Feature Article - May/June 2006
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Undercover Operations

With proper planning, adding a pool enclosure can boost patronage and profits

By Dawn Klingensmith

Rock solid

At the opposite end of the spectrum in terms of cost and permanence are brick-and-mortar types of enclosures. The low-slung, windowless design that seems to have served as the template for natatoriums of a certain age are not at all what communities have in mind these days when they set out to build an indoor pool. Instead, they envision the pool as the crown jewel—an aquamarine gem, if you will—in a welcoming multipurpose recreation facility that meets a community's sundry needs and desires. While indoor waterparks are exploding in popularity, across the board, facilities hear louder demands for warm-water therapeutic pools as the general population ages, Mendioroz says. These demands are sparking a trend. As recently as a few years ago, when sports, parks and recreation professionals would float the idea of building a therapeutic pool, such projects often stalled..

"The response was 'Oh, wouldn't that be nice,' but the nothing was ever done," he says.These days, there's a bandwagon tendency toward paying more than just lip service to providing therapeutic pools for patrons' use—even within recreation departments that already have a 50-meter pool outside, he adds. Why?

"Communities are insisting on it," Mendioroz says. Hence his firm has been fielding inquiries about indoor pools, specifically of the brick-and-mortar variety. But, there is a catch.

"When you tell people what it's going to cost, there's a huge intake of breath," he says with a laugh.

The average cost for conventional construction is $300 to $400 per square foot. Put another way, an outdoor 50-meter pool typically ranges from $3 million to $5 million, but if you build brick walls around it and crown it with a roof, that same pool will cost $8 million to $12 million, or more than double the price, Mendioroz says.

"[A pool environment presents] the worst possible conditions with the exception of a meth lab in terms of chemical nastiness," he says, and on top of corrosive chemicals you're dealing with humidity, another archenemy of conventional construction materials.

Concrete and steel stand up to these nemeses tolerably but not without armor. Steel trusses must be fabricated with their inhospitable environment in mind and coated with specialty paints to guard against corrosion. Masonry needs a vapor barrier. All vendors involved in the project need to know that their materials are bound for a pool environment.

Long-span roof trusses must be used.

"Because you obviously can't have support columns in the middle of your pool or deck," Mendioroz says. Installation of such trusses calls for stepped-up safety and handling measures, which affect labor costs.

To top it all off, heating a fully enclosed building that's large enough to house a pool can be extremely expensive, he adds, yet absolutely necessary since the air temperature must be kept two degrees higher than water temperature to keep condensation from forming on walls and to assure guests' comfort as they emerge from the pool.

The breathtaking expense of building and maintaining a fully enclosed brick-and-mortar pool keeps facility planners open to other options.

"People are looking for alternatives," Mendioroz says.

One notable result is that commercial swim schools are cropping up in retail environments. According to Sue Davis, a San Jose, Calif., swim school director (who is not necessarily a fan of the phenomenon), some California schools are retrofitting pools into existing buildings.

"So, for example, they'll move into a strip mall and put a pool in what used to be a grocery store," she says.