A Pool for Every Purpose

Multi-Use Pools Provide Space for Competition, Leisure

By Joe Bush

At least one expert says that large multi-use pools may be the way of the future for colleges, park districts and health clubs.

Justin Caron, vice president of San Diego-based Aquatic Design Group (ADG) envisions that organizations with multiple pools will consolidate into fewer sites with larger and more versatile facilities, while taking into consideration families who want lessons and fun, fitness folks who want to lap swim, local schools and clubs who want a viable competitive space, and an aging population who likes water exercise and therapy.

While consolidation can pay off in the long run with better uses for former pool properties and revenue from a pool scheduled full daily, designing a space that has something for everyone is not easy. What shape should the pools be, what depth, what temperature? Is there equipment that can lend flexibility to a pool, so it can shift from recreational to competitive, or include both simultaneously? Where is best for hot tubs, slides, basketball hoops, climbing walls?

Caron's company specializes in architecture and engineering for three main clients: high schools, college rec centers, and municipalities. Caron said college and university recreational centers are great studies in maximizing a facility to please as many groups as possible.

"College athletic budgets are shrinking or focusing on revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball, or Title IX sports," Caron said. "Things like competition pools aren't quite as prevalent as they used to be, but college rec centers are exploding in popularity, and aquatics are a big component of that.

"Student funds are paying for student rec centers, and the majority of college-age students aren't going to decide to go to a school for which these rec centers are becoming recruiting tools because it has the nice lap pool. They are very interested in what I would call sexy water—things with vertical elements such as climbing walls and water features that stand out."

A 2013 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled "College as Country Club: Do Colleges Cater to Students' Preferences for Consumption?" revealed that most students seem to value college consumption amenities, including spending on student activities, sports