Feature Article - July 2020
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Flexible Building Solutions

Nonconventional Structures Expand Your Possibilities

By Dave Ramont


Fresh Air & Sunshine

There's no denying that the pandemic will change the way businesses operate-some more than others-and this includes the spaces that we work and recreate in. Nancy Patterson is director of design and business development for an Ontario, Canada-based company that designs, manufactures and installs custom retractable enclosures and operable skylights. Their structures are found at aquatics facilities, health and community centers, hotels, restaurants and shopping centers. "Not only do we add to spaces that want to grow or expand, we can also renovate existing properties," said Patterson. "In fact, right now we are getting calls for all of these as facilities worry about reopening to the public."

With the touch of a button, the glass enclosures or skylights let in the sun and fresh air-commodities that suddenly seem even more relevant-while also venting trapped heat and circulating the air naturally. When weather becomes inclement, the structures close quickly and securely. Patterson gives several examples of projects where they've added structures to existing facilities, such as the Richmond Aquatic Center in California. "The pool was in a steel-roof building with a beautiful wood glulam structure. As with most aquatic centers, the steel roof had corroded and was in need of replacement. We came in and put a retractable roof over the existing structure. So the citizens of Richmond have the benefit of fresh air and sunshine, while keeping their gorgeous pool."

Other projects involve covering new construction or additions, such as the recreation center in Little Elm, Texas. "The existing facility, which had gyms, activity spaces and all other traditional municipal recreation center amenities, is getting an incredible new aquatic center and waterpark-The Cove at the Lakefront," said Patterson. "This is being added on to the side of the existing center, and sits on the side of Lewisville Lake-the location is gorgeous! One end of (our new) enclosure is actually the old wall to the rec center."

In addition to opening up the roof, Patterson said they also encourage clients to open the sidewalls when possible, to ventilate the building. "Owners don't necessarily want doors on all sides of the building for safety reasons, so we often include custom railings to meet code requirements in sliding doors so that when the door is open, the air is able to flow through, but guests don't use the door as egress."

She said there are many options for opening the walls-including motorized doors-adding that this turns the building into a natural chimney. "Air flows in from the sides of the space and pushes the hot chemical-laden air up and out of the roof."

Patterson said that while their enclosures are made of aluminum, the infill used in the structures is interchangeable. "So you can put in glass, polycarbonate, ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) or insulated metal panels. We can also leave the structure open to other materials, perhaps a concrete block wall or similar."

She said that for a rec center, clients typically prefer glass or polycarbonate. "Glass is used in the walls for the purpose of light, brightness and visibility." As an example, she cited the Ontario Racquet Club in Toronto, where one side of the aquatic center faces the parking lot. For privacy reasons, the bottom four feet of the wall is opaque concrete. "We then have a layer of frosted glass for brightness without the visibility, and above that for the height of the wall is clear glass."

They can also use glass in the roof, but glass is costlier than polycarbonate, according to Patterson, so most clients tend to use the latter, which is a multi-layered corrugated plastic. It's UV-coated, highly durable, comes in a couple of basic colors and is easy and inexpensive to install, maintain and clean. "In most of our aquatic centers, this is the material that's in the roof. It looks like a glass roof, but in fact is not."

Finally, they can also incorporate ETFE, which is a multi-layer Mylar material with air blown between the layers to create a "pillow" effect. "We can not only install this on the roof but we can make it retractable," said Patterson. "We have a project at a hotel pool in New Jersey-Grand Cascades Lodge at Crystal Springs Resort-doing exactly that."

Reducing the amount of artificial light needed at a facility can lead to substantial energy savings. "Also, when you open the roof, you turn off entirely-or way down-any air handling systems you have that are mechanically pushing air into or around the space. These systems remain off while the roof and walls are open," said Patterson, pointing out that clients have shown up to a 30% annual savings on energy bills with a retractable roof enclosure versus a traditional aquatics facility. Retractable structures are also helpful in the battle against chloramines.

"We also highly encourage clients to install large fans," said Patterson. "These have the benefit of keeping the air moving up and out on hot days when there is little or no breeze. The result is that the interior can feel a little cooler than the space around it." She points to installations in Vermont and northern Canada, as well as sticky Florida and arid California. "Each space is designed and engineered to suit the climate, and all are thermally broken. That means that we have thermal breaks in the metal channels around all infill material so that you can heat and cool the space as you need to."

Aside from aquatics facilities, Patterson discussed projects worldwide that include parks and rec facilities, entertainment and athletic complexes, and health and wellness centers. "A space that is useable year-round generates revenue. A space that is bright and utilizes daylight encourages productivity and happiness. Both of these-combined with the ability to easily clean the space, the natural ventilation, energy cost savings and the simple human desire to be outside when it's nice out-make these enclosures attractive to both owners and their guests. With the pandemic, we've seen an increase in requests in how something like this might benefit a facility," said Patterson, noting CDC guidelines that recommend, among other practices, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces and opening windows to improve ventilation.