Feature Article - January 2010
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Staying Afloat

Operating Aquatics in the Black

By Dawn Klingensmith

Successful by Design

Despite the poor economy and steep cost of running a pool, municipalities and schools continue to build. Unfortunately, there aren't many successful models to emulate, and in any case, aquatics experts tend to agree that it is not at all appropriate to size up well-run facilities or profitable facilities and then try to duplicate the design and programming. Due to demographics, capital investment limits, climate and a host of other variables, there is no such thing as a "correct" template that fits every project, said Sue Nelson, an aquatics programming specialist with USA Swimming.

That's why municipalities are advised to pay for a feasibility study and solicit community input to see what type of facility and programs, if any, would do well in their particular market.

Then, in the planning phase, be advised that certain factors can help or hinder a pool's ability to operate in the black.

Variation in Water Depth
"A lack of variation in pool depth can turn off certain customers. Shallow water is good for a senior population and certain water exercise applications, but a lack of deep water may make it difficult, or impossible, to develop a higher-intensity exercise class or to hold the attention of older children in a recreation setting," said Dave Rowland of the Simsbury, Conn.-based consultancy Lutra Aquatics. "On the other hand, a lack of shallow water is deadly."

Rowland once reviewed a plan for a pool that called for a uniform 8-foot depth on the advice of a swimming and water polo coach. "For water polo a deep pool is preferred, but this client also wanted to open the facility as a community pool," Rowland said. The proposed depth was unsuitable for children, though, as well as for adult swimmers who might not be comfortable never being able to touch bottom.

"So this design, centered on water polo, effectively eliminated a huge portion of the potential customer base as a community facility and more or less killed a lesson program, at least at the introductory levels," Rowland said.

Incorporating lots of shallow water makes sense from a financial perspective, as well. "It results in a higher capacity because people are standing as opposed to being horizontal, and shallow water is cheaper to filter and uses less chemicals," said Kevin Post, new project manager, Counsilman-Hunsaker, St. Louis.

Lane Orientation
"Even the manner in which the lanes are oriented relative to water depth variations can make a difference," Rowland said. "There is often a focus on a specific goal for a facility that blinds the developer to other, longer-term considerations. Competitive swimming considerations will dictate that all lanes of the pool have the same depth—that is, if there is a variation in pool depth, that the lanes run with that variation. But if every lane of a pool encompasses a variety of depths, you may not serve those who want to water-walk, or you may have to take a lot of lanes to get enough deep and shallow water for a specific class, with the remainder of that space going unused."

Temperature Zones
One design flaw Rowland sees frequently is having two pools kept at different temperatures but only one HVAC system that maintains the entire space at a single air temperature. Every facility needs several different air temperatures in accordance with the different water temperatures "or else your water heating system will be fighting your air temperature," resulting in wasted energy, Rowland said. An aquatic facility also needs sufficient boundaries or careful duct placement to ensure the various air systems aren't combating one another.

Three's a Charm
As a cost-saving measure, many municipalities plan for one body of water to be used as a "hybrid pool," with areas for lap swimming and leisure, Post said. However, in a single body of water, "You can't control and optimize the temperature for various activities," he said.

Planners typically recommend that new projects include three separate pools, of different temperatures and depths, to allow for the broadest mix of programming, including swim lessons, aquatic therapy, lap swimming, competition and aquatic fitness classes.

With regard to shape, "Free-form pools look nice, but too many curves, twists and blind spots mean more lifeguards" because sightlines are impeded, Post said.

Dry Elements
Building a pool as part of a comprehensive recreation center makes sense because "In my mind, the only way to break even is to provide dry-side amenities," Post said. For example, if a fitness center is available, people will pay more for membership. Plus, "It addresses the multigenerational aspect—while the kids are learning to swim, mom and dad can work out," Post said.

And when an aquatics facility is part of a recreation center, it can tie in with the building's overall heating and cooling system, so heat that normally would be transferred to a cooling tower could be sent to the pool instead.

The Price Is Right
"Typically when designing new pools, you can stress that this is an opportunity to change fees because you're offering more," Post said.

David Sangree of Hotel & Leisure Advisors agreed: "The most challenging thing is when you have an existing facility where people are used to paying $3 to get in, and then you start charging $10. It's easier when you're building to just come right out and say, 'Yes, it costs $10 but look how nice and new it is.'"

Post knows of one municipality where user fees increase by 3 percent each year. It's built into the operating budget, and people accept it because residents were in on the planning process and understand the reasoning behind it.