In the Flow
Aquatic Design Trends
By Richard Zowie
hings change as time goes by, and when it comes to aquatic centers, a failure to keep up with the trends can result in a facility that's all washed up. For some centers, incorporating waterpark trends is the key to success, while others are forced to think "outside the box" to make an old idea thrive.
Randy Mendioroz, president of Aquatic Design Group, based in Carlsbad, Calif., recalled a story that illustrated how tricky an investment some swimming pools can be. A city manager wanted to know if a 50-meter Olympic pool would be feasible. Mendioroz advised against it, arguing that it would not make money, and that the best cost recovery would be 60 percent to 70 percent. In other words, for every dollar invested, the pool could make 60 to 70 cents.
He recommended a 25-yard-by-50-meter pool instead, arguing that this setup would make it easier to break even. His recommendation was not followed, and two years later, the city found itself with about $650,000 in revenue with expenses of $1 million. Mendioroz believes that this type of problem escalates when people don't realize how much money it costs to build and maintain a pool, and how much they can end up overestimating potential revenue.
"Once you have a big Olympic pool in the mix, you need a ton of recreation to make money from it," he said. "If you design a traditional, linear pool facility, you invariably operate at a deficit."
This is partly because a linear pool with no added features gives those looking to swim for fun or exercise few options. Before long, boredom will set in, and those pool-goers might try to look for a place that provides a little more aquatic excitement.
Without waterslides or other recreational elements, Mendioroz explained, a pool's cost recovery is 50 percent at best. What's more, it's not unusual for stand-alone 50-meter municipal pools to lose $400,000 to $600,000 annually. Such a loss can be tolerated only for so long.
The solution? Mendioroz suggests to clients that they move away from the rectangular 50-meter pool. Besides adding recreational elements that can bring variety into the pool, he also suggests trying "odd dimensions" that give the pool a sense of uniqueness.
"If there's no entertainment value, the chance of approaching break-even is nonexistent," said Mendioroz.
Yarger Design Group President Bill Yarger said that when presenting designs to cities, he shows them the different options and lays out the financial undertaking of each. He asks them if they want a pool with 100 percent recovery or if they're willing to accept 75 percent.
It's especially important to run a fiscally-successful aquatic center with energy costs presenting their own challenges.
"I don't see us weaning ourselves off foreign oil anytime soon," Yarger added. "The cost of operating facilities is extremely high."
He also feels that communities should stay within their means. It doesn't make sense to put an Olympic-sized pool in a community environment, for example. He suggested that a good place to put in such a pool is a Division 1A college with large donors.
So what kind of attractions should be added to increase your potential revenue? While they may be on a smaller scale than those in the private sector, today's trends include a move toward municipal waterparks or—as Mendioroz prefers to call them—recreation aquatic facilities.
"If cost recovery is one of your goals, you must have scaled-down waterpark elements as part of your program," Mendioroz said. "Otherwise, you can only swim so many laps so many times and jump off the diving board so many times before you're bored out of your skull. With more entertainment value, you can charge a higher price and have higher cost-recovery potential."
Whereas the swimming pool of your childhood may have been the standard rectangle, today's aquatic centers focus more on leisure activities and less on competition, according to Yarger.
Pools are going toward zero entry because it helps to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements, Yarger explained. Besides this, there's also a trend toward swimming activities that appeal to children and families and do so in a way that can draw in business during the summertime. Among the ideas used are warmer water, play elements like currents, lazy rivers and shade. It gives kids a chance to play and puts their parents at ease.
"It's more of a jungle-gym-in-the-water kind of feeling," Yarger said. "Kids want to play on things and run around. Mom wants to sit in shallow end and watch her child without worrying."
If you're looking for a facility that will bring in enough revenue to offset the cost of building and maintaining it, it's important to make sure you offer features that make it different from a swimming facility that's a 20-minute drive away.
At one facility, they didn't just build one pool, but several pools: one for teens and another for parents, grandparents and small kids. This helped to alleviate the overcrowding of one pool while another pool that was 30 years old was hardly getting any activity.
After the newly geared pools were opened, things evened out as attendance increased, Yarger said.
"We also try to do special theming and look for different ways to look at it and try not to use same pool we've used before," he said. "We try to differentiate. When clients are happy, pools fill and business is good, good news travels a lot."
In the early '90s, Yarger explained, families began looking for alternatives to the simple rectangular outdoor pool. With that, waterparks came along and started to add more activities. But as people traveled to waterparks, the question lingered: Why can't we have something like this locally? The result was competition all over the country that began to influence local thinking.
"Communities as a whole demanded more," Yarger said. "They might not have said it, but they did so by not going to their local pools. If the attendance goes down while population is stable, then that's really a vote that your community is not happy. It gets to be keeping up with the Joneses. Two cities compete against each other."
Besides offering scaled-down amenities that are common at the waterparks, some places will offer a local deal that turns out to be a win-win for all those involved. Yarger pointed out that in Shawnee, Kan., a local children's museum had this deal: Those who obtained membership at the museum would also get access to the local pool. This, of course, drove up membership at the museum since people wanted to go to the local pool. Combine that with installing a "splash cove" at the pool, and things really took off.
"Every city has a different twist," Yarger said. "The attraction was bringing people in and this was how to do it."
Splash play areas are another big trend, Mendioroz said, with a number of advantages that make them very popular:
- No lifeguards are required.
- No standing water means there's no possibility of drowning.
- What's more, water rolls away when it hits the deck.
