Supplement Feature - February 2016
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Take It Inside

Trends and Ideas for Natatorium Design

By Joe Bush

There's more than one thing designers and architects can agree on when discussing natatoriums, but the bottom line on all their common ground is this: It's a building and environment unlike any other.

Akin to constructing a rain forest exhibit in a zoo, an enclosed pool area has a climate that dictates everything from construction materials to heating and air conditioning systems to water filtering options to flooring surface choices to custom lighting and spectator space. All that has to be under the crucial umbrella of safety for users of the space and staff.

"We always stress that of all the spaces in your facility, this is the one you want to pay the most attention to," said Erik Kocher, principal and owner at Hastings & Chivetta Architects, St. Louis. "You really don't want to cut corners when you're talking about the quality of your pool environment, just because they can so quickly deteriorate because of the nature of the chemical environment, and it could become a long-term burden to the client. As architects, we want to make the building very efficient, but you also want to make it last."

Modern technology and innovation have given designers and architects new tools to pursue energy savings and flexibility in an era of revenue-generating recreation pool areas being added to traditional exercise and competition pools. Sometimes, as with natatoriums funded publicly, such as at universities and municipalities, efficient equipment and practices are mandatory. In general, they make good business sense, perhaps the best argument for any choices.

James Braam, vice president and director of sports and recreation and entertainment at HOK, Kansas City, said there's another aspect that should never be forgotten when planning, designing and building natatoriums:

"We really believe we have a chance to impact life-styles for everyone from youth to elderly or at a college campus. These buildings really should inspire. If there's ever a building type that should be both inspiring and sustainable, it's fitness and aquatic facilities. The idea of attracting people to these facilities so they want to linger and feel good. It's going a step beyond where we were 20, 30 years ago."

A new natatorium begins with usage goals and a budget. Will it be used only for competition? Only for recreation? A combination? Will there be a therapeutic water area, with the highest temperature of any of the three pool types? Can you afford the upfront expense of a movable floor, to change the depth of one pool to meet the needs of all users? Would you rather spend that money on separate pools? Will recreational spaces include moving water like lazy rivers or add-ons to still water like climbing walls, zip lines, inflatable obstacles and slides?

Scott Hester, president at Counsilman- Hunsaker, St. Louis, said efficiency, which every client wants, begins with the plan and design process. Most natatoriums are part of a larger building in a fitness, community or wellness campus.

"The natatorium space is one of if not the most expensive space in that facility, so being efficient is critical, and it starts with making sure the pool shape itself needs to conform with the building space and vice versa," said Hester. "If you've got a curvilinear or free-form shape to the pool the natatorium should have curved spaces itself. It's not just a block. Next, we want to eliminate as much deck as we can.

"We've been doing this now for 15 to 20 years. For instance, having part of a waterslide flume outside so you don't have all that winding and twisting eating up deck space for nothing other than a slide itself. So, while you might have a tower and the terminus within the building, a lot of the actual slide itself may be outside the building.

"Every inch needs to count inside that natatorium because, again, it's the most expensive space when you have it as part of a larger recreation facility. We're talking about the difference of, 'Do we want a 10-foot wide deck versus 8-foot wide?' There's a lot of dollars behind that decision."

Hester said the reason natatoriums are so pricey begins with their volume of space and continues with the mechanical systems necessary to control and monitor air and water quality, as well as the specialized materials that resist corrosion.

"Generally, it's a multi-story space, and the building conditioning is very significant in the cost to construct as well as to operate the facility," he said. "You've got a swimming pool, you've got expensive building conditioning equipment like dehumidification units, HVAC and building materials that are durable. A lot of times, more durable is more expensive."