The ABCs of Aquatic Design

An Alphabetical Stroll Through the Latest Trends

By Dawn Klingensmith

Every year, aquatics facilities gain recognition and win awards for excellence in design. Perhaps the odds of winning are better for places with spectacular or quirky design elements or amenities, such as thrill rides or hot tubs shaped like horseshoes or clovers. Yet apart from these wow factors are straightforward design features that consistently impress judges and, more importantly, win over the public. Foremost among them is a mix of amenities and a design layout that maximizes programming options and appeals to all ages, from toddlers to seniors.

Does your existing or proposed aquatics center have what it takes to be a winner in the eyes of the community? And does it meet objective and subjective measures of what constitutes good design? Here's an A to Z guide of design considerations that streamline operations and make for a better user experience. Also included are aquatics facilities that serve as examples of tried-and-true or progressive design principles.


Access. "There's no need for a public door directly from the outside or the lobby straight onto the pool deck. All access to the pool should be through locker rooms (except for spectator areas, but these should be segregated from the deck anyway)," said Dave Rowland, president of Lutra Aquatics in West Granby, Conn. "Doors leading directly onto the pool deck, which architects seem to love, are just asking for operational problems."

Ages. Design and provide programming with multiple generations in mind. "Our growing senior population means there's more of a need for senior classes as well as wellness and therapy pools," said Melinda Kempfer, business development coordinator, Water Technology Inc., Beaver Dam, Wis. "More and more families are attending together, from toddlers to grandparents."


Bubble Benches. Underwater seating with jets provides an area for parents to relax while supervising children. Bubble benches can be used therapeutically, too, providing a hands-free massage with jets aimed at specific body parts to provide pain relief and muscle relaxation.

Budget. Estimating construction costs for a new facility is difficult, as expenses vary depending on location, availability of materials and other factors. However, the aquatics design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker offers three common ways to prepare an initial budget. First, obtain information from similar operations nearby to get a general idea of cost. Second, use industry averages available in publications that cover construction costs, building standards and other industry data. These resources can provide square-foot cost estimates, and some may take into account local variances. Third, perform a site-specific analysis using a preliminary design and accounting for the types of materials and labor costs in your area. This usually requires a consultant's help.


Chokepoint. Entrances to pools require careful monitoring. "Too many pools, especially school pools, are built with no means to control entry," Rowland said. An access chokepoint helps.

Ceiling height. "High ceilings look nice but cost money for their entire lives. All that air has to be heated or cooled," Rowland said. They can also present maintenance challenges and expenses. At one facility, "the architect didn't include any reasonable way to reach certain lights that are 40 feet above 12 feet of water," Rowland writes on the Lutra Aquatics Web site. "As a result, changing these lamps costs several thousand dollars per bulb."


Daylighting. Ideally, indoor pools will let in plenty of natural light for patron comfort and energy savings. But poorly positioned windows can cause glare, which is both an aesthetics problem and a safety issue. Clerestory windows are one way to let in indirect natural light without creating unsafe glare on the pool.

Deep water diving. "There's a resurgence of interest in this traditional activity," Kempfer said. Accordingly, the Christiansburg Aquatic Center in Virginia, which opened in July 2010, has a 10-meter diving platform over its 17-foot deep end. Only the 1- and 3-meter spring boards are open to the general public, though.

Disinfection. Innovative technologies for keeping water clean and safe have been gaining in popularity as concern over chlorine-resistant pathogens has grown. Saline systems, ozone systems and UV systems are on the rise, and are often used in addition to traditional chlorination, or as alternatives. In a recent Recreation Management survey, saline systems were the most commonly used alternative disinfection system in health clubs, while UV disinfection is the most commonly used alternative in general.


Entrapment. Swimmer entrapment in suction fittings and drain covers can cause injuries and drowning. The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool Safety and Spa Act requires all public pools and spas to install anti-entrapment drain covers and other safety devices where needed. Learn more at

Exchange rate. The air exchange rate for a natatorium is the rate at which indoor air is exchanged with outdoor air and is measured in exchanges per hour. Your air handling system must be capable of an air exchange rate that meets the minimum standards for your area and ensures optimal air quality for patron comfort.

Extreme thrill rides. Exposed to waterparks, the tween and teen demographic expects to see bigger, faster, steeper and scarier attractions and rides. These include speed slides, bowl rides and 360 loop rides. Of course, not all municipalities can afford such attractions and are opting for zip lines, mat racers and other "cheap thrills."


Filtration. "We use Defender filters to save water, energy and chemicals. This system filters down to one to four microns, so we keep our water as clean and clear as possible," said Amanda Roark, senior communications manager at Great Wolf Resorts, based in Madison, Wis.

