Jumping Off the Deep End

Daring Trends in Aquatic Facility Design

By Kelli Anderson

When Mark Johnson's Olympic wrestling hopes were dashed in the U.S. boycott of 1980, he had no idea that 33 years later, it would play a role in designing the latest state-of-the-art and, arguably, the best YMCA aquatic facility in the nation.

Coming in at a price tag of $17 million, the Stevens Family YMCA in Champaign, Ill., is garnering attention for its out-of-the-box design that is truly accessible for all people—boasting the first-ever wheelchair-accessible waterslide as its greatest achievement—as well as sensory rooms designed for those with sensory integration and social/emotional disorders, called Larkin's Place, named for one of the YMCA's patrons, a young girl with Down's syndrome.

Johnson's journey from Olympic champion to YMCA director with a heartfelt focus on accessibility began with a childhood friend with Down's syndrome. Then, when the Olympic boycott derailed his dreams to medal in 1980, he attended a Special Olympics as master of ceremonies that same year. Both experiences affected him greatly and further shaped him as an advocate for inclusion and accessibility in recreation. And more are joining him.

Many aquatic facilities are climbing aboard the ADA bandwagon—going beyond the minimum letter of the law in order to embrace the spirit of it. For those slower to recognize its importance, the Department of Justice regulations for aquatic facilities that kicked in by January 2013 are helping to adjust their focus. In addition, changes in FINA regulations for diving wells and starting block depths are resulting in a major overhaul of many competitive pools around the country.

And, as the country begins to turn an economic corner after five long years of struggle, new forms of financial assistance, coupled with improved technology and greater interest in energy conservation, are allowing improvements to existing aquatic facilities and the construction of new ones with equipment and features that were once too cost-prohibitive to consider. Aquatic facilities are beginning to jump off a financial deep end and finding that in today's economy, with new regulations and changing demographics, it is a great time to take the plunge.

Turning the Financial Tide

Gone are the days when a simple Caribbean or jungle theme was enough to put your facility on the destination map.

Of course, when it comes to evaluating the economy, it can be hard to find consensus. So which is it? Are we still in economic free fall, or are we finally landing on solid financial footing? The answer is: It depends. According to some aquatic facility designers, the industry is beginning to shift from a fiscally tight-fisted approach that focused on survival to expansion and innovation. However, others concede that while the economy is still limping along for most of their clients, the introduction of grants and subsidy programs is making formerly prohibitive projects possible. Either way, in the world of aquatic design, the tide is turning.

"With the economic climate in the last five years, the biggest focus was: 1) How do I maintain what I have? and 2) When I do have money, how do I stretch my dollar?" said Scott Hester, president with Counsilman-Hunsaker in St. Louis. "We're just getting out of that trend. A noticeable uptick on projects and leads has begun, so everything is trending in the right direction."

And what his company is seeing from a design perspective is a focus on the extreme. "We're seeing a lot of requests for how to incorporate extreme sporting opportunities in aquatic facilities like climbing walls, zip lines, rope swings and flow-riders," Hester explained, quick to add that while these are not new in and of themselves, they are newer for the public-sector side of the business. "On the public-sector side, there is a lot more interest in differentiating themselves from just the lazy rivers or zero-depth entries. I'm seeing more of a priority in extreme sporting opportunities because that's how to attract tweens and teens."

Given that our economic climate is still far from sunny, Hester said that one way to incorporate excitement on a budget when a facility cannot yet afford another pool is to turn to obstacle courses. "We've seen a lot of requests for floatable inflatable obstacle courses. It's a challenging, fun experience at a low cost so that you don't have to reconfigure a pool."

Of course, attracting more teens and tweens with the lure of excitement, is also an opportunity to expand programming and increase revenue to offset initial investments in extreme features.

But for those willing to invest in a greater capital outlay, there is some additional good news: Low interest rates are making such investments and new building projects more cost-effective than ever. "We're seeing interest rates at an all-time low and cost of construction is similar to 2006 to 2007," said Kevin McElyba, owner and lead designer at Aquatic Design Consultants Inc. of Kansas City, Mo. "So, for communities that really need to do something, now is the perfect time to do something if they can."

Another financial plus has been the recent development of grants and subsidies by state, federal and even utility companies, which are helping to offset the previously prohibitive costs of energy-saving technologies.

For indoor waterparks like those in the Wisconsin Dells, new utility-funded subsidies on installation and equipment are making a big difference. "Indoor facilities are really recognizing the benefit of investing in energy-efficient equipment and working with local utilities' grant programs to help pay for additional costs," said Daryl Matzke, vice president of Ramaker and Associates, and director of aquatics in Sauk City, Wis. "The technology has been there a long time but people once looked at the front-end cost and said, 'Not doing it.' But a loan program allows you to buy this equipment at premium cost and to use the energy savings to pay off the loan."

Maztke added that while it might take two years to pay off a loan, the advantage is that if the equipment lasts 10 years, then for eight years, the owner will benefit from reduced utility costs. This is a win-win for utility companies, too, which have a vested interest in keeping utility output low to reduce the need for more service or gas lines. But it gets even better.

