Getting the Biggest Splashes for Your Bucks

Current trends in aquatic design and programming

By Kelli Anderson

Leisure pool at Georgia State in Atlanta

With many pools of the '50s and '60s taking their last laps both physically and functionally, communities are faced with three basic choices: repair, renovate or reinvest in the lap pool's more highly evolved counterpart, the aquatic center. Many communities, armed with public demand and backed by tax dollars, are choosing new aquatic centers. As a society our expectations for quality of life now include water recreation in a way that is unprecedented, resulting in facility design and programming innovations effecting everything from rec-center tot pools to university rec and fitness centers to medical facilities. It's clearly a case of "Water, water everywhere..."

Water ways

The first municipal aquatic centers appeared in the early '80s, adapting the successful elements of the waterpark industry to the local community's desire for fun water-based recreation. These centers have evolved over the last 20 years into the familiar facility assortments of zero-depth water entry, interactive spray features, slides, splash play areas, vortexes and lazy rivers. Facility managers—like Heath Olinger of The Wet Zone in Rowlett, Texas, a waterpark/aquatic center hybrid—strive to continually change the attractions to keep community interest alive.

"Ideally, every year we like to have a new ride," Olinger says. Facilities feel the need to stay fresh.

Outdoor pools at RiverChase of Fenton in Fenton, Mo.

One facility that made the Who's Who list of aquatic facilities in USA Today's 2001 top 10 public pools around the country is RiverChase of Fenton in Fenton, Mo., which opened its gates three years ago. Its most popular feature, according to Mary Jo Dessieux, director of parks and recreation, is the 200-foot lazy river with fountains and bubblers.

"People love to lay in it," Dessieux says. "There's different levels with benches, gathering and socializing spaces, and lots of interactive features in our indoor/outdoor pools."

As with most aquatic centers, it is geared toward families with children and is a stellar example of how to get it right the first time.

Separate systems

Recent trends in these newer facilities reveal that the larger bodies of water in aquatic centers are giving way to more separate systems for those who can afford them.

"Clients are going toward more separate systems to control the different bodies of water," says Mike Pratl, project manager at Jacobs Facilities, Inc. in St. Louis. Rather than having to shut down an entire facility for water treatment, as in larger, single-system designs, separate-system design allows for differing water temperatures, shutting down separate areas where activity is low, or being able to treat or clean a single pool area in the event of contamination.

"It's definitely a plus from an operational standpoint to keep visitors coming back," Pratl says.

Therapy pools
The Centre in Rolla, Mo.

"In my opinion as an operator, keeping systems separate is critical," agrees Mitchell Lewis, recreational supervisor of aquatics at the Health and Recreation Centre ("The Centre") in Rolla, Mo., where a therapy pool was built as part of the renovated 3-year-old facility. Although this therapy pool is shared with the splashdown area of a large water slide, it is an example of how facilities like Rolla's are entering into contractual relationships with hospitals to provide therapy pools for their community. Depending on the illness or injury being treated, pool temperatures must vary, making separate systems an appealing solution.

"We actually work with a physical therapy department that comes and does physical therapy in our water—it's not new, but the way we designed the program is," Lewis says. "All they do is bring in the therapist, and we do all the heating, the chemicals and everything."

This arrangement offered multiple advantages for the Rolla facility.

"The hospital gave us a donation to build the therapy pool, and it enabled us to build a larger splashdown pool," he says. "We can offer the therapy pool also to portions of the public who don't have a doctor or whose therapy is done. They can use the pool a few hours during the day beyond their therapy."

And the advantage to the hospital is obvious—they don't have the daily grind of pool upkeep. It also gives the hospital an opportunity to decide if they would eventually be interested in taking water therapy in-house. In Florida, for example, where the senior population is high, it is the hospitals—like the YMCA Aquatic Center Florida Hospital Rehabilitation and Sports Medicine facility in Orlando, Fla.—that are taking the therapy pool concept to a whole new level: hospital-run, state-of-the-art aquatic centers.

Boom towns
A rendering of the future wave pool at the
DesPeres Community Center in DesPeres, Mo.

Typically, where the population booms, the tax base swells and demand for recreation facilities follows. Colorado had its turn in the early '90s, showcasing the introduction of the indoor wave pool. St. Louis is now the current favorite, with Phoenix predicted as the next to follow. Sitting front-row and center within St. Louis' swell of aquatic design activity is the DesPeres Community Center in St. Louis county, currently under construction and scheduled to open in the fall of 2003.

