Catching the Wave

Staying Current With the Latest Aquatic Designs

By Kelli Anderson

Flexibility. Sustainability. Energy efficiency. Wow factor. When it comes to aquatic design, trends evolve so slowly that it will come as no surprise that the latest things have been in the works for several years. Ultraviolet (UV) technology, multiple pools and waterpark-like features, for example, have certainly been on our collective radar for some time.

But now, thanks to a difficult economy, aquatic facilities are finally putting all these factors together to create a smarter, more efficient and attractive aquatic experience to compete more successfully for community dollars. More than ever, aquatic designs are geared toward boosting revenues with people-pleasing attractions while reducing overhead costs.

No Pool Left Behind

If there's one thing no one can afford these days, it's an idle pool. Designers recognize that for the municipal facility, there will always be a need for the lap pool, but creating them to be more multifunctional as well as building additional pools with different depths and temperatures, allows for a greater variety of programming and appeals to a greater diversity of patrons. Bottom line? More activity, more revenue.

For Cascade Falls, the aquatic center in Ankeny, Iowa, many areas of their facility's waterpark space are used for swim lessons and fitness classes. Offered in the morning hours until the waterpark opens to the general public at noon, the facility ensures that its aquatic spaces are never idle.

"We constructed it to make sure we had flexible enough spaces with different depths," said Todd Redenius, director of parks and recreation for the city. "For example, the lazy river and the pool where slides dump into are used for mini lap. We have water initiation classes in our zero depth for parent/child classes, and we do a lot of programming like a water fitness class called lazy river walking where people walk against the current. Our space is large enough and flexible enough that it really helps in terms of revenue."

Designers agree that this kind of flexibility, of necessity, is gaining ground.

"What we're seeing now is a multipurpose functioning pool where there's a combination of everything," said Randy Mendioroz, president and principal in charge with Aquatic Design Group in Carlsbad, Calif. "Lap swim, current channels—almost like a mini waterpark."

While Mendioroz acknowledges that separate pools are ideally suited to match the right temperatures to the right activity, he admits that for many on tight budgets or with small footprints, multifunctional is the way to go.

Having multiple-functioning pools will also make the most sense if they can be used year-round. Traditionally, many areas open their recreational pools from Memorial Day to Labor Day. But more facilities are looking to bring the outdoor experience inside for year-round revenue.

Given that indoor pools are so much more expensive, however, economical options like using roof panels and pre-engineered buildings are becoming more popular, shaving millions of dollars off the cost of a traditional building. According to Mendioroz, a traditional indoor pool, for example, might run $300 to $400 per square foot whereas a pre-engineered structure will cost around $200 per square foot.

"We're seeing nice hybrid solutions," Mendioroz said. "The city of Lompoc, Calif., had a huge savings of over $2 million by going with a non-traditional building structure as part of their multi-pool project."

While Mendiorez conceded that using paneled roofs and pre-engineered buildings is not new technology, the incentive to build more economically is certainly stronger than ever.

"We're a year-round provider and aquatics was very important—we wanted to build for the next 60 years, something that's attractive and revenue generating," said Dan McCaffrey, director of parks and recreation and urban forestry in Lompoc about his facility's retractable panels. "We were trying to produce an outside feel that would still protect people when the weather wasn't great. And when the weather is beautiful, we can retract the roof and have the best of both worlds. The glass enclosure was a premier process and innovative."

Energy Efficiency

If there's one design trend that has everyone talking, it's the innovation in energy efficiency. For facilities desperate to close the gap between overhead costs and revenue, this is one area that can make a dramatic difference.

"We're seeing a shift toward energy efficiency, and the best way with pools is with heating systems," Redenius said. "The traditional systems are only 65 percent efficient and not flexible. They're either totally on or totally off. Now we have a system using a series of off-the-shelf boilers that are 90 percent to 95 percent efficient and that ramp up. You heat water in a surge tank and with a series of high-efficiency boilers and small pumps—like a hydronic heating system for a building—it works amazingly well."