What is also tipping the aquatic recreation industry toward change is the enforcement of ADA regulations that finally went into effect on Jan. 31.

These loans are not only for equipment that directly affects energy consumption, but are also being used for equipment that improves water quality because it, too, is directly related to energy reduction and is therefore of interest to grant-peddling groups. "Variable frequency drives for motors, pumps for air handling units, UV for better disinfection and controlling chloramines—if I improve the water quality with this equipment," Maztke said, "there are less chloramines in the air for indoor facilities, and better air means less ventilation and less heat to heat the building with. It's all tied together. Improve air quality and reduce energy consumption."

Partnerships also have become effective in fighting the battle of the financial crisis, as Virginia Tech and the community of Christiansburg, Va., discovered in their recent $19 million collaborative project. "The community of 20,000 knew they couldn't afford the competitive piece of the aquatic center, so they reached out to the local university and asked if they were interested in a public/private partnership by building a 50-meter competition pool with 10-meter diving tower and springboards," said Terry Caldwell, director of aquatics of the facility, which opened in 2010. "After three years, it's been met with unbelievable success and great cooperation."

However, the benefits of the arrangement—which include a $250,000 yearly rental fee to the town for 20 years with five years free, and that resulted in three different pools (competitive, leisure and therapy)—go beyond the user's enjoyment and the expanded programming. The aquatic center has affected the economic life of the community as well.

"The economic impact on the community is huge," Caldwell explained, "because people come into town for swim meets, plus we have age group swimming so people are driving from northern and eastern Virginia and up and down the east coast. They are staying in our hotels and eating in our restaurants for four days, so that's a big piece. Before this, they didn't know us from anywhere. We're lucky to provide that financial piece in today's recreation industry."

Of course, drawing in the competitive community is one way to help, but Caldwell concedes that, as is true for most aquatic centers, money is best found by investing in leisure. "My suggestion is you must include a leisure portion in aquatics because that is where the money is. You can host large swim meets, but leisure is your daily admission and people coming back so you want to make sure that you have something for everyone." But in today's competitive climate, it takes more than just a zero-depth entry pool or a lazy river to pique interest. It takes something different.

Extreme Themes

One way aquatic facilities are differentiating themselves more these days is with theming. Again, this is not a new idea and has been around for years, but what has changed is the extreme to which facilities are now willing to go to make an impact. Gone are the days when a simple Caribbean or jungle theme was enough to put your facility on the destination map. According to Hester, unless a theme is particularly unique, facilities are more interested in spending their dollars on quality softscapes (landscaping, fencing and shade structures that if done right, are great rental and revenue generators), than to bother with another been-there-done-that kind of themed design.

But if a park is going for theming, Hester advises that it be unique. For Wings and Waves Water Park in McMinnville, Ore., extreme theming has reached all new heights. Part of a larger attraction of the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum, the waterpark's aviation theme is front and center with a circa 1970s B747-100 aircraft perched on the top of the 70,000-square-foot waterpark. Through it, visitors are launched on a series of tube slides that wind around the cavernous interior. "It's pretty unique," Hester said of the park built in 2011. "At the top of the tower, you are inside the plane. It's super cool. And the tipping bucket structure is a helicopter."


What is also tipping the aquatic recreation industry toward change, however, is the enforcement of ADA regulations that finally went into effect on Jan. 31 of this year. Until now, aquatic facilities were strongly encouraged to design and install equipment that would enable those with disabilities to access their pools. And while some certainly did that—those like the Stephens Family YMCA embracing the spirit of the ADA in every way—others have been slow to respond. But now, with threat of enforcement hanging overhead, schools, universities, municipalities and even hotels are not only adding lifts, a sloped entry, transfer walls, a transfer system or accessible pool stairs, but are taking this opportunity to kill several birds with one stone.

"The technology has been there for 20 years and a lift is not rocket science, but what has increased the number of calls for evaluations of existing facilities is the ADA just went through and it has brought awareness," Matzke said of his company's sharp increase in requests for evaluations. "People just went along saying, 'Our facility is fine,' and whether they were correct or incorrect, the ADA laws are directing how people are supposed to provide for disability."

However, many schools and municipalities scrambling to comply with the ADA laws are realizing that this is an opportunity to address several improvements at once. "People are considering adding a beach entry pool and saying they can get ADA compliance but also a nice play area if they just invest in a few geysers. It looks nice. They do some other cleanup, and it will increase usage," Matzke explained of many clients' rationale. "So if they have to upgrade, they are trying to see how much they can accomplish with it."

What is so tragic about this approach, however, is the assumption many facility owners have that such accommodations are not needed because they do not see many (if any) patrons with disabilities coming to their facilities, and they tend to make the assumption that any attempt to be accommodating will come with a needlessly high price tag.

In the case of the Stephens Family YMCA, changing their design to accommodate the needs of not just the physically disabled, but also those with sensory and social/emotional challenges as well, turned out to save money in some cases and proved the old adage that "if you build it, they will come."

