Feature Article - July 2021
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Alternate Routes

Nonconventional Structures Take Programs Year-Round Without Breaking the Bank

By Joe Bush


Traditional brick-and-mortar structures are not the only way to house recreational and athletic activities. There are aluminum and glass buildings; fabric domes and bubbles; and yurts, cabins shaped from ancient designs.

The cost of brick-and-mortar construction has been in the headlines recently as the price of lumber and steel has risen sharply. That's a boon for companies that use other materials to build structures for recreation and athletic organizations.

Aluminum and glass enclosures offer shelter for a lower cost in general, and for aquatic facilities they offer even more. The harsh environment of pools and waterparks—chemicals and humidity—can erode traditional building materials, but aluminum and glass are more tolerant.

The durability is far from the only benefit for those operating swimming venues. Utility costs decrease as daytime lighting is provided by the glassed walls and ceilings. If the building has a retractable roof, heating and cooling and dehumidfying bills are lower because climate is controlled by the manipulation of the roof and windows.

Cihan Ozdemir is a structural engineer with a company whose aluminum structures with retractable roofs are increasingly being used by organizations with existing or planned aquatic facilities. He said the combination of glass and the synergy between the roof and windows promises more affordable bills.

"Since the enclosure is retractable and can open, there is no need to treat the air during the warmer months in the same way a traditional indoor pool would require," he said. "During rainy days, a combination of fans and passive ventilation with sliding windows and screens allow for air movement for comfort to the guests, spectators and operators. During the daytime, there is no need for electrical/lighting due to the whole structure being translucent and taking advantage of the natural light.

"During the colder months, there is little need for any heating during the day when the outside temperature is above 30 degrees Fahrenheit. This is because of the greenhouse effect trapping warm air inside and continuously heating quicker than the heat can escape. This results in a net difference in temperature of at least 50 to 60 degrees during sunny days and 20 to 30 during cloudy days."

Nancy Patterson, director of design and business development with another manufacturer of retractable roof aluminum structures, said she has to battle at least one myth about her company's buildings.

"It is not a greenhouse," she said.

Patterson claims the structures can save 20% to 30% in utility bills for pool and waterpark enclosures and almost 20% for non-aquatic uses.

"Retractable-roof, large-format enclosures naturally ventilate your building," she said. "When you can naturally ventilate your building, you literally use free fresh air. When you can open the roof at the push of a button, it means you can turn off all your mechanical equipment. In an aquatic environment, that is such a life-changing proposition because the cost to properly maintain the temperature is very expensive—dehumidification, you have to heat, you have to cool, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year."

One of Ozdemir's clients is Tim Ackerman, vice president of properties for YMCA of the Suncoast in Clearwater, Fla. Ackerman said the retractable-roof structure housing an eight-lane competition pool and 7,000 square feet in all has solved previous issues with inflatable domes, which are awkward to put up, take down and store, and are subject to high-wind damage.

When scouting for a new pool facility, Ackerman said one of the goals was to have indoor swimming during the relatively colder winter and during rainy weather. A permanent brick-and-mortar solution was too expensive for an organization that relies heavily on donations, and when Ackerman visited two retractable-roof structures in South Carolina and California, he pursued that avenue.

"I found it to be a brilliant solution for our needs, and it offers us maximum flexibility," said Ackerman. "You can close it at night. When it gets chilly, we close the dome. When it warms up in the day, we open the dome up and it's an outdoor pool. It gave us maximum flexibility for our members and our users. It gives us year round swimming with the push of a button.

"It's very cost-effective compared to an indoor swimming pool, without the limitations of an indoor swimming pool. Once you have an indoor pool, there is no outdoor swimming. This gives us the best of both worlds, indoor swimming at the push of a button, outdoor swimming at the push of a button. If it rains we close the dome and when the rain stops we're still open."

Ackerman said the roof opens from the center to the side, and takes less than a minute to fully close from fully open. Once the roof is open, there is still shade on both ends of the pool, spaces that can be used in a variety of ways. Maintenance is light—a pressure-wash of the walls monthly, and making sure the tracks for the roof panels are clear.