Water, for Profits

Aquatic Design Meets Community & Budgetary Needs

By Rick Dandes

People today, perhaps more than ever before, are placing greater demands on their community officials for quality aquatic and recreational facilities and programs. And, according to aquatic design experts, there seems to be little differentiation in expectation, whether a facility is operated as a municipal, nonprofit or private entity. These changes, however, are having a direct financial impact on those park and recreation facilities that have yet to be built, or have not yet been completely modified to meet both community needs and government safety regulations.

"Unlike the old days, when many municipal pools were built as a free service to the community," explained Justin Caron, vice president, Aquatic Design Group, Carlsbad, Calif., "managers of today's municipal pool facilities and their taxpayer users recognize that a modern pool facility is something that needs to be self-sufficient in terms of cost. What that means to aquatic designers, from a trend standpoint, is that we must focus on designing pools that can offer programs to offset oblique programs like water polo, and diving—which require large pools and don't make money—by coming up with solutions that bring in people and revenue."

The days are gone when people entertained themselves all summer long in one long rectangular community swimming pool. Interactive recreation-driven aquatic centers have become the norm since the 1980s and 1990s. And although outdoor facilities have a much shorter swimming season, many of these municipal pools are bundled with indoor aquatic centers for year-round fitness and amusement. By necessity, facility designs are innovative, morphing into water wonderlands, taking their cues from indoor European public pools and outdoor resort pools. Large free-form bodies of water sweep across the American landscape, and most without a spectacular view, creating art forms in themselves.

Today's families, from tots to baby boomers, recreate together and expect areas and amenities that cater to each age bracket. Municipal pools understand that they must continue to offer lap swimming, but operators also know that revenue significantly increases if they can balance competition water space with recreational water space.

For that reason, a public input process is a key component in understanding the demands, expectations and concerns of area residents and users. Almost all aquatic facility projects begin with a pre-design phase, emphasized Gregor Markel, an architect with The Dahlin Group, Pleasanton, Calif. He said that aquatic centers are fast becoming a community gathering space, a social hub that can complement other facilities in an adjacent park. Many park and recreation departments are using their aquatic facilities to create a strong sense of community pride by taking the most popular aspects of public pools and commercial waterparks to offset escalating taxes coupled with a reduction in tax bases.

A pool, for many communities, Markel noted, also provides summer employment for high school and college students. It serves as the base for most summer activities in the community, and can support other summer programs, such as a school's summer recreation, free lunch program and even fundraisers. "As designers," he said, "we need to allow space for all these possible activities."

Aquatic Design Trends

Our culture demands fresh choices and alternatives, and the marketplace provides plenty of options, Caron said. The standard for aquatic facilities of the future will be in finding ways to tweak or change existing amenities to offer variety to patrons in a cost-effective manner.

Today's families, from tots to baby boomers, recreate together and expect areas and amenities that cater to each age bracket.

"The fastest moving programmatic element in the industry is the therapy pool, or warm-water pools," Caron noted, as an example. "And it has to do with more and more people aging; people with arthritis, or who have had hip replacements or knee replacements. At a time when boomers can no longer gracefully exercise on land, they are turning to water." The buoyancy and comfort of water as an environment is really attractive, and people will pay for it. So, if you have a warm-water body where you can give lessons or therapy, you have something that will make money for your facility. Examples of this can already be seen at several municipalities across the country where wet play features such as tumble buckets, water cannons and other elements are switched annually between different facilities and projects are being phased to add new attractions to increase and maintain a customer base.

Swimming pools have undergone a considerable evolution over the past two decades. In years past almost all new pools were rectilinear and tried to accommodate all users in the same water space. This resulted in a body of water that wasn't perfect for any group. Over the past 20 or so years there has been a movement within the industry to design separate bodies of water specific to user groups and programmatic functions. In terms of specific amenities, designers say they are getting a lot more calls to find ways to entertain those who are hard to entertain, the pre-teens and teenagers.

