Feature Article - July 2022
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Think Differently

Nonconventional Facility Structures Making a Difference

By Kelli Ra Anderson


Customer experience has been the name of the game for some time. More than ever, the recreation industry is looking for ways to provide amazing, compelling, in-person experiences to compete against the ever-widening array of competitors like virtual training and home entertainment systems. Facilities have to differentiate; they have to offer something more. Building outside the traditional "box" is one way some facilities and businesses are doing just that.

Many of these nonconventional building structures with their stunning aesthetics and large, open-span interiors can provide the kind of appeal traditional brick-and-mortar can't. Once considered primarily for their greater affordability, many are so much more than just a budget-friendly consolation prize. They are often first-choice options that stand fully on their own merit.

Add in other advantages like better energy efficiency, lower maintenance and operation costs, brighter and breezier interiors and shorter construction time, and it's not hard to see why there has been an uptick in nonconventional building systems like yurts, polycarbonate/glass structures with retractable roofs and walls, fabric-tension and pre-engineered steel building systems. It's time to think differently.

Overcoming the Status Quo

Building nontraditional structures has its challenges, however. Building codes and regulations have been developed around traditional construction methods and materials, which can cause inspectors and lenders to balk at the idea of building in an unconventional way. Design-build, for example, can still find opposition within the government bidding system. It can be difficult to convince old dogs to learn new tricks.

Thankfully, however, as more and more atypical facilities succeed in breaking new ground, mounting evidence demonstrates that unconventional structures can be advantageous to their communities and economies. Many of the companies offering these alternatives have also developed customer service departments that specialize in answering and addressing concerns that skeptical county officials or inspectors might have. As a result, contractors, regulators and banks are more easily persuaded than in past years to give unconventional structures the green light. Or, if construction methods are too unconventional, some companies now offer start-to-finish construction and installation as part of their effort to stand strong behind their products.

Clear Advantages

One such atypical structural design gaining momentum is transparent retractable roof and wall designs often constructed of aluminum and polycarbonate or various forms of glass. These jewel-house structures are proving to be ideal for year-round aquatic environments. With lower energy costs, faster construction and more seasonal versatility, able to flex with sudden changes in the weather with the push of a button, they can be a big improvement over the darker, more easily corroded interiors of their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Wow Factor

When Zehnder's of Frankenmuth added 68 suites and an 18,900-square-foot indoor waterpark called The Splash to their historic hotel and 1,500-seat restaurant in 2005, this fourth-generation family-owned destination sensation in northern Michigan became even more popular.

"Due to that success, we decided to proceed with an addition," said Al Zehnder, chairman and CEO of the Bavarian-themed business. "We wanted to make a statement."

They chose a dramatic all-glass and aluminum retractable-roof design they named Atrium Park. This soaring, scintillating structure, 78 feet high at its peak, added 28,734 more square feet to a combined attraction they dubbed "Zehnder's Splash Village."

However, when construction began, deterioration discovered in a portion of the original aquatic space ultimately led them to encase the entire waterpark—old and new—in the 1-inch-thick insulated glass. The result? Two distinct but connected waterparks with two retractable roofs and double the wow factor.

Marketing the Experience

"We fell in love with that building and being able to open the roof on nice days," Zehnder said, referring to the building's retractable nine-panel roof system controlled with a simple push of a button. "When it's 72 degrees, we open the roof and it gives it a really different environment that also allows for continual exchange of fresh air. But the overall design of the building has become part of the experience at Splash Village, allowing us to market not just the inside but the building itself."

Other advantages have included a super-abundance of light. Originally, The Splash had a much darker feel—more like a gymnasium setting, according to Zehnder—but now, especially in the Atrium, there is a noticeably brighter, open and inviting atmosphere.

"And it handles snow wonderfully," said Ross Ron, director of engineering with the facility. "We shoot off fireworks on New Year's Eve in a field north of our property. We have a big New Year's Eve party where families can watch the show from the inside, warm, in their swimsuits."

Cost Savings

Zehnder admitted that thinking about trying something new wasn't easy. "It's kind of scary when you move away from a traditional build, but we saw the benefits immediately in marketing with its ambience and atmosphere—and the cost wasn't outrageous."

