said that it's key to know the makeup of your water before deciding how to treat it chemically. "Some alkalinities will balance better with acid and some will balance better with C02. If you get this wrong, balancing water can be way harder than it needs to be." He explained that one of their locations uses C02, one uses acid, and their newest facility's water was so neutral they could use either. "Don't let somebody sell you something without having this info."
Indeed, understanding the air quality problems of indoor pools becomes much easier with a basic understanding of pool chemistry. Water chemistry and air handling are both critical to achieving healthy indoor air quality in a swimming pool. "While it may be a slight exaggeration to equate air quality in aquatics to concussions in football, it isn't that far-fetched," said Caron. "The biggest realizations equate to the importance of source capture—that is, exhausting the 'bad' air at water level—and the realization that air and water chemistry are closely tied to each other."
Secondary sanitation systems continue to be more common, supplementing primary sanitizers—usually chlorine. UV and ozone systems are most common, though there's been a rise in discussion of other technologies like advanced oxidation process (AOP) and hyper-dissolved oxygen (HDO). The use of saltwater systems instead of traditional chlorination is another consideration these days, as saltwater pools are said to be gentler on the eyes and skin, and facilities don't have to store and handle unsafe chemicals. But these might require a larger initial investment, be more complex than traditional pools and cause damage to certain pool materials. For anyone interested, there are certainly pros and cons to investigate.
Caron said that it's vitally important to provide some natural light in natatoriums, as those without windows "feel like prisons and feel dated." But he cautioned that it's important to provide proper natural lighting. "Glare from windows and skylights can drastically reduce visibility for lifeguards and prevent them from being able to properly monitor and protect bathers." He added that LED lights with longer life spans and lower lifecycle costs have become the norm for artificial lighting, and any new innovations in this area have to do with making these fixtures and features easier to maintain.
When it comes to support spaces such as locker rooms, Caron advised that "upscale" is not necessarily the preferred outcome these days. "Today's children, students and many younger users don't want a luxurious public locker room experience. They come to the facility in their suits, if they shower it's brief, and if they change before leaving it's as quickly as possible. While codes require a certain amount of fixture counts, modern support areas are often being minimized to focus dollars on more impactful spaces."
Nachreiner pointed out that universal changing rooms have become the standard today. "We are seeing more and more facilities maximizing their space for universal change rooms, and in some cases forgoing having traditional gendered spaces entirely."
Johnson described how they've been transitioning to all epoxy floors in their locker rooms, which he prefers over other options they've tried. "Epoxy can be poured to look great and have whatever grit you need to keep people safe. It also cleans like a dream and can pay for itself with lower contract cleaning costs; our contactor gave us immediate savings for making this change. We also use epoxy in our sauna. You can have a good grit in it to keep it from being slippery and it looks and feels way cleaner than slat board floors that can't really be cleaned or disinfected." He said they do like tile on the walls, preferring large-format tiles with fewer grout lines to clean.
As with most locales, Johnson said their pools were closed for a period due to the pandemic. "We chose to do a full shutdown and drain so we could do caulk repairs, acid washes, etc. We really wanted to keep as many staff as we could, so we did much of the pool work in-house."
Since people are "basically swimming in a disinfectant," Johnson doesn't see the pandemic changing much with pools, though he thinks some processes might change. "We had to do member sign-ups for lanes, etc., since we could no longer pack people into lanes. Many members actually liked knowing they had a lane at a certain time. We'll certainly consider what we've learned and hopefully improve our processes as we go."
"Aquatic facility design was already trending in several important directions, which the impacts of COVID-19 have given even greater emphasis," said Nachreiner. "Natatorium air distribution has always been a focus, particularly low-level collection and exhaust, and is even more crucial with COVID-19. In addition, the general design trend of making spaces more open eases the ability to social distance. This is particularly the case with change rooms and support spaces, coinciding with the trend for universal spaces and family accommodations."
Caron agreed that there's an increased focus on air quality, personal space and crowding, and that these elements, among others, will continue to force evolution and change designs for years in the future. "COVID has certainly impacted the use of public spaces in the short term. The question is if these adjustments will become accepted norms. Pre-COVID, the trend was certainly to provide functional spaces for users and spectators that allowed for comfort, flexible use and encouraged people to want to spend more time at the facility. Moving forward, it will be interesting to see what expectations drive design." RM