Feature Article - May 2016
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Aquatic Evolution

Design Trends in Outdoor Aquatic Facilities

By Dave Ramont

If you've visited an outdoor community swimming pool in the past few years, you've likely noticed that it's "not your daddy's swimming pool anymore." The old rectangular, flat-water pool—which maybe had diving boards or a slide—may not be extinct, but it's certainly an endangered species. Today's aquatic facilities offer plunge pools, zero-depth entry, children's activity pools and water playgrounds. Multi-level water play structures, various waterslides and leisure rivers. Sports challenge features such as zip lines, climbing walls and aqua courses. Family picnic and sand play areas, interactive features, and multiple support components.

Many municipalities and parks and rec departments have noticed an increased interest in aquatic recreation in recent years, yet attendance at their facilities has dropped. Therefore, it's crucial for them to evolve and embrace new trends and update existing facilities if they want to remain competitive and attract visitors. Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis., has conducted recent studies showing that many new or revitalized outdoor family aquatic centers have exhibited a marked increase in attendance, with several experiencing up to a 200 percent rise over the former traditional facilities. They've found that combining the traditional aquatic requirements of competitive swimming, exercise and fitness with the right blend of leisure and entertainment features has proven successful for communities of all sizes.

The New Economics

One thing that's changed over the past couple of decades is the desire of cities and parks to have their facilities become more economically self-sustaining. Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Design Group (ADG), based in Carlsbad, Calif., reflects on how 12 or 15 years ago they started seeing park and rec departments moving away from the neighborhood swimming pools and community centers to more regional aquatic centers. And they found that, as they started adding more amenities, they had the ability to increase the operating cost recovery potential of a facility. "So if we took a typical (rectilinear) pool, we would find that on average it would generate 40 or 50 percent annual operating cost recovery," with the municipalities subsidizing the remainder. "As we start adding more recreation value to the facility, then we have the ability to push that cost recovery to 70, 80, 90 percent levels," he said.

Tom LaLonde and Rich Klarck have also noticed this trend. LaLonde is vice president and managing principal and Klarck is lead aquatic engineer at Williams Architects, based in Itasca, Ill. "Operational efficiencies have come to the forefront in recent years. Park districts and municipal rec departments are more cognizant of fiscal responsibility for the operations of their facilities. Nowadays it's customary to expect revenue generation to pay for the operation of the facility. If that's not possible, owners are trying to get as close as they can," they noted.

Doug Whiteaker, principal at WTI, echoes how communities are becoming more fiscally conscious. "To minimize the operational subsidy required by today's community governments, facilities must conserve operational expense and generate revenue through broad appeal to community users to achieve a higher percentage of cost recovery," he said. "The communities that create these facilities want to deliver on the appeal of the facility but also want to provide a sustainable venue that continuously delivers a safe and memorable experience at the lowest operational cost without sacrificing safety."

An Expanding Audience

Besides economic sustainability, aquatic centers have evolved in many ways over the years. LaLonde and Klarck noted that pools in the past—40-plus years ago—were largely limited to depths of 3 feet or more. A typical pool was rectangular and surrounded by concrete decks and a chain link fence. Then 30 years ago the zero-depth entry was introduced and pools took on new forms. Natural enhancements were added, making it more park-like. Now some facilities are moving away from broad, zero-depth entries, since they require larger sites and pools as it can take as much as 50 to 60 feet in distance to enter deeper water (3-feet-plus).

While zero-depth entry is still popular, step-in entries are becoming more prevalent. "The step-in entry not only provides ease of access into the water, but can provide access to deeper water in a relatively short distance (less than 10 feet). Expansive step-in entries (12 to15 feet wide) can have a designated area where people enter the water yet still provide a great area for people to congregate and observe or be involved with the activities in the pool. In addition, step-in entries offer children a safe introduction to 2-to 3-foot water depths," they said.

Berkshire noted that in the past decade or two, the industry really started to be driven by a new mindset. And that is to reach out to the entire community for aquatics, and not just specific special interest groups. He cited an example where ADG recently did a city-wide aquatics business plan for the city of El Paso, Texas. And in El Paso they found that estimates were that 15.7 percent of the population would participate in municipal swimming in one way or another, whether that's swim team, triathlon training, water polo, laps, fitness classes, swim lessons, lifeguard training or just straight recreational swim. But when considering all of the organized teams and groups—the swim teams, the water polo teams—they represented less than one-half of 1 percent of the population. Yet they are the ones who will show up at the city council to say they need a 50-meter Olympic size pool or more competitive-type venues. "It kind of drives home the numbers," Berkshire said. "While those organized swim groups are the most vested swim groups—they're the ones that are there daily and in some cases twice a day—and we do need to be able to support their needs, that's not the community. So if we're really trying to get a facility that can reach out and meet the needs of the entire community, from children at 6 months of age to people that are 96 years of age, it's a different venue."

Whiteaker agrees with this new focus, adding that the design of aquatic facilities for parks and rec departments has evolved to include the important core elements that help engage citizens to increase their quality of life experiences in their communities. "These core components include pools for important programs such as learning to swim, some level of competitive swimming and diving, and recreation. People have also enjoyed other community leisure pools and the private waterparks, and have expressed the desire to include these family fun elements into their renovated or new aquatic facilities to help encourage more use by a broader demographic," he said.