The process of designing for ADA was made especially easy with the addition of key players to help inform their process.

"A lot of this stuff wasn't money, it was thought," Johnson said of the aquatic facility and its success. "Putting in a rubber floor in the sensory room saved money and changing the way a door would swing—this was easy stuff. A push button door? That's cool. Beyond just helping those with wheelchairs, it helps the elderly and those pushing strollers. These things just make peoples' lives easier."

Of course, the most noticeable accommodation in the aquatic area is the accessible waterslide, visible through glass walls in the entrance of the building. Once Johnson and his team decided they wouldn't take "no" for an answer to the rebuff that an accessible waterslide had never been done before, they began to problem-solve and discovered that by merely moving an elevator from one side of a hall to another, and by lowering the slide by two feet (with a price tag of only $7,000), that the impossible was very possible, after all.

The process of designing for ADA was made especially easy with the addition of key players to help inform their process. By inviting parents of disabled children, an occupational therapist, a consultant and local architect to their roundtable discussions, the result was a facility that broke barriers, opened doors and allowed those of every ability to enjoy what should be a common experience for every child.

"It's a common attitude that there just aren't disabled people in your community," Johnson said, understanding how many managers conclude that there isn't a need for this kind of effort in designing for special needs patrons. "I understand the frustration, but they don't realize how many of those with disabilities just stay away. Of course you aren't going to see them if you don't make a way for them to come!"

Of course, ADA regulations aren't the only ones forcing change in aquatic facilities. With the changes in FINA regulations in recent years for deeper diving well depths (now 11 feet, 6 inches for a 1-meter spring diving board) and starting block depths (now 4 feet, 5 inches), many American pools constructed when the depths were more shallow are no longer permitted to be used in competition. As a result, competition pools are scrambling to adapt.

"Pool depth concerns have risen for starting blocks and for diving wells," Matzke said. "The U.S. is using 12 feet as a minimum now, and insurance companies are saying you can't use the diving well anymore, so people are putting drop slides in, but there is a backlash. If our kids aren't learning to dive in our pools, where are they learning? Off of a cliff? And people are recognizing that diving is entertainment and competition. It's beneficial, so we have to make the pool deeper."

Some schools have been able to skirt part of the issue by moving starting blocks to the deep end of their pools, often straddling the diving boards, but not all pools have this option and with the new implementation of ADA laws, schools are seeing now as a good time to deal with both issues.

Master Plans

What is making a huge difference, however, in today's pool designs, is the greater emphasis on the future aquatic space and its possibilities.

Competitive pools are not the only ones looking to change their depths these days. More recreational pools are changing them not because they have to, but because they want to. For the aquatic facility in Christiansburg, hindsight is 20/20. "You want to make sure you have something for everyone, like a deeper leisure pool. I would like to have seen that—sometimes we miss the teenagers," Caldwell said about one of their design decisions. "We took out the diving boards and so we miss those kids." While they do have an amazing Olympic-sized competitive pool with fast water thanks to 7-foot depths on one end and 17-foot depths on the other, the leisure side of their facility is shallow and, while very successful, is geared to younger users.

What is making a huge difference, however, in today's pool designs, is the greater emphasis on the future aquatic space and its possibilities. "There is a lot more focus on the overall design of a facility and the way people flow through the activities," McElyba said. "A lot used to just add on a pool but now when we design, we're in more of a master-plan state of mind."

One example of that is for indoor facilities to think about transition spaces transitioning from dry to wet. "We have to think about how wet and dry areas interact and how patrons experience it," McElyba explained. "There are two different things. One is atmosphere that is making air handling on the technical side of things. But the air temperature needs to be comfortable for getting out of the water so you have to consider what is the most efficient at handling moisture issues as well as handing chloramines that form in the air. You have to consider a lot of factors so that the environment is safe and pleasant in handling air quality moving from a dry environment to wet."

Another consideration for designers these days is the ease of use of all the technology that in former days a typical lifeguard was expected to manage. But not anymore.

With an eye toward efficiency, Counsilman-Hunsaker has helped to create a technological design to help simplify what can be a very complicated task. "We asked, 'Why can't we get a controller that can handle water chemistry but communicate with chemical-fed equipment and also with the swimming pool pumps to ramp up and down as needed and to communicate when to backwash and when filters need to be bumped or to help control the heating system?' We are working with a sophisticated manufacturer to work with controls where the operator goes to one location rather than four or five to check the heat or pool recirculation rate or to check chemical levels."

Technology is always moving. Fortunately, as is the case with most technological advances, prices also tend to come down, even as sophistication goes up. And that is especially good news in a designing climate where energy efficiency is all the rage. "We've seen some pretty neat filtration systems," Hester said. "Energy efficiency is really huge and to the point that it's second nature, we do VFDs on pool pumps whereas five years ago, we rarely did it or only for unique situations."

A lot can change in five years. Or even two or three. Whether it's newer, better, faster technology, new regulations to encourage change or new ways to afford new ideas, the tide of aquatic design is turning in a pretty exciting direction.

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