In fact, this kind of structure compared to their original building has saved them money. Interior maintenance, for example, where no repairs are ever needed for drywall, painting or caulking (and therefore no downtime to do it), is a big improvement, while its aluminum-and-glass construction is virtually impervious to the indoor pool's dreaded nemesis, chloramines.

To date, maintenance has only consisted of a once-a-year power-wash. And that's it.

"What you pay a little more for is to heat the water in winter," Ross admitted. "But you save in summer when you turn off air handling equipment."

For Tim Ackerman, vice president of the properties for the Suncoast YMCAs in Citrus County, Fla., switching from a seasonal inflatable dome over their pools to permanent transparent retractable structures has been a very positive change.

"Inflatables have a place—maybe over a sports field—but I don't know if it's over a pool in winter with cold air in a miserable humid atmosphere and no way to get out until spring. And with a big body of water, the setup time and takedown means closing for two days each time, and it takes a tremendous number of people to set up and it's a big piece to store. So there's a lot to that."

Energy efficiency of the YMCA's transparent structures has also been a big part of the appeal. "We are way ahead of bricks and mortar. Way ahead," Ackerman said, pointing to no need for a dehumidification system or other aspects of a traditional structure, and less maintenance than required in traditional builds.

For the aging MLK Jr. Pool in Charleston, S.C., built in 1974, switching from an inflatable pool covering to a clear, permanent and retractable structure has saved a bundle in energy costs as well.

"We have experienced about a $50,000-per-year cost savings in operational and maintenance costs," said Laurie Yarbrough, director of recreation for the city, enumerating, among other things, no staff required for the yearly bubble installation and removal, no need for its storage and not having the blower on 24/7 to keep it pressurized.

They are also saving money on chemicals, thanks to improved air and water conditions, switching out to liquid chlorine since the polycarbonate structure has lowered chemical usage even more.

For many aging outdoor pools, the costs associated with modernizing and becoming more energy-efficient are prohibitive. In the case of the MLK Jr. Pool, however, the cost savings projected over time paid for capital improvements.

Be More Flexible

For the community of Highlands, N.C., the problem of two outdated outdoor pools and a wading pool was solved by the construction of an Olympic-sized pool with zero-depth entry. Unfortunately, the city's master plan for an indoor pool was out of reach, making the new pool unusable during winter cold temperatures.

However, thanks to a very generous donor with out-of-the-box ideas who offered to cover the costs of a fully retractable building with telescoping clear polycarbonate walls and a roof made of 16mm PCSS roof glazing, the pool has become a year-round marvel. Unlike any system built to this scale before, the motorized 88-foot clear span space, with a length of 130 feet, fully retracts along a single track in only 2.5 minutes with the click of a button.

"In summer after 10 a.m. it's wide open until after noon or if it's raining," said Lester Norris, recreation director for the Highlands Parks and Recreation Department. "Highlands has unique weather," he said, and praised the flexibility of walls and doors they often open and close multiple times a day.

Flexibility has been one of the biggest perks of the polycarbonate structures in Citrus County's YMCAs as well. "People absolutely love that we can open the structure part or all of the way for some sun or shade depending on personal preference. Or when it rains we are still open and also in winter until the most beautiful part of the day is 75 degrees," Ackerman said. "That's huge—this gives us maximum flexibility to offer indoor or outdoor with the push of a button. We use that daily."

UV-blocking panels offer another kind of flexibility, too. Even when the polycarbonate walls and roof open all the way, patrons end up with two large sunshades at the end of the decks that provide UV protection for kids and adults during lessons. "We were thrilled at first," said Ackerman, "but now it's a requirement, given what we know about the sun's impact on bodies, so it works really, really well."

Yurt the One

Another nonconventional structure gaining in popularity because of its outdoor-indoor feel, expansive airy interior, cost advantages over conventional structures and popular appeal is the yurt.

These ancient homes, originating with nomadic peoples on the steppes of central Asia, are today a kind of glamping sensation that is providing campgrounds, resorts and national parks with a unique alternative to the traditional log cabin or lodge.

When Jan Russell and Mike Dreisbach, owners of Savage River Lodge in Frostburg, Md., first saw yurts in the northwest, they were convinced if they brought them out east people would love them. Record sales at their lodge have proven them right.