Recreational water space is changing radically in modern pool design, agreed both Caron and Markel. Older pools would feature a rectilinear shape with a small area for shallow water and maybe a diving board or slide at the deeper end.

"Today," Caron said, "many of these pools resemble mini-waterparks with a free-flowing design featuring any numbers of elements, including zero-depth or beach entries, river currents, climbing walls, climb-on structures, interactive water play features, a series of waterslides, and in-pool lounge areas, to name but a few."

This move has been made not only as the needs and expectations of recreational swimmers and patrons change, but also in an effort by municipalities to recoup operating costs and turn the local pool into a potential source of revenue generation.

In-Demand Designs and Amenities

The addition of splash pads expanded rapidly from 2005 to 2010, and now it's pretty much a given that a splash pad or multiple pads are included in any architect's design. But what a splash pad can't do very well is entertain 8- to 15-year-olds, who are being brought with their younger brothers and sisters to the local pool.

Designers, Caron explained, are being asked to create something that will entertain those kids. "We are seeing a lot more of the climbing walls, the zip lines and inflatables," he said. "Anything that is a little bit more daring, a little bit more entertaining to do more than once. You give a child a hose, they can play for hours. You give a teenager a hose, they get in trouble in three minutes. What we are trying to do is create ways that teenagers can be given something, such as a climbing wall or zip lining. It's more fun, but in a safe way. And, it's better than having them play in an area where there might be little kids also who could be trampled."

Caron suggested several types of recreational pool designs that his firm's clients seem most interested in:

  • Multi-Purpose: With areas for users of all ages, including some lap lanes for recreational swimming, a large shallow water area for small children, an area with more exciting features for older children, teenagers and adults, and an area to just simmer down and relax for those looking to cool off.
  • Children's Play Pool: Should include either zero-depth or very shallow water to around 18 inches of water. These pools usually have interactive wet play elements such as water buckets, cannons and sprays and climb-on structures featuring slides and other interactive water play elements.
  • Spraygrounds: Areas with no standing water but plenty of elements for children to play in. These areas are one of the single fastest growing segments of the aquatics industry today. Spraygrounds, pad walks, water cannons, large play structures and aquatics ropes courses are also in-demand amenities that ought to be considered in any design.
  • Let's See Action: Another growing area in the aquatics world for both children and adults is that of higher thrill attractions. These range from high and themed waterslides and waves that users can boogie board or surf on to climbing walls, wave pools and whitewater areas where users can kayak or navigate using the same equipment they would in rivers around the world. Here, the goal is to create an adventurous ambience, while segregating creative water play areas for various age groups.

Clearly, noted Melinda Kempfer, business development manager, Water Technology Inc., Madison, Wis., in the case of municipal recreation facilities, the concept of providing many diverse amenities has been handed down from commercial waterparks. "Historically, you never saw lazy rivers at municipality-run parks. Even 10 years ago, you wouldn't see them; but you did see them in all the commercial waterparks. It is things like that which are being handed down again. Take guest accommodations. We're seeing more municipal pools with cabanas. People are spending time there, so municipalities, wisely, are starting to take advantage of having rental cabanas as a way of bringing in revenue."

Another necessary element of design is to provide shade—lots of shade, Kempfer emphasized. "If done right, a shaded area can add to the aesthetic value of a park. There are even some socializing areas in three to five feet of water being created."

Now, in a novel twist, she explained, private clubs and organizations are in some ways having to keep up with municipalities. "You'll see private clubs incorporating more of the leisure aspects of municipal aquatic centers into their own programs because that is attracting more families to the health club. So, instead of having your typical lap pool at the health club, they are putting in the leisure pool, multi-level activities, the lazy rivers and making it more of a leisure experience."

