Feature Article - July 2021
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Alternate Routes

Nonconventional Structures Take Programs Year-Round Without Breaking the Bank

By Joe Bush


Since water quality and air quality are tightly linked, ventilation is a major asset to maintaining air quality standards. Syncing roof and window usage provides the proper balance, Ackerman said.

"Even when the structure is closed, we have windows all around that we can open at will," he said. "If we feel like it's a stagnant situation, we just open the windows and get a cross breeze. If it starts to get warm but not warm enough to open the roof we just crack the dome a couple feet and that increases the air flow too.

"When the dome is wide open, it's literally like being outside. There are no issues with blocking wind. We open it and open the end windows and it allows us real movement of the air."

Perhaps best of all for budget-minded operators, there is no HVAC system in the enclosure, said Ackerman.

"We do it all by opening windows or cracking the dome open," he said. "Even in the winter I can crack that dome open just a few inches and allow all that humid air to come out and close the dome back up and the water is 85 degrees and it warms the air up fairly rapidly. Even in the dead of winter with a cold snap at freezing we've been able to maintain a very comfortable indoor swimming environment."

With donors as well as members to please, Ackerman said the retractable roof building pleases everyone with programming flexibility and cost savings.

"The YMCA relies on donors to build and also to continue our operations throughout the year," he said. "We look at those dollars as someone's personal gifts to the community, and how we spend those dollars is very critical to our long-term success and to that of the community as a whole. We're very cautious how we spend those dollars.

"We got basically an indoor/outdoor swimming pool for about half the cost of an indoor swimming pool with very little maintenance costs. That's a great return on someone's donated dollars, and everyone who donates to us recognizes that."

With all those benefits and the pandemic changing the public's views on gathering, Ackerman's group will turn to retractable roof structures in the future, and perhaps not just for aquatic facilities.

"The advent of COVID has really changed wellness opportunities with much more of a focus on exterior activities like group exercise classes or tai chi classes outside," he said. "This type of a structure will be something you see in the future that allows outdoor and indoor activities to take place depending on the weather. We've learned a lot through this terrible pandemic that in the long term will be a huge positive with indoor/outdoor programming."

Laszlo Keleman, area executive director of facilities management for YMCA of San Diego County, said the five retractable roof aquatic facilities he oversees provided a glimpse of their attributes in the past year. Many indoor aquatic programs were shut down during the worst of the pandemic.

"With the ability to retract the roofs on our pool structures, we were able to satisfy the requirements of increased air circulation, and we did not have to shut down our pool operations," he said. "This was a huge service that was needed for the community as people needed ways to stay active with the lack of recreational and exercise spaces being available for use."

Kelemen said another benefit is the climate control abilities.

"Even though here in San Diego we are blessed with probably the most ideal weather conditions, our structures provide great flexibility to be able to help maintain ambient air and pool water temperatures," he said. "By being able to control the retractable roof panels on the structures, we are able to control the ambient air to make exiting the pools more comfortable for our members.

"Members that utilize the pools as therapy for injuries and our senior population greatly appreciate not having the drastic temperature change from exiting the warm pools, which may cause them discomfort. This has been extremely beneficial for some of the arthritis-based programs that we offer to our members."

Tim Carr is involved with real estate and facility management with YMCA of the Triangle, in Raleigh, N.C. Carr has been overseeing a retractable roof structure installation that is scheduled for a January 2022 opening. Carr's group switched to a retractable roof building when an indoor pool plan had to be scrapped due to loss of revenue from a six month pandemic operations shutdown. The retractable roof structure will cover an existing outdoor eight-lane pool.

Carr said the indoor pool project was bid at $5.2 million, of which $3.5 million was fund-raised. He said the cost of the retractable dome, replacement of a pool deck and mechanical/plumbing/electrical upgrades is projected to be less than $1.5 million.

"Not only was construction stalled just at the start, but the financial well-being of the organization was at stake. Thus the board cancelled the original project," said Carr. "The (retractable roof) option was something generated by conversation between YMCA facility peers who had seen the promo during one of the Large YMCA Facility Summits held every 18 months.

"We now believe this probably should have been our starting point all along, so a prime lesson is to first consider covering existing outdoor pools before launching into an indoor pool addition."

Another structural option for non-aquatic recreation and athletics is a steel frame covered with fabric that lets in enough light during the day to reduce electric light use. These buildings can be custom-designed based on need, can be either temporary or permanent, and built faster than traditional buildings.

"Our design options allow coverings to be customized to include insulation and heating in cold climate environments, to open-sided pavilion covers in warm climates," said Geoff Ching, director of sales for a company that designs and builds such structures.

"(We've) built more indoor tennis facilities than any other athletic venue due to the ideal fit of our designs as tennis covers and the benefits of natural sunlight that enter through our translucent covers. We are seeing expansion in soccer, pickleball and football, as well."