Flexibility. Your design should make provisions for future additions and expansion.


Green design. Sustainability is not just good for the environment and public relations. In some cities, it's a requirement. The East Portland Community Center natatorium became the first parks and recreation facility in Portland, Ore., to meet the city's requirements that all new municipal buildings obtain a minimum of LEED Gold certification (the center qualified for Platinum). Its green features include: capturing conditioned air and using it to heat pool water; a photovoltaic system that provides about 17 percent of the natatorium's total energy demand; a smaller solar thermal array to preheat shower water; low-flow fixtures; and a regenerative media filter system.

Gulliver Schools Aquatic Center. This aquatic center has established a reputation as a premier competition facility. The competition pool includes a movable bulkhead, allowing competitive high school swimming and water polo events to take place simultaneously. A removable, custom-designed netting barrier on the bulkhead prevents interference from errant water polo balls.


Heat. In virtually any aquatics operation, energy consumption is the primary expense. So anything you can do to reduce the cost of heating the pool is smart. The use of high-efficiency pool heaters and pump systems as well as automated filtration systems has long been championed as part of good pool design. Less common, though highly effective, are pool covers used after hours to reduce evaporation and trap in heat.

HVAC. Modern HVAC systems offer energy savings, smaller footprints and corrosion resistance. Computer-controlled master handlers allow for programming of occupied and unoccupied areas.


Interactive skill-based attractions. Skill-building experiences and attractions like a stationary wave generator or surf machine hold the interest of teens by giving them an opportunity to improve their performance and safely "show off." The wave generator allows novice or experienced surfers and body boarders to test their skills on a thin sheet of water. At the same time, onlookers enjoy watching as much as participants enjoy riding, so there's a social component that also appeals to teens.


Jump rocks. Said to be safer than a diving board, a natural-looking rock in the right location can offer many hours of entertainment for kids while adding aesthetic appeal. For a bigger thrill, install a poolside climbing rock wall, angled slightly over the water so climbers make a splash when they let go or fall. Some walls are made up of modular panels, so you can create new configurations to keep things fresh and exciting.


Keller Pointe. They say things are bigger in Texas, and The Keller Pointe recreation center is no exception. Its aquatics program includes indoor and outdoor leisure pools with interactive play features, slides and current channels. The outdoor pool is 28,276 square feet with a sprayground and two water slides. There's also a separate toddler's area. That's a lot to keep an eye on! The design and layout of waterpark-caliber facilities call for special safety measures. The Keller Pointe requires all employees to be certified in first aid and CPR; however, the aquatics staff undergoes much more rigorous training. Aside from several additional certifications, the aquatics team receives training that includes emergency action plan rehearsals and a minimum of three hours of in-service instruction per month.


Lap pools. Lap swimming is a popular form of exercise and can continue even as other activities take place in the pool by leaving a couple of lanes open. There's no reason why lap swimming and swim lessons can't take place at the same time, Rowland said. Just make sure to post signs stating when some lanes will be closed so lap swimmers can plan accordingly.

LED lighting. Not only is LED lighting energy-efficient, but it also offers an opportunity to "transform seemingly ordinary spaces into a rich and vibrant experience" to create branded or special themes and moods using lighting, Kempfer said. Some LED options are full programmable to produce different colors and intensities, she added: "The lighting sequences can be changed easily and reprogrammed, allowing us to adapt the lighting colors and sequences for the seasons."


Model Aquatic Health Code. Through an initial grant from the National Swimming Pool Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control is working with public health and industry representatives to prevent drowning, injuries and the spread of recreational water illnesses at public swimming pools and spas by building a Model Aquatic Health Code to serve as a guide for local and state agencies needing to update or implement swimming pool and spa codes and standards governing the design, construction, operation and maintenance of swimming pools and other aquatic facilities. For more information, visit the CDC's Healthy Swimming Web site.

Multipurpose room. This popular amenity can be used for birthday parties, meetings and events.


Neutral colors. Paradise Springs at Gaylord Texan Resort, Grapevine, features a neutral color scheme that minimizes heat absorption and increases energy efficiency without detracting from its Western theme.

New Holland Recreation Center. Despite the poor economy when it opened in 2009, the center has thrived due in part to its commitment to serve all ages through multiuse design and diverse programming. The 75-by-65-foot pool is divided into two sections to maximize programming options. There's a sprayground on one end with zero-depth entry, and lap lanes on the other side designed with the shallowest part in the center, just in case tired swimmers need to stand and rest.


Operational expertise. "Think about how design decisions are going to affect operations. Too many pools are built by people who have no idea what it's like to run one," Rowland said. "Get operational expertise involved early in the design stage—real operational expertise, not just your swim coach."