Boasting a drop of $15,000 in heating costs, Redenius insists that those who've switched to the more efficient heating systems have had no reason to regret the initial investment. "Lots of folks can do this and instead of spending $20,000, they'll spend $5,000," Redenius said about energy savings. "They'll pay for the system in one to two years. West Des Moines proved that. They abandoned their one-year-old heater and paid for the new one in two years."

Newer energy-efficient heaters with a range of 95 percent to 97 percent thermal efficiency are a quantum leap from previous generations, thanks to such innovations as microprocessors and designs that recirculate heat, rather than wastefully venting it out of the building.

Another economical heating option is solar heating. "We're seeing people consider solar heating," said Bill Rowley, president of Rowley International Aquatic Consultants Inc. "We're presently doing this for the University of Southern California, where they're in the process of doing solar for their pools. If we can make these things economical, we'll use them. Parks aren't supposed to make money, but with the economic situation, they have to rethink costs to exist."

While thermal solar was once too costly a system for most to consider, today's higher prices for natural gas and the improved life spans and warranties on many solar products of 10 to 15 years, now make solar a more affordable consideration (assuming a facility has enough square footage to install the panels).

Paying for themselves in just three to five years, those using thermal solar can save upwards of an estimated 30 percent to 40 percent on gas costs, depending on the location around the country. Combining efficiency heaters, solar heaters and thermal blankets can save 80 percent of natural gas heating costs. What was once considered a pricey luxury has now become a significant contributor to the bottom line.

Safe and Sound

Aquatic designers also see a change from the traditional chlorine-based water treatment systems to more effective and cost-efficient UV systems, salt-chlorination systems and diatomaceous or perlite filters.

With the realization that some viruses and diseases like Cryptosporidium are almost impossible to kill with chlorine, and given that it can be hard to manage corrosive chlorine odors resulting from chloramines in indoor pools, more and more aquatic facilities are turning to UV systems in addition to or in place of more traditional water treatments.

"Something relatively new is ultraviolet treatment," said Kevin McElyea, president of Aquatic Design Consultants Inc. in Louisburg, Kan. "That type of treatment system in indoor pools keeps down chlorine odors and chloramines and will help kill bacteria where chlorine has a hard time doing that. And on spray pads, where little kids have accidents, this takes care of that right away. All of these have been around for a while, but because it takes time to put in new facilities, people like to wait and to watch things in operation."

Having seen the success of these treatments over time, many newer facilities are eagerly getting on board.

At Cascade Falls, new regenerative media filters (RMF) were chosen because they use less water, energy and space. Both diatomaceous earth and perlite can remove Crypto and Giardia pathogens that chlorine cannot kill as effectively. According to Redenius, if RMFs are used, UV is not needed except for those concerned about chloramines.

"Use both where the goal is water quality," Redenius said, "UV and RMFs are getting more refined in their options and if you want to save money with energy."

But as with any new venture, having a good designer is key to understanding the techno-speak to determine what is needed—if you only want to remove bacteria, only want clean water, or want both.

Drawing the Crowds

And while saving money is certainly a big factor in designing today's aquatic facilities—whether it's in heating systems, water treatment solutions or in building more for less—designing aquatic facilities today is also about getting attention and drawing the crowds.

"It's asking what can we have that is unique and makes us stand apart because we're competing for customers and for loyalty and willingness to give you money," said Dave Schwartz, owner of Water's Edge Aquatic Design in Lenexa, Kan. "You want a facility with enough unique things that they'll come use your facility."

To that end, many facilities are turning to interactive waterpark elements (more affordable in recent years). Whether with big budgets or small, those that are particularly successful have learned that even one distinctive element can make them stand out and get noticed.

"Features like lazy rivers are becoming more common and so are more exciting slides—not the same old boring stuff," McElyea explained. "There's an aspect of having to keep up with the market you're in. Quite often in the Midwest where you have cities that replace an old pool and add nice features, you need to try to get your population back to your pool and to draw from a more regional basis."

For the small community of 5,000 to 6,000 in Republic, Mo., spending $3 million was enough to ensure that regional traffic would cover the cost of replacing an old pool with a simple aquatic design that includes zero depth entries, lap lanes and a slide complex. But one element was very unique—an in-place surfing feature.

