Alternate Routes

Nonconventional Structures Take Programs Year-Round Without Breaking the Bank

Traditional brick-and-mortar structures are not the only way to house recreational and athletic activities. There are aluminum and glass buildings; fabric domes and bubbles; and yurts, cabins shaped from ancient designs.


The cost of brick-and-mortar construction has been in the headlines recently as the price of lumber and steel has risen sharply. That's a boon for companies that use other materials to build structures for recreation and athletic organizations.

Aluminum and glass enclosures offer shelter for a lower cost in general, and for aquatic facilities they offer even more. The harsh environment of pools and waterparks—chemicals and humidity—can erode traditional building materials, but aluminum and glass are more tolerant.

The durability is far from the only benefit for those operating swimming venues. Utility costs decrease as daytime lighting is provided by the glassed walls and ceilings. If the building has a retractable roof, heating and cooling and dehumidfying bills are lower because climate is controlled by the manipulation of the roof and windows.

Cihan Ozdemir is a structural engineer with a company whose aluminum structures with retractable roofs are increasingly being used by organizations with existing or planned aquatic facilities. He said the combination of glass and the synergy between the roof and windows promises more affordable bills.

"Since the enclosure is retractable and can open, there is no need to treat the air during the warmer months in the same way a traditional indoor pool would require," he said. "During rainy days, a combination of fans and passive ventilation with sliding windows and screens allow for air movement for comfort to the guests, spectators and operators. During the daytime, there is no need for electrical/lighting due to the whole structure being translucent and taking advantage of the natural light.

"During the colder months, there is little need for any heating during the day when the outside temperature is above 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This is because of the greenhouse effect trapping warm air inside and continuously heating quicker than the heat can escape. This results in a net difference in temperature of at least 50 to 60 degrees during sunny days and 20 to 30 during cloudy days."

Nancy Patterson, director of design and business development with another manufacturer of retractable roof aluminum structures, said she has to battle at least one myth about her company's buildings.

"It is not a greenhouse," she said.

Patterson claims the structures can save 20% to 30% in utility bills for pool and waterpark enclosures and almost 20% for non-aquatic uses.

"Retractable-roof, large-format enclosures naturally ventilate your building," she said. "When you can naturally ventilate your building, you literally use free fresh air. When you can open the roof at the push of a button, it means you can turn off all your mechanical equipment. In an aquatic environment, that is such a life-changing proposition because the cost to properly maintain the temperature is very expensive—dehumidification, you have to heat, you have to cool, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

One of Ozdemir's clients is Tim Ackerman, vice president of properties for YMCA of the Suncoast in Clearwater, Fla. Ackerman said the retractable-roof structure housing an eight-lane competition pool and 7,000 square feet in all has solved previous issues with inflatable domes, which are awkward to put up, take down and store, and are subject to high-wind damage.


When scouting for a new pool facility, Ackerman said one of the goals was to have indoor swimming during the relatively colder winter and during rainy weather. A permanent brick-and-mortar solution was too expensive for an organization that relies heavily on donations, and when Ackerman visited two retractable-roof structures in South Carolina and California, he pursued that avenue.

"I found it to be a brilliant solution for our needs, and it offers us maximum flexibility," said Ackerman. "You can close it at night. When it gets chilly, we close the dome. When it warms up in the day, we open the dome up and it's an outdoor pool. It gave us maximum flexibility for our members and our users. It gives us year round swimming with the push of a button.

"It's very cost-effective compared to an indoor swimming pool, without the limitations of an indoor swimming pool. Once you have an indoor pool, there is no outdoor swimming. This gives us the best of both worlds, indoor swimming at the push of a button, outdoor swimming at the push of a button. If it rains we close the dome and when the rain stops we're still open."

Ackerman said the roof opens from the center to the side, and takes less than a minute to fully close from fully open. Once the roof is open, there is still shade on both ends of the pool, spaces that can be used in a variety of ways. Maintenance is light—a pressure-wash of the walls monthly, and making sure the tracks for the roof panels are clear.

Since water quality and air quality are tightly linked, ventilation is a major asset to maintaining air quality standards. Syncing roof and window usage provides the proper balance, Ackerman said.

"Even when the structure is closed, we have windows all around that we can open at will," he said. "If we feel like it's a stagnant situation, we just open the windows and get a cross breeze. If it starts to get warm but not warm enough to open the roof we just crack the dome a couple feet and that increases the air flow too.

"When the dome is wide open, it's literally like being outside. There are no issues with blocking wind. We open it and open the end windows and it allows us real movement of the air."

Perhaps best of all for budget-minded operators, there is no HVAC system in the enclosure, said Ackerman.

"We do it all by opening windows or cracking the dome open," he said. "Even in the winter I can crack that dome open just a few inches and allow all that humid air to come out and close the dome back up and the water is 85 degrees and it warms the air up fairly rapidly. Even in the dead of winter with a cold snap at freezing we've been able to maintain a very comfortable indoor swimming environment."


With donors as well as members to please, Ackerman said the retractable roof building pleases everyone with programming flexibility and cost savings.

"The YMCA relies on donors to build and also to continue our operations throughout the year," he said. "We look at those dollars as someone's personal gifts to the community, and how we spend those dollars is very critical to our long-term success and to that of the community as a whole. We're very cautious how we spend those dollars.

"We got basically an indoor/outdoor swimming pool for about half the cost of an indoor swimming pool with very little maintenance costs. That's a great return on someone's donated dollars, and everyone who donates to us recognizes that."

With all those benefits and the pandemic changing the public's views on gathering, Ackerman's group will turn to retractable roof structures in the future, and perhaps not just for aquatic facilities.

"The advent of COVID has really changed wellness opportunities with much more of a focus on exterior activities like group exercise classes or tai chi classes outside," he said. "This type of a structure will be something you see in the future that allows outdoor and indoor activities to take place depending on the weather. We've learned a lot through this terrible pandemic that in the long term will be a huge positive with indoor/outdoor programming."

Laszlo Keleman, area executive director of facilities management for YMCA of San Diego County, said the five retractable roof aquatic facilities he oversees provided a glimpse of their attributes in the past year. Many indoor aquatic programs were shut down during the worst of the pandemic.

"With the ability to retract the roofs on our pool structures, we were able to satisfy the requirements of increased air circulation, and we did not have to shut down our pool operations," he said. "This was a huge service that was needed for the community as people needed ways to stay active with the lack of recreational and exercise spaces being available for use."

Kelemen said another benefit is the climate control abilities.

"Even though here in San Diego we are blessed with probably the most ideal weather conditions, our structures provide great flexibility to be able to help maintain ambient air and pool water temperatures," he said. "By being able to control the retractable roof panels on the structures, we are able to control the ambient air to make exiting the pools more comfortable for our members.

"Members that utilize the pools as therapy for injuries and our senior population greatly appreciate not having the drastic temperature change from exiting the warm pools, which may cause them discomfort. This has been extremely beneficial for some of the arthritis-based programs that we offer to our members."

Tim Carr is involved with real estate and facility management with YMCA of the Triangle, in Raleigh, N.C. Carr has been overseeing a retractable roof structure installation that is scheduled for a January 2022 opening. Carr's group switched to a retractable roof building when an indoor pool plan had to be scrapped due to loss of revenue from a six month pandemic operations shutdown. The retractable roof structure will cover an existing outdoor eight-lane pool.

Carr said the indoor pool project was bid at $5.2 million, of which $3.5 million was fund-raised. He said the cost of the retractable dome, replacement of a pool deck and mechanical/plumbing/electrical upgrades is projected to be less than $1.5 million.

"Not only was construction stalled just at the start, but the financial well-being of the organization was at stake. Thus the board cancelled the original project," said Carr. "The (retractable roof) option was something generated by conversation between YMCA facility peers who had seen the promo during one of the Large YMCA Facility Summits held every 18 months.


"We now believe this probably should have been our starting point all along, so a prime lesson is to first consider covering existing outdoor pools before launching into an indoor pool addition."

Another structural option for non-aquatic recreation and athletics is a steel frame covered with fabric that lets in enough light during the day to reduce electric light use. These buildings can be custom-designed based on need, can be either temporary or permanent, and built faster than traditional buildings.

"Our design options allow coverings to be customized to include insulation and heating in cold climate environments, to open-sided pavilion covers in warm climates," said Geoff Ching, director of sales for a company that designs and builds such structures.

"(We've) built more indoor tennis facilities than any other athletic venue due to the ideal fit of our designs as tennis covers and the benefits of natural sunlight that enter through our translucent covers. We are seeing expansion in soccer, pickleball and football, as well."

Structures that provide rest and relaxation from recreational outdoor activities like biking, hiking, skiing and snowshoeing have to be durable and comfortable. Since the late 20th century, the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation has used yurts on a non-motorized trail system near Idaho City.

The yurts are rented year-round, and the revenue is used to groom the trails, said DeEtta Petersen, who runs the yurt operation for the department. She said the hope is to add a few more in the next several years. The department provides everything inside the yurts as well: two bunk beds and a futon, table and chairs, plates and dishes, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, paper towels, and several cords of wood, refreshed as needed, much of it by Petersen herself.

"We are like crazy busy all the time, mostly in the winter," Petersen said. "It's not a warming hut, it is a full-on place to stay overnight with cook stove and wood stove. They can go and play all day in the snow and come back and have a warm place to sit and eat dinner and sit amongst the stars, and they love it."

One of the yurts Petersen oversees is built 7,000 feet up with a clear view of the sky; it's named StarGazer. Its exposure to four seasons and the high winds that come with such altitude necessitates a hardy structure. That requirement is a main reason Petersen's colleague Leo Hennessy chose yurts when he was in charge of the program 25 years ago. Hennessey's list of attributes includes:

  • Unique design.
  • Can handle high winds on mountaintops.
  • Can handle deep snow with winter package.
  • Durable.
  • Dome can open to cool.
  • Floor, roof and side wall can be insulated.
  • You can place windows nearly anywhere.
  • Reasonable price.
  • Natural high-quality wood inside

Alan Bair, whose company makes the yurts Hennessy selected and the department still uses today, said the pre-COVID use of the yurts by outdoor enthusiasts made new recreational habits during and post-COVID perfect for yurt growth.


"The pandemic has made it very desirable to get out into nature rather than vacationing in crowded hotels," Bair said. "With more people looking for hotel-like amenities in natural settings away from crowds, our business has been booming. We have also seen a rise in restaurants or diners who want to offer well-ventilated dining space apart from other diners.

"Smaller yurts not only provide these benefits, but also offer a unique ambience that is very marketable. Yurts have provided the means to cost-effectively expand new and existing resorts and recreation areas to create more social distancing and accommodations."

Bair, whose company has been in business since 1978, said the trend in recent years is toward larger yurts with more amenities.

"People seem less interested in sacrificing comfort when they go out to enjoy nature," he said. "From ceiling fans to insulated glass windows to ductless heat pumps, our yurts can provide plenty of comfort."

A range of sizes are available, as are customizations for terrain and climate and amenities, he said.

"In the recreation industry our yurts are mostly used as glamping rentals," he said. "Everyone has their own definition of glamping, and there are varying levels of comfort provided for glamping. This means that some yurts are simple and rustic, with bunk beds and a heater, which allows people to be out enjoying nature without having to bring a lot of gear or set up camp.

"Higher-end glamping rentals are essentially luxury cabins complete with bedroom, kitchen and bathroom facilities. Many times, yurts allow managed campgrounds or recreation areas to utilize areas of their property that aren't suitable for constructing more permanent structures, since they are typically built on raised post and beam platforms." RM