Not only will the facility enjoy the advantages of separate-system design, but it will be debuting several "firsts" in the state of Missouri and, in some cases, in the United States. Its 75-foot speed slide, outdoor-to-indoor water-tube slide with built-in laser-light-show and indoor wave pool will undoubtedly attract the geographical draw it hopes for. Even the very look of the facility, a lodge-style theme complete with stone fireplace and wood trusses, will set it apart. For DesPeres, being different is clearly key.

"DesPeres is in the central part of the county with several aquatic centers, and we wanted a unique design," says Susan Trautman, director of parks and recreation for DesPeres.

As with any good design, taking careful consideration of the local competition, the demographics, expectations and backing of the community, and geography are all critical.

"DesPeres decided to go with an indoor/outdoor aquatic center with a wave pool and indoor/outdoor tube slide that are totally unique so they could get a better geographical draw—aquatic centers are becoming regional draws," says Christopher Chivetta, president of Hastings and Chivetta Architects, Inc. in St. Louis. "Essentially they're built for their community but then draw regionally. They are becoming destination features."

The Margaret W. Carpenter Center in Thornton, Colo.

That has certainly proven true for the Margaret W. Carpenter Center in Thornton, Colo., where the first wave-pool facility built eight years ago is still holding its own as a popular regional attraction.

"We get people from all over the Denver area," says Jan van der Sanden, recreation program and facility supervisor. "We keep track of statistics for our top 10 business and slow days of the year—the top 10 slowest are when the pool is closed. Water is still the #1 draw."

Flexible design

While indoor wave pools aren't exactly new anymore, some of the directions they are going are certainly innovative. Take DesPeres, for example. With the flip of a switch, the wave pool transforms into lap lanes and a leisure pool to offer any number of options—teaching, aerobics, kayaking, water polo, synchronized swimming, movie nights—you get the picture.

Previous wave-pool designs were more limited in their applications, such as wave-pool conversion to primarily lap swim.

"The wave pool is real popular; the flip side is when we run the waves, we can't run lap swim," van der Sanden says. "We have to be really careful to figure out our priorities."

A rendering of the exotic grotto-like theme currently
under construction at University of Missouri
in Columbia

Making designs more flexible is the cure du jour.

"For indoor leisure facilities, I still see a lot of design for flexibility—multiple use—and trying to make outdoor and indoor elements more complimentary instead of the same, with indoor pools accommodating more programming features," Pratl says.

Facilities are learning to forgo some of the more set elements, like a vortex or bubble bench, to make room for a more flexible design that reaches out to some of the most hard-to-please family members—teenagers.

"It seems to be over the last five to six years at the municipal level that they were missing out on teen activities," Pratl explains, "so we're seeing more of a flexible design to accommodate them: swim lessons, aerobics and deeper water. We cut back on some of the leisure amenity area."

The teen scene

Teens are, in fact, getting a lot more attention these days with a renewed commitment at the park and recreation level. Finding the magic formula to keep them happy, however, is a hit-or-miss affair. Teen programming successes tend to include movie nights with gross-out and thrillers like Jaws to keep them jumping, all-nighters, senior nights, prom nights or even Battle of the Bands, as dreamed up at The Wet Zone.

"Special events after hours like Battle of the Bands have been really popular," Olinger says. "It only brings in 1 percent of our revenue, but it really is more to get teens involved."

Designing with teens in mind can be especially challenging when there's no guarantee that they will take the bait.

"Very often it's hard to figure out where a teen hangout is going to be in a facility—as soon as you label it a teen hangout, it won't be it," says Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates in St. Louis. "Typically they want a place they can claim for their own, off from parents and tots—a different visually accessible area. They're looking for a social experience."

And they're looking for some thrills to go with it: deep water, wave pools, speed slides. Social areas like sunning decks need to be set apart from the tot locales and not in conspicuous, supervisional view (read: not in front of the front desk).

The graduate
Leisure pool at Kent State
University's Student Wellness
Center in Kent, Ohio.

Perhaps one of the most dramatic aquatic trends is taking place where teens and high schooler's ultimately migrate—university and college campuses. Students are not only shopping around for schools with the best academic credentials but also for schools providing impressive recreation facilities. Students just wanna have fun.

And it's not just about students—it's faculty, faculty families, married graduates and staff, as well. To their credit, universities have caught on.

"Universities are hurrying to update their facilities," Chivetta says. "We've done in excess of 50."

Student rec centers are now a solid factor in recruitment and retention with national statistics indicating that in looking for a university, students rank recreational diversion second only to school reputation.

