Swim to Success

Lessons Learned in Aquatic Facility Design

By Beth Bales

Experience is a valuable teacher. There is our firm's own experience in the planning and design of aquatic facilities. And then there's the hands-on, personal experience of one of our valued architectural interns. In more than 13 years as a competitive swimmer, she visited more 80 aquatic facilities, acquiring personal experience in how these facilities operated.

We took advantage of this experience, working with her to survey six university facilities, interviewing coaches and administrators to get an in-depth look at layout, space usage, users' needs and daily facility operations. The results provide important lessons about the design of collegiate aquatic facilities.

As the planning process for such a facility begins, an important factor is not only what to build, but also how everything is included in the design. Questions to ask include how the spaces relate to each other, the adaptability of each space and how the mechanical systems work together. There are many critical considerations, such as size (25 yards, 25 meters or 50 meters?) and "must-have" amenities. Beyond those issues, however, what smaller concerns—those that impact how the facility lives and performs on a day-to-day basis—should be discussed when constructing a collegiate aquatic facility? What lessons have others learned?

Locker Rooms & 'Back of House' Areas

Carefully plan locker room configuration and arrangements. Locker rooms can be planned as a joint entity for various users or as completely separate facilities. But good design is the key to eliminating headaches caused by lack of space when hosting large competitive events. Consider separate areas for home teams, visiting teams and coaches, in addition to the general locker rooms. Design locker rooms so swimmers don't have to walk through shower areas to access the pool deck.

Design "back of the house" areas—offices, training spaces and classrooms—carefully, as these areas directly impact functionality. Include both dry and wet classrooms. These spaces can double as hospitality and drug-testing rooms during large meets.

You also should consider including a separate dryland training space, instead of relegating swimmers to deck areas or a team lounge. Consider adding the amenity of a team lounge, if space permits.

Be sure clearance is adequate in training rooms and storage areas. For example, coaches say medicine ball exercises require ceiling clearance of at least 10 feet, and power racks in storage areas require 11-foot clearance. Size the weight room facility for the number of swimmers who will use it at any given time.

Consider a double-entry system for office areas to keep out wet swimmers. Include office access from the pool deck.

Include plenty of storage for diving and swimming peripherals. That includes trampoline and warm-up pads for diving; power racks; plus such equipment as power cords, medicine balls and foam pads. Include off-deck storage for training equipment, to permit that deck space to be used for other purposes.

Dive In

Avoid placing the diving well in the center of a 50-meter pool. Such placement creates difficulties for coaches, when the whole pool is in use. Paint the diving well walls a contrasting color from the well's bottom. Using the same color paint makes it difficult for divers flipping in the air to spot downward direction. Avoid placing vents directly over the diving well. The resulting drafty environment is not conducive to diving. Be certain ceiling height does not limit diving platform structures.

Consider a sparging system, which many coaches prefer to agitation bubbles.

Light It Up

Provide natural light throughout the natatorium by using glass that controls glare and solar transmittance. This saves energy and creates aesthetically pleasing light. Avoid direct fluorescent lighting, which usually doesn't supply adequate light for divers, and is harsh on the eyes.

Meet Needs

Design adequate space for the officials' area—which gets crowded during major meets—around the pool. One suggestion is to allow 8 feet for the timing system area, and at least a 3-foot walkway.

Allow space on deck for temporary and/or permanent bleachers. Some new collegiate facilities are planning for 1,000-plus spectators.

Spaces beyond the viewing area are also important. Size restrooms so they can adequately handle crowds during large meets. Place the concession stand area adjacent to the kitchen. Be certain the lobby and entryway have direct access to stand space.

Make sure there's adequate space under the roof for electronic equipment, to permit televising meets. Include electronic storage rooms. Touchpads need to be in a dry location that is easily accessible to the deck space and close to a pool end. Permanent storage space also is needed for timing equipment; that space will be used during meets as a hub for the equipment on the deck. An alternative is to plan a separate office for the timing control system.

Consider pre-wiring the pool for the timing system, using the specified manufacturer's specs. Consider starting blocks with built-in outlets, to avoid wires streaming across the deck. If possible, include a separate scoreboard for diving competition.


Beth Bales is a writer associated with PHN Architects of Wheaton, Ill., an award-winning architectural firm that specializes in the design of recreational facilities, including aquatic centers, recreational centers and golf course clubhouses. For more information, visit www.phnarchitects.com.

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