Smart Strategies for Outdoor Aquatics
Design Guidance for New & Updated Outdoor Aquatic Facilities
Amazing outdoor pools and aquatic parks also have amazing price tags that not all municipalities can afford. Or can they? There are ways to plan for additions for when more money is available, and to program to generate revenue to help pay for features, and to design a layout that maximizes space. A design consultant can be a good partner for any or all of these ways to stretch the dollars at hand.
"Whether those changes happen two years after opening or 20 years after opening, there's a lot of things we can do now that can impact the future of the facility," said Jennifer Gerber, business development leader with Water Technology Inc. "At the end of the day everyone's got a budget and a wish list and timeline, and we have to work with them to figure out the best way to balance those."
Gerber said anyone looking to build or renovate outdoor aquatic spaces who wants assistance from a design company should look for several traits:
>> Good Listening: "The first thing any good aquatic consultant should be doing is getting to know who the users are and how they'll use the facility. How can they be part of balancing the program they've identified that best fits the needs and the budget? Depending on who's using it and how, we're going to make certain recommendations.
"Every client, every owner, every group has something they're very passionate about as far as their project goals. It's our goal to be good listeners, to hear what their goal is and to find the best path to achieving that. Sometimes it's, 'How do we get the most bang for the buck, the most iconic thing for the least amount of money?' Sometimes it's, 'We have X amount of dollars, how do we keep this pool safely functioning and provide a good healthy experience for our users?'
"Back-of-house updates have a cost and they're less exciting to look at, but they're still necessary for the user experience. Sometimes it's a schedule: How much can you do in a short amount of time?"
>> Creativity & Resourcefulness: "'Watertainment' is the entertainment and the usage of your water space. It's one thing for swim teams and water polo, it's something else for families, for teens and tweens. Good aquatic designers need to know how to deliver as much as they can for all of those diverse user groups."
>> Economic Smarts: "Good aquatic designers have to be aware you have to be able to afford to operate your facility after the (project). You need to be able to afford your water, to afford your staffing. For instance, everyone in the country is struggling with lifeguard staffing right now, so ways we can reduce lifeguard expense is helpful.
"The big play structures can be fun, they can bring people in, they can serve as branding, advertising from the road, but they take a significant amount of guards to staff. Same with lazy rivers that are very wind-y. Linear lazy rivers will require fewer guards to staff. Minor tweaks like that can make a big difference."
>> Client Advocacy: "Good designers should always be advocating for their owners and acting as a resource even after a project opens so that everyone knows how to operate this expensive and, at times, complicated equipment.
"You want to work with designers who help you in the selection of good pool contractors. We've seen far too many projects that have been constructed by people who don't actually know what they're doing, and that's when things get expensive.
"You want someone that's going to advocate for you throughout. You want a designer that's going to listen. We shouldn't be here to push an agenda through because we want to see the inclusion of some new feature or some new ride we heard about. We should be here to design the solution for your community and your needs and your budget.
"They should be completely independent. They should be fully focused on aquatics. Aquatics is a complicated enough and expensive enough environment that it helps if it is truly just a focused aquatics designer."
>> Custom Work: "Really no pool should be the exact same. Every site is different. Soil conditions are different everywhere. They're incredibly important in pool construction. Make sure your pool consultant is planning for your site and your project requirements and that every design is unique and created specifically for your needs, whether that's for renovation, new construction, replacement, it doesn't really matter."
>> Experience With Phasing: "Phasing is an incredibly important part of the design world. Sometimes the wish list exceeds the reality, and the budget and timing restraints. By planning and designing for what future phases might look like, we can often engineer and plan in space when we know there will be future additions."
Gerber cited a project her firm assisted with in Texas. The client had a very set budget and the consultant knew it could accommodate two slides. "But we helped them budget for a larger slide tower so they could add in a slide a few years later," she said. "On their second year of operation, they were incredibly successful, and they added that additional slide when funds freed up. They had enough mechanical space available, enough deck space and slide platform space so they could accommodate that change without having to rip up anything new."
Gerber said before operators start the search for helping hands, they need to check a few boxes. "Take an internal inventory," she said. "Really understand what your priorities are. What are you looking to achieve, when are you looking to achieve it, and what can you afford? Make sure you understand your needs before you ask someone to help answer those needs."
Three stories from across the nation show what operators working with designers for specific goals planned and executed with favorable results.
The goals for this project were to bring the facility up to date, fix several leak issues and reduce operational costs and the number of lifeguards needed. Nathan Kane, assistant superintendent for the parks and recreation department in Clarksville, Ind., was not with the department when the changes were designed but is in charge of the facility, Clarksville Cove, as the changes make their impact.
"In my mind, the overall goal was to make staffing more manageable while assuring expenses would be lowered or remain consistent," he said.
The renovated facility features two pool systems. The feature pool circulates roughly 18,000 gallons to supply three splash pads, featuring activities to entertain various age groups and levels of development, as well as one body slide and one tube slide. The main splash pad features an activity structure including three small slides, a dumping bucket and a plethora of interactive spray features. The lap pool system feeds a standard lap pool of 118,000 gallons.
During the renovation, the facility was set up with lockable gates to section off parts of the park as needed. The new design also included a new birthday party area that allows the department to book multiple parties a day. Finally, there was a complete remodel of the pump room with all new equipment, switching from sand filtration to diatomaceous earth (DE) filters.
Kane said before the remodel, two aspects of daily operation were too high: the number of employees needed to run the facility, and the utility costs. In 2015, the last operating season prior to the renovation, there were days of closure due to water leaks and mechanical issues that hurt revenues and increased expenses.