Poolside storage. "You can't have too much space accessible to the pool deck," Rowland said.


Quality control. "We focus on water quality and air quality by monitoring all day and through Web-based systems," Roark said. "We are able to make changes quickly, especially as bather load changes."


Regenerative media filter. Water conservation is an important consideration in the design and operation of swimming pools. Water is lost via evaporation, bather carry-out, splash-out and backwash. "Utilizing regenerative media filtration, it is possible to reduce backwash loss by over 90 percent," Kempfer said. "These filters represent a capital investment premium, but one which the client would be given the information to make informed decisions regarding the value of this investment."

Revenue projections. More and more, municipal recreation centers are expected to be self-supporting. Communities, local governments and taxpayers are increasingly unable or unwilling to subsidize the cost of operating a recreation center, let alone footing the bill. So it's important to know in advance what can be expected in terms of revenue, and what, if any, will be the level of subsidy required. This may require a consultant's help.


Shade. There are many classic and innovative shade structures on the market. Whichever type and brand of shade structure you choose, make sure to provide ample shaded areas with seating so patrons can get out of the direct sunlight and avoid sunburn.

Shallow areas. They are tot-friendly, and especially when there are water features, they often become the most crowded section of the pool. Splashpads or spraygrounds with no standing water at all but plenty of opportunities to splash and get wet are popular, both as standalone play areas and as featured areas of larger aquatics facilities.

Sightlines. Lifeguards need to be able to monitor the entire pool and all its occupants without visual impediments. "You always have to staff for the number of swimmers, but in cases of low usage, can one lifeguard see all areas of a pool? Or can one lifeguard safely monitor two pools in low-usage situations? Sometimes small changes in configuration can lead to significant operational savings" such as potential labor savings, Rowland said.

Surfing machines. With a relatively small footprint, they deliver "large entertainment value" and "both active and passive entertainment," Kempfer said. Because of their novelty and appeal, they also offer marketing opportunities, she added.


Temperature. Wherever possible, it's desirable to have more than one pool or a means of maintaining different pool water temperatures to accommodate different activities comfortably. A lap swimmer may want the water a full 10 degrees cooler than an arthritic senior. Saint Francis Medical Center's Fitness Plus in Cape Girardeau, Mo., recognizes this. The facility operates four different pools, each at different temperatures, for different activities and demographics. The lap pool, for example, is kept at 82 degrees while the therapy pool holds steady at 92 degrees.

Theming. "Themed environments within a park have become increasingly popular in municipal and commercial waterparks. The ability to package some sort of experience and create an instant atmosphere transforms guests into another world as they navigate through the park," Kempfer said. "This concept creates excitement and a sense of arrival for the guest and can help increase the length of stay."


Updates. Plan to add or replace attractions every few years to keep customers coming back.

Universal access. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires facilities to provide a means for people with disabilities to access the pool; while mechanical pool lifts are in compliance, zero-depth entry is a better choice where possible.

UV light disinfection. Pool spaces are more complex than ever before, increasing the challenge of maintaining balanced water. Shallower water depths and an increased amount of water agitation via the addition of larger, more interactive water features give rise to some of these challenges. Traditional water treatment systems are often taxed beyond their capacity to maintain water quality under these circumstances. UV treatment systems enhance the pool environment by improving water quality, air quality and safety. UV eliminates chloramines, which cause eye and skin irritation, and also protect against microorganisms such as Cryptosporidium.


Variable frequency drives. Precise control of pumping systems made possible by variable frequency drives results in savings of thousands of kilowatt hours per year.

Versatility. If you have a single pool, make sure it can handle more than one event simultaneously. If you have a freeform pool or multiple pools, plan for a mix of programming and areas for all users including lap lanes for recreational swimming; a calm, shallow area for small children; a livelier area with play elements for older children, teens and adults; and an area to just relax.


West Morris Area YMCA. This Y branch in Randolph, N.J., encourages aquatic exercise and therapy by design. The warm-water pool is shallow enough for water walking and aqua fitness classes. It is equipped with ballet bars, parallel bars, strength training equipment and an underwater bike.


X Generation. Members of Generation X are in their 30s and 40s—of the age when they and their children are target markets for aquatics facilities.


Young children. Although not as impressive as thrill rides, activities and attractions for the "48 inches and under" set are a must, including kiddie slides, spray-and-play features, wading pools and comfortable, shaded seating nearby for their adult supervisors.


Zero-depth entry. Also called beach entry, it describes a pool with an edge or entry that gradually slopes from the deck into the water, becoming deeper with each step, in the manner of a natural beach. There are no stairs or ladders to negotiate, so this type of gradual entry assists older people, young children and people with disabilities.

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