"If properly designed, they can be very popular," Mendioroz said. "Some cities have a dozen splash pads. They interchange elements. Some of the vendors of equipment have interchangeable pole elements and ground sprays. If you have multiple splash pads, you can rotate things from one splash pad to the next."
Mendioroz pointed out that in Tacoma, Wash., they are planning six splash pads. They rotate the parts to the different areas and change things up as a way of getting kids to come back.
Sometimes, current trends are determined by simple dollars and cents.
Scott Stefanc, a member of the American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA) who serves in project development and management at Water Technology in Beaver Dam, Wis., said it boils down to facility owners and operators attempting to provide as many services as possible for the least amount of cost.
Aquatic designers, as a result, are then faced with the task of creating pools that are as compact and functional as possible but yet, at the same time, have the highest possible amount of features and attractions.
"A catchphrase that seems to be in vogue today is 'Universal' or 'Inclusive' design," Stefanc explained. While it's a vague term, he said, "When applying this to aquatic centers it basically means designing in such a way that the pools and amenities can be used for multiple purposes and reach as large a cross-section of users as possible."
Stefanc thinks the long-term impact of this trend will be pools that are more elaborate and intricate, and which will need a greater effort in operations like lifeguards and maintenance. Designers and owners both must understand, he explained, the future growth patterns for the service area and should create a master plan appropriately so that facilities do not become outdated or overwhelmed. And that's all about planning for future trends—both in terms of the population that will use the facility and the likely amenities that will be in demand.
When it comes to the future, those who are curious always want to know what aquatic industry experts see when they peer into the proverbial crystal ball. For Yarger and Mendioroz, there are a few fascinating things on the horizon.
If you're the kind who likes the idea of swimming with fish, perhaps you might be enchanted by the idea of clear slides through an aquarium. According to Yarger, these transparent slides would let you swim inside a compartment in an aquarium as if you're swimming with fish.
Other ideas out there could involve swimming facilities where others could watch people swimming in an aquarium. It's for those who don't want to swim but who enjoy seeing others swim.
"We worked with manufacturers of play elements after we did that and developed it and marketed it to other people," Yarger said. "We've done designs that go to other places."
In this time of increasing concern about global warming and an urgent call to wean the world off of fossil fuels, Mendioroz feels that the aquatic center market will start to become more and more environmentally friendly. For starters, this might include a big increase in solar heating for pools along with more energy-efficient pump motors. He suggests variable frequency drives to reduce electrical costs on circulation pumps.
Any environmental trend will become popular if it helps to reduce facility costs.
Mendioroz feels that in 20 years, a revolution will take place when alternate energy sources start becoming more commonly used. Other alternate energy sources of the future include third-generation solar power and electrical power produced from nano-solar technology.
People have to learn to operate their centers smarter if they want to remain open, Mendioroz said.
"The biggest operating expense is labor so if you can design things smartly and reduce staff and need less to run the facility it'll be better," he said.
In California, where they suffered rolling blackouts earlier this decade, it is imperative to have aquatic centers that are fiscally efficient, as well as energy-efficient.
"How do you justify opening a public swimming pool when people have no power in their homes?" Mendioroz asked. "We figured we had to do something to reduce energy costs."
Otherwise, the day might come where swimming pools will dry up because nobody will be able to afford to run and use them.
One trend that Yarger sees on the horizon is nostalgic in its approach. It involves taking 15- to 20-year-old swimming pools and making them competitive again to prevent the slide of losing customers.
"That's probably more of a trend that will happen," he said. "Deciding what to do with a pool with no zero entry and no slide and seeing what can be done with a pool like that with 10 to 12 years of life left in it to get population back to it."
When it comes to swimming pools, some might feel stuck. Sure, they'd love to upgrade to a new, high-tech aquatic center with lots of great amenities. But in today's economy, there's only so much you can do with the budget you've been given. What do you do when you have to make do with what you have?
The simple answer is, to borrow a Haitian expression, "Degaje!" Translated roughly as "get by" or "make do," it carries the idea of doing the best with what you have available.
Yarger suggests assessing the rectangular pool and asking these questions: How old is the pool? What kind of condition is the concrete shell in? How soon will it need new plumbing? What are the gutters like? Are the existing pool conditions up to code or do they need renovating?
Once these questions are answered, you can then begin to determine whether it would be cheaper and, eventually, more profitable to keep the pool as it is or to bust it out and add components. Can a slide be put into the pool? Can the steps on the shallow end be changed to zero entry?
Mendioroz suggests that people consider incorporating swim lessons into their rectangular pools. Besides adding waterslides and playgrounds, swim lessons can be an effective way to increase traffic to a pool. He points out that swim lessons can be a very lucrative business, and one client in San Jose, Calif., who's in his 70s but is very healthy makes a good living teaching swimming.
"If all you can afford is a linear pool, then concentrate on swim lessons," Mendioroz said. "It's really the only revenue you can generate. Others don't really pay out."
While some may see rectangular pools as a relic that needs to be phased out, Stefanc feels they can still be of use. They can be used for lap swimming or for therapeutic, exercise, educational and competitive purposes.
"[The rectangular pools], though considered relics to some, still remain a very important component of aquatic centers," he said. "They should not be overlooked."
While budget or space might be limited, Stefanc knows that a community's needs and wants will have to be carefully evaluated. But they might be surprised by what they can do with what's available.
"Many of our facilities have successfully integrated combined lap and leisure components into one pool not much larger than a traditional eight-lane, 25-yard lap pool," he said.
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