Feature Article - July/August 2004
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Top It Off

Enclosing a pool can increase program offerings and help draw new crowds

By Margaret Ahrweiler

In the middle of the day, the pool at the Mission Valley YMCA in San Diego was, without question, the place to be for swim lessons, lap work and recreation. But getting members in the water at 8 a.m. or 7 p.m. was a different story. Sunny Southern California notwithstanding, with a desert climate, temperatures drop into the low 50s at night, making mornings and evenings less than ideal for anyone other than hard-core swimmers. Not to mention, keeping the water temperature constant, even with a heater, presented a constant challenge.

What's more, the aging Baby Boom population driving the YMCA's market (along with everyone else's) had had enough of brisk water, says Dick Webster, executive director of the Mission Valley. They wanted warmth. They wanted comfort. They wanted easy on the joints.

To better serve its market and expand the facility's use, the Mission Valley Y embraced a solution once considered limited to cold-weather climates: a pool enclosure.

Pool enclosures can turn a part-time facility full time and change the entire feel of a rec facility. But along with increased usage and profits, enclosing a pool can float a whole new set of issues through the air, namely: cost, air quality, water quality and maintenance.

The switch from out to in can be done in several ways with varying degrees of permanence. For a temporary indoor fix, inflatable domes can get a facility over a cold-weather hump and come down for warmer weather. Domes also can take a more long-term service as year-round structures.

For a more permanent system, facilities can consider greenhouse-type structures, many of which come with retractable roofs and banks of sliding doors to provide an indoor/outdoor feel. Finally, the brick-and-mortar approach—building a traditional addition around the pool—creates the most solid, "indoor" environment. Before committing to an enclosure system, however, take a good, hard look at who uses your aquatics program and how, advises Dan Meus, principal in Boston-based Graham/Meus Inc. architects.

"If you have a club with a big leisure pool and strong summer program and that's the biggest part of their business, enclosing it with a windowless, totally indoor structure is probably a bad idea," Meus says. "There really needs to be a strong connection with outside."

True building additions and opaque domes can remove that outdoor connection, Meus says, but on the other hand, domes can extend what can only be a three-month swimming season in northern climates.

"If it's set up in the winter and removed in the summer, that can be a treat for members as well," he says.

Glass enclosures create the greatest connection with the outdoors, albeit at the greatest cost, according to Meus, especially for those in cold-weather regions.

"There's nothing like swimming when you can see the snow falling all around," Meus says.

The biggest barrier to these greenhouse-type enclosures is initial cost.

According to Alan Dodson, president of Garland, Texas-based Sun Builders, the structural system alone runs from around $50 to $70 per square foot, before adding the cost of the ventilation system or foundation work needed for the footings.

"Glass coverings run five times the cost of a bubble, and a permanent steel structure is at least double the cost of a bubble," Meus says. "But if you can produce income from it, it makes it worth your while."

Mission Valley YMCA, for one, felt an immediate financial impact from enclosing its pool.

"It increased our swimming activity 400 percent," Webster says. Aquatics programs have expanded to the point that the facility is planning another, outdoor pool that will cater to "hard-core" users—lap swimmers, master swimming programs, water polo and swim teams, he adds. The YMCA will then convert the enclosed pool to a 90-degree therapeutic pool.