"It's demand," says Matt McGregor, associate director for facility and operations, department of recreation services at the Student Recreation and Wellness Center at Kent State in Kent, Ohio. In 1995 the student body voted to tax themselves $55-per-person to have a recreation facility built with the kind of leisure amenities suited for a collegiate environment.

"The leisure component of our facility was a top priority," McGregor says.

These campus facilities can look a lot like their municipal counterparts, but with one distinct difference.

"It's what I call 'flat-water,'" Chivetta explains. "If you look at a traditional community center, you'll see a few lap lanes, zero-depth, vortex, a lazy river and a play structure. We don't see the spray and play features in the collegiate area. College students like moving water like the lazy rivers, spas, whirlpools and vortexes."

A rendering of the future leisure pool at the Student
Wellness Center at Georgia Institute of Technology
in Atlanta

Although fitness still intends to play a role, as at Georgia Institute of Technology's soon-to-be completed $45 million facility in Atlanta, it's also about getting more people in the water anyway you can.

"We realize that about 6 percent of students use pools," says Butch Stanphill, 20-year director of campus recreation. "We're going to have more programming to bring more people into the use of the water. People are looking for other things. In our redesign of the Olympic facility on campus, we will add a leisure pool with water slide, vortex, lazy river, hot tub and shallow water, too, for fitness exercises. Here's our one shot—build for the future and do it right."

Back to the future

Building for the future is exactly the advice that Lewis gives as well. After the diploma and obligatory handshake, these water-recreation savvy graduates begin looking for jobs and—you guessed it—cities that offer attractive recreation facilities to which they've become accustomed.

"In college they've had the opportunity to use these facilities and say, 'that's what I want to do for our family.' Communities have to realize they not only have to attract jobs but have to be able to attract quality of life," Lewis says. Recreation, he concludes, has become more than a pastime—it's now an integral part of our daily living.

If it Ain't Broke, Fix It

Older facilities are increasingly faced with the decision to rebuild, renovate or reinvest their aging infrastructure and design—understanding how to change them depends on assessing what's broken and what communities want to see fixed.

In Ann Arbor, Mich., two of the city's box pools built in the '60s and a third pool built in the mid-'70s were no longer fulfilling the needs of the community. Renovation was the answer, with the outdoor portions retaining some of their 50-meter lap lanes for competition and other portions taking on the current must-have amenities of water slides, interactive play areas and shallow areas for programming.

"We've had a very good response," says Jayne Miller, manager of recreation facilities and services for Ann Arbor.

According to Scot Hunsaker, president of Counsilman/Hunsaker and Associates in St. Louis, there are two kinds of obsolescence that aging facilities must take into account before making changes: physical and functional. Physical obsolescence refers to problems within the infrastructure of a facility: filtering and sanitizing, the integrity of the system, the decks, overhead lighting or meeting current codes. When a facility faces infrastructure problems, it has to evaluate whether it makes sense to simply repair, replace or redesign. For most aging facilities, repairing or replacing the status quo doesn't make sound business sense. It is conceivable to repair what's broken, replace what's broken or even redesign an entirely new facility—you can build it, and the people still won't come.

"It's possible to build a pool that physically functions but is not desirable," Hunsaker says. "That's functional obsolescence. Functional obsolescence means it's fine, but no one enjoys it."

If the facility physically functions, the question becomes: "What can I do to increase the recreation value of my facility?" It might be adding participatory play features, adding water slides, adding zero-depth beach areas, pushing the fences back and creating more of a park-like atmosphere.

It's also understanding your demographics and their needs—there is no one-size-fits-all design—every facility must be tailored to fit the unique needs of its community. Seniors tend to recreate for social interaction and like environmental consistency, mostly indoors, without the upset and commotion of noisier groups and events. Young adults are often looking for relaxation and fitness and if single, tend to want social, open spaces—almost a resort feel. If they have children, however, they want to be visually connected to their children's play areas.

Then there are the kids. Teens want to be away from adults and tots, to have their own space, primarily for socializing. And they want thrills—hopefully to be found in the appropriate programming, deep water and speed slides. The 8- to-12-year-olds are also looking for excitement and independence while the children 8 and under are looking for splash and play.

Culture changes. Expectations change. Recreation is never static.

"Recreation is a perishable commodity," Hunsaker says, "It consistently has to reinvent itself. You can't just put a water slide up and have recreation for the next 20 years. Recreation has to be constantly reinvented and reinvested in."

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