On the revenue side, Kempfer said, some year-round indoor facilities can support new multiple programming opportunities to operate concurrently and more during the time of the year when people are starved for classes, programs, fitness and recreational opportunities. Examples of revenue-producing programs can include:

  1. Expanded competitive swimming opportunities, allowing more people to participate at all levels (younger and older club members).
  2. Expanded camps and clinics.
  3. Expanded membership opportunities based on the local area.
  4. Expanded rental opportunities.
  5. Expanded learn-to-swim programs bringing younger families to the facility to teach their children water safety and how to swim.
  6. New wellness and rehabilitation opportunities using the low-impact benefits of a pool facility.

Keeping Up With Seniors

Clubs have realized they have to offer not just swimming lessons and lap swimming. As our population ages, the largest group of our population is the baby boomers, and they are rapidly moving into retirement age. In water, there is less stress, less impact on the bodies of boomers who still want to remain active. Think outside the box. The senior population has expendable income so when you design your facility, make sure there is a coffee shop nearby. Seniors will stay all day and the aquatic center can become a social hub in their lives.

"I think we are going to see modernization of the senior citizens homes," Kempfer predicted. "Those old ways of thinking and recreating are going away. Seniors are demanding a good quality of life that includes leisure pools for families, when their grandkids come to see them. How many grandparents are watching their grandkids these days while the parents work? I think we're going to see many design changes in response to the needs of that maturing population. All this in contrast to the action-pool areas: safe and friendly municipal pools with plentiful shade areas invite residents to partake in zero-beach entry pools, waterslides and lazy rivers with island-style comfort and hospitality on a daily basis."

Kempfer also has noticed business relationships lately "where you have a hospital or a wellness facility partnering with a YMCA that is partnering with a city, because they are all very capable entities." Taken alone, not all of them have the money to sink into a major pool recreation facility. Nor do they have the full market share. Pools, after all, are an expensive line item on a budget. But a partnership can help build facilities that truly do cater to an entire population because they all have their own goals and agendas.

Energy-Saving Trends

Owners are big on sustainability, and one of the reasons is pools are energy beasts. Finding ways to cut down on the water usage through regenerative programs is a must. "Everybody's pockets are tight," said Nicola Springer, vice president, Kirksey Architecture, Houston, Texas. "As designers, we have the responsibility to not only talk about construction costs, but also the cost of ownership, which is something our firm looks at from the beginning. That and the ease of maintenance, the cost of maintenance. Pools are very expensive to maintain, so a lot of what we can do depends on the budgets. But maintenance is not restricted to just the pool. It is also about preserving the environment that surrounds that body of water. So people are looking for more cost-effective ways to build their facility and also maintain it."

People are sensitive to what kind of chemicals are going into their pool. Cities across the country are holding designers and pool operators to very high standards. Sustainability is no longer a trend, it's the new normal, Springer said. "Especially with municipalities that are fiscally responsible. And the public is more educated, so they are asking the right questions."

California is going to be really, really green very soon, Markel noted. A lot of people have adopted LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) as kind of a baseline criteria, so when you talk about rebuilding things in California it's become the norm, rather than the exception.

If you look at the premier designers across the country, "I think there has always been that going to the next level, when it comes to energy saving and sustainability," Caron said. "The big difference now, is that everyone is mandated to go to the next level. Take the baseline for pool heater efficiency, for example, which is 75 to 79 percent, and that's not very good. Now certain states, including California, are mandating efficiencies of at least 87 percent. There are heaters now that get 99 percent efficiency. These are things being pushed."

Another common energy saver is thermal-solar solutions, which has a very dependable 9- to 10-year payback on those panels, Caron said. "If a solar panel lasts 15 years, that's a pretty good ROI for the owner. Especially when you have your gas electric companies offering rebates so you don't have to pay as much up front. You realize a savings on the back end."

Many states are also mandating pool covers—thermal blankets have always been the easiest way to save on your heating costs and your chemical costs. But they are also the biggest maintenance challenge for a user because typically it takes three lifeguards to put them on and then take them off and that adds extra labor.

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