"They are a novelty, but many campgrounds only have primitive versions that close in the winter. We set out to make ours exclusively for couples," Dreisbach said, describing the canvas-covered structures they built with radiant flooring heat, on-demand heated water systems and cozy decor their guests enjoy year-round.

"If I build a cabin it costs three times as much as a yurt structure even though the process of radiant floor heat and electric gets a little expensive," Dreisbach said. "Bottom line, I can build a yurt for $80,000 and a cabin for $350,000. And there's also so much light coming in from custom curved windows and a curved dome so a lot of light is a big reduction in electric."

Terry and Sherry McCracken of Dupont Yurts in Hendersonville, N.C., built their yurts with the height of luxury in mind. With top-grade interior finishes like granite countertops, they ordered all the yurt design's upgrades, and added beautiful landscaping and exterior finishes that brought costs up to almost that of a similar-sized cabin. However, the novelty and luxury of the space has worked its magic. After their first two yurts, weekend bookings were solid, six months out, and then three months out when they built their next two.

However, because their yurts have been easier to maintain than their other rentals, cheaper to heat and cool, and were faster to build, they still come out ahead despite initially similar construction costs to their traditionally built rentals.

Brace Yourself

Pre-engineered steel buildings, commonly called "pole barns," have historically been used for equipment sheds. However, thanks to newer technology and innovative applications, they are becoming a hot commodity in the residential real estate market as well as in recreational facility use. Like yurts, these steel-framed structures are experiencing an evolution toward more luxurious and opulent buildings selected not just for their lower cost and faster rate of construction, but because the structure itself offers a customer experience and aesthetic worth building.

Just 10 to 15 years ago pole barns were already making inroads, as in the case of the Stephen D. Persinger Recreation Center in Geneva, Ill. This beautiful building was originally selected because it fit two basic needs. "It was an issue of what the budget could afford, but had a community wanting to be careful about the quality of image," said Tom Tristano, president of Prairie Design Build, who worked on the project under its former name, Williams Architects. "In this case it was next to an historic farm across the street, so we thought we would emulate a farm aesthetic."

Fast-forward a decade, and we have the stellar example of pre-engineered steel building with the Prairie View Golf Club and Grill in Byron, Ill. The facility draws in patrons from miles away thanks to a Toptracer range, one of the most cutting-edge golf experiences in the country with eight heated hitting bays complete with fire pits, and cozy modern indoor and outdoor decor.

"They have pushed the limits on finishes and technology," said Tristano. "Although the Byron Forest Preserve didn't have $40-to-50 million to spend, they had $3 million and were able to accomplish a successful application with a pre-engineered structure."

Apparently, others agree. The golf club recently won a parks and recreation award for best facility and is turning heads across the country. "It has fireplaces, rock and cedar-shingled siding, heated concrete floors, live edge tables and rich features because we want to get families and kids there—we wanted people who don't golf to come back just for the atmosphere and not look like a sports bar," said Todd Tucker, executive director of the Byron Forest Preserve. "I wanted 'wow' factor, and what we got was very high quality that will last the test of time."

All Tensed Up

Another beauty-meets-brawn application is fabric tensile systems. "While envisioning the new home for the Switchbacks Football Club, a United Soccer League (USL) championship franchise, Perkins+Will sought to weave in functional, yet architecturally unique elements throughout the multi-use, 8,000-seat stadium," said Andy Barnard, AIA and managing principal with Perkins+Will about fabric tensile sails modified to withstand 150 mph used in the stadium project. "The canopies are integral to that experience, providing coveted shade on sunny summer days, protection from rain and snow, and a signature design element that reinforces the stadium's status as a premier soccer venue."

Recent developments of a translucent fabric blocking UV rays while admitting 50% natural light has been another game-changer. "Particularly in North America, developers and architects of recreational facilities want to provide an open-air feeling," said David Peragallo, senior specification manager of one manufacturer. "The new solution for protection is a fabric that is both structural and creates a glass-like effect with minimal glare. In other words, the flexible composite membrane allows occupants to enjoy the weather without the sensation of being enclosed."

Affordability. Energy efficiency. Faster builds. Soaring spaciousness. And aesthetics that provide patron-attracting experience in the bargain? It's time to think differently about structures that make a difference. RM