Feature Article - July 2013
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Jumping Off the Deep End

Daring Trends in Aquatic Facility Design

By Kelli Anderson

When Mark Johnson's Olympic wrestling hopes were dashed in the U.S. boycott of 1980, he had no idea that 33 years later, it would play a role in designing the latest state-of-the-art and, arguably, the best YMCA aquatic facility in the nation.

Coming in at a price tag of $17 million, the Stevens Family YMCA in Champaign, Ill., is garnering attention for its out-of-the-box design that is truly accessible for all people—boasting the first-ever wheelchair-accessible waterslide as its greatest achievement—as well as sensory rooms designed for those with sensory integration and social/emotional disorders, called Larkin's Place, named for one of the YMCA's patrons, a young girl with Down's syndrome.

Johnson's journey from Olympic champion to YMCA director with a heartfelt focus on accessibility began with a childhood friend with Down's syndrome. Then, when the Olympic boycott derailed his dreams to medal in 1980, he attended a Special Olympics as master of ceremonies that same year. Both experiences affected him greatly and further shaped him as an advocate for inclusion and accessibility in recreation. And more are joining him.

Many aquatic facilities are climbing aboard the ADA bandwagon—going beyond the minimum letter of the law in order to embrace the spirit of it. For those slower to recognize its importance, the Department of Justice regulations for aquatic facilities that kicked in by January 2013 are helping to adjust their focus. In addition, changes in FINA regulations for diving wells and starting block depths are resulting in a major overhaul of many competitive pools around the country.

And, as the country begins to turn an economic corner after five long years of struggle, new forms of financial assistance, coupled with improved technology and greater interest in energy conservation, are allowing improvements to existing aquatic facilities and the construction of new ones with equipment and features that were once too cost-prohibitive to consider. Aquatic facilities are beginning to jump off a financial deep end and finding that in today's economy, with new regulations and changing demographics, it is a great time to take the plunge.

Turning the Financial Tide

Gone are the days when a simple Caribbean or jungle theme was enough to put your facility on the destination map.

Of course, when it comes to evaluating the economy, it can be hard to find consensus. So which is it? Are we still in economic free fall, or are we finally landing on solid financial footing? The answer is: It depends. According to some aquatic facility designers, the industry is beginning to shift from a fiscally tight-fisted approach that focused on survival to expansion and innovation. However, others concede that while the economy is still limping along for most of their clients, the introduction of grants and subsidy programs is making formerly prohibitive projects possible. Either way, in the world of aquatic design, the tide is turning.

"With the economic climate in the last five years, the biggest focus was: 1) How do I maintain what I have? and 2) When I do have money, how do I stretch my dollar?" said Scott Hester, president with Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. "We're just getting out of that trend. A noticeable uptick on projects and leads has begun, so everything is trending in the right direction."

And what his company is seeing from a design perspective is a focus on the extreme. "We're seeing a lot of requests for how to incorporate extreme sporting opportunities in aquatic facilities like climbing walls, zip lines, rope swings and flow-riders," Hester explained, quick to add that while these are not new in and of themselves, they are newer for the public-sector side of the business. "On the public-sector side, there is a lot more interest in differentiating themselves from just the lazy rivers or zero-depth entries. I'm seeing more of a priority in extreme sporting opportunities because that's how to attract tweens and teens."

Given that our economic climate is still far from sunny, Hester said that one way to incorporate excitement on a budget when a facility cannot yet afford another pool is to turn to obstacle courses. "We've seen a lot of requests for floatable inflatable obstacle courses. It's a challenging, fun experience at a low cost so that you don't have to reconfigure a pool."