"It was the first municipal application that had only been available in waterparks and cruise ships," McElyea explained of the community's special attraction. "Every 13-year-old in 150 miles now makes a pilgrimage there. They're always full. They've made money every year and right now are in a position to move forward to the next phase for a lazy river. They're staying relevant to be a premier facility."

Not only does an in-place surfing feature attract that hard-to-reach demographic of high-energy kids and teens, it provides amazing eye-candy for spectators who enjoy watching the surfers hang ten, twist and turn, or just wipe out.

Kenwood Cove Waterpark in Salina, Kan., a project costing $11 million for a population of 50,000 that opened just this past year, however, is an example of what municipalities are beginning to do around the country: go state-of-the-art in every way imaginable. Boasting 1,400 feet of slides, thrill rides, multiple lazy rivers, surfing pool, giant wave pool and more, this community's aquatic experience has gone far beyond lap pools and swimming lessons. "People say laps are needed for obese kids," Redenius said. "But what they don't understand is that you can build a track and can't make them run laps. But if you have interactive features—even lazy river paddling where there's collective excitement of doing multiple things—it's positive, healthy exercise. Multipurpose is a key thing."

Change Up

But as anyone in the waterpark business knows, staying relevant means regular changes to keep things exciting. Change is good. But change also costs money.

With a waterpark industry-recommended new feature every two to three years, aquatic designers are finding creative ways to help communities achieve this goal at a much lower cost. Forward-thinking designs plan with expansion and change in mind from day one.

First and foremost, today's best aquatic designs plan for the future. Building in phases and with a mind to expand requires not only the forethought to build on the right sized property, but also requires that infrastructure be built with a mind to the future.

Building infrastructure such as filtering systems and piping, sized appropriately with the final phase as the goal, will cut down on the expense of doing twice or three times that which should have been done once. If there is any thought about eventually going bigger, it is essential that infrastructure be built with that in mind.

Some features particularly lend themselves to future expansion—namely, lazy rivers and splashpad elements. For lazy rivers, it can be as simple as adding wave or splash elements each year to change it up or building one lazy river instead of two that still allows patrons the choice of still water or rough by designing a wide enough birth for patrons to avoid waterfalls or rapids as they are phased in.

"One thing that lends itself to future development is a lazy river configuration where you use it as a patron-carrying roadway in your facility," McElyea suggested. "It lends itself to little pods that can be developed off of it—connecting to a new slide or volleyball court. This is something that for promotion, is an absolute must in the water park business. You have to be relevant."

Another way aquatic facilities are changing themselves to stay relevant is by switching out interactive features from one park to another. Choosing elements in spray parks, for example, that can be rotated between a community's multiple parks or traded between two different communities can mean that every summer or even every month, a community splash park can go from turtles and fishes to pirates and treasure at no extra cost. It's all in the planning.

Community 101

Change in aquatic design is also evident in colleges and universities. Aquatic facilities, once geared only to attract athletic students and to host sporting events, are now being built to foster fitness and fun in the form of leisure pools. For the students at the University of Texas in Austin, for example, The Gregory Gym Aquatic Complex was built not just for athletes, but for the entire student body.

"The goal was to create a campus environment that fosters socialization," said Pete Schaack, associate director for facilities at the school. "The Aquatic Complex has filled a void on campus by offering new opportunities for recreation, socializing and community building. It was designed to support multiple, active and passive recreation activities all day long and well into the night, with lighting provided for evening activities."

The most popular feature, according to Schaack, is the "Lounge Ledge," a leisure pool where partially submerged bathers relax in semi-immersed lawn chairs to gather, socialize and put up their flags to be served their drinks like a resort hotel. With a deck boasting Wi-Fi connectivity, multiple sound systems for background music and various water features that accommodate water aerobics, water polo, water basketball and dive-in movies, the space also regularly hosts student organizations and department socials, pool parties and concerts.

Whether municipal, commercial or educational, today's aquatic designs are anything but old school.

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