"Since the renovation, we have been able to successfully staff the facility with fewer employees, which helps us combat the nationwide lifeguard shortage," he said. "Additionally, we are able to program the systems to save on water, reducing utility and chemical costs with a more efficient operation."
Kane said expenses since the renovation have not dropped drastically, but said inflation and rising costs—increases in wages, chemicals and concession supplies—have been impactful. "However, with the renovation and new operating procedures, we have been a profitable facility in 2019 and 2021," he added. "2020 had similar expectations, but with the pandemic closing the facility for the year, we were not able to gauge the progress there. In some areas, we have absolutely saved money, which has allowed us to reinvest in our facilities, adding site-specific services to increase the guest experience."
Revenues from programming come from private and group swim lessons, water aerobics, lifeguard certification classes, and private rentals. The revamped birthday party area is booked most weekends during operation, Kane said. There are also pool maintenance classes for the community.
"All of these programs, including some that are free, are designed to not only help in terms of revenue, but to bring people to the facility and provide a good service," said Kane.
Attendance has been consistent with pre-renovation numbers, Kane said. "The old version of the facility had a zero-depth entry that is missed by returning patrons, but we have become a much more efficient, safer, family-friendly facility with the updates and installation of the splash pads," Kane said.
Merriam Community Center
The Merriam Community Center in Merriam, Kan., is 66,000 square feet, featuring a fitness center, gymnasium, art gallery, private rooms for renting, a track and two pools. The outdoor aquatic area includes eight 25-meter lap lanes, two one-meter diving boards, zero-depth entry, splash and play features, shade structures and an on-deck concession cart.
The center opened in July 2020, built to replace both the town's previous community center, built in 1911, and an aquatic center built in 1985 and renovated in 1998.
Parks and Recreation Director Anna Slocum said the past struggle to secure enough lifeguards coupled with attendance data from the previous facility motivated the goal for the outdoor pool: reduce the amount of water. However, due to significant dissatisfaction with the proposed design during public meetings, the final project has more water than the previous facility.
Slocum said this was worked around by the design consultant. "The team was still able to efficiently design the space to help meet the reduced the number of staff required to maintain a safe facility, thanks to 3-D modeling that helped reduce blind spots," said Slocum.
One lesson Slocum said she learned from the project is that it's not too late to make changes even once construction has begun. "Walk the space daily during construction," she said. "Progress might seem slow, but this is the best time to visualize the space. It is also the time that changes can occur easily."
Slocum said she learned or realized much more from an undertaking made more challenging by the teeth of the pandemic:
- "Although a building may be new, there are still issues—mechanical, technological, operational. Patience in working through solutions and constant evaluation are needed throughout the first year of operation."
- "With all large projects, the team that is assembled is key. There needs to be a circle of trust with the team as there will be difficult discussions throughout the process. Flexibility and open communication are key."
- There are always delays—no matter how well planned.
- "Remember to take care of yourself—it is like having a second full-time job."
Steve Miklos Aquatic Center
The Steve Miklos Aquatic Center in Folsom, Calif., has 3 pools:
- A 50-meter pool with two 3-meter diving boards and two 1-meter diving boards. The 50-meter pool ranges in depth from 4.5 feet to 15 feet.
- Instructional pool, which has three 25-yard lanes, 3.5-foot depth, stairs down one entire length of a 25-yard side and a water basketball hoop.
- Activity pool with a play structure, a stand-alone 35-foot tall waterslide that is 165 feet long, and zero-entry beach access.
The 50-meter pool is used year-round, while the other two pools are used from late April to September.
Recreation Supervisor Chad Gunter said the aquatic facility was originally constructed in 2001 and recently went through a renovation that replaced about 80% of the concrete deck and the plaster in all the pools, and also replaced the play structure.
"After 18 years of operation, the facility plaster, decking and play structure needed to be replaced due to typical wear and tear," he said. "We believe this will need to take place again in another 15 to 20 years. Chlorine, water, extreme heat and the winter cold take a toll on outdoor facilities and structures."
Gunter said the facility design has been a huge success because the facility is able to provide multiple programs that meet the needs of many different user groups. Still, he has a regret that is familiar to anyone who has gone through such a complicated project. The public may not notice but Gunter always will: "If I could go back in time I would have not put the bulkhead in our 50-meter pool," he said. "I think a better design would have been to increase the size of the instructional pool to at least six to eight lanes, and place a bulkhead in the instructional pool. This would give the opportunity to divide the instructional pool during the summer months to increase swim lesson capacity. I would have also poured more concrete decking and walking paths."
Gunter added that the often overlooked shouldn't be overlooked. "Storage, storage, storage!" he said.
Part of maintaining a great facility is having proper storage and staging for equipment, said Gunter. Keeping equipment out of sight and hidden from the public helps to enhance the overall appearance of the facility.
He said it may be obvious, but proper maintenance is also important in providing a great facility. "Do not minimize the importance of taking care of the facility through proper equipment maintenance, renovation and replacement, Gunter said. "One of our city managers stated several years ago that it is very important that we 'do not step over a dollar to pick up a dime.' Taking care of the facility through proper maintenance helps to keep facility operations open for the community."
Speaking of the community, Gunter said participation by Folsom citizens was an important and ongoing key to the project's success.
"During the pandemic we were able to open relatively early after initial facility closures," he said. "We found that our public was eager to get back to the facility. Last summer we had better-than-anticipated participation, and this coming summer we are already seeing swim lessons sell out."
Gunter said operators on the verge of a re-design or construction should invite all stakeholders to add their input regarding the needs of the facility. "Sometimes a little education and show-and-tell can help elevate the needs of renovation based upon public participation, safety and future ROI," said Gunter. RM