Supplement Feature - May 2021
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Purposeful Pools

What's New in Natatorium Design

By Dave Ramont


For many people, the thought of outdoor pools conjures pictures of swimming, splashing and cooling off on a sultry day. But when considering indoor pool facilities, in addition to leisure and recreation, one might think of swimming instruction, swim and dive meets, water polo, water fitness and exercise classes, water therapy, a water basketball or volleyball game, and scuba or kayaking lessons. And while all of these activities take place outdoors as well, it seems that natatoriums are always working to enhance their offerings and draw a variety of users to keep their facilities successful, while also addressing the challenges of air and water quality.

Shutdowns due to the pandemic gave some aquatic venues a great opportunity to give their pools a shot in the arm, according to Justin Caron, principal and CEO of California-based Aquatic Design Group, which offers design and consulting services for the aquatics industry. "Many have done renovations and upgrades to their facilities during the past 13 months. In many cases the work was overdue. In others, overdue work was combined with measures meant to improve the health of the overall facility and deliver a safer experience for all its occupants."

Caron mentioned the significant amount of aging infrastructure, and added that the pandemic has highlighted numerous issues that are more pressing than deferred maintenance, which was often put off until it became an emergency. His firm offers assessments to help facilities determine areas that need improving, and he said these vary case by case. In some cases, "with the heightened awareness of social distancing and safety, we're asked to analyze the efficacy of the water and air systems, as well as the potential for minor renovations that can create more spacious queuing areas, safer one-way ingress and egress and other items that may need attention."

One continuing trend for natatoriums is offering different water temperatures, depths and experiences by having multiple bodies of water, according to Caron, who said the biggest financial drivers of aquatics are swim lessons, therapy classes and group classes. "These programs all call for shallow and warm water and can be challenging to provide in traditional competitive pools, which are often too deep and too cold for users to comfortably stay in for long. As more facilities are opening with multiple bodies of water, more opportunities for warm-water programming emerge, which is translating into more profitable aquatics."

The addition of enhanced programming options is also seen more often in K-12 and collegiate facilities. "It has become more common in recent years for school districts and colleges to partner with other local groups—cities, districts, counties, private entities, etc.—which often translates into multiple bodies of water being offered," said Caron. "Support amenities such as dryland training areas, spectator seating, wet-dry classrooms, multiple locker rooms, inclusive single-use and gender-neutral spaces are all emerging as requirements in modern aquatics centers."

Caron added that traditional school facilities were often built around the competitive teams that used them, therefore a 25-yard by 25-meter or a 50-meter pool was common. But the emergence of water polo has led to a new standard of a 25-yard by 30- to 35-meter pool, allowing for floating cage water polo, the preferred course to use.

Ryan Nachreiner, project director for Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm headquartered in Wisconsin, agrees that the strongest continuing trend in competition pools is multipurpose programming. "A large competition pool consumes highly valuable space for any development, so maximizing the utility of these areas is crucial. Activities that can quickly and easily be converted from lap lanes and back again are extremely important as these pool transitions typically occur daily."

He pointed to features such as retractable ceiling-mounted challenge courses as excellent examples of giving competition pools an alternative purpose with new appeal. "We also see strong demand for climbing walls, drop slides, cliff diving and other adventure activities, which are perfect features to combine with the cooler, deeper water of the competition pool."

Another way to provide different use zones in a pool is the use of moveable bulkheads, and Caron said they're seeing more projects incorporating these. "The vast majority of these are long competitive bodies of water, which utilize the bulkheads to create separate courses and allow for disparate athletic programs to cohabitate in a single body of water. However, we're also seeing some bulkheads being installed in multipurpose pools and even in some recreation-based pools." In these bodies of water the bulkhead is often used to separate depths to provide safer shallow areas, according to Caron, or to allow for a space to grow within a pool which may enhance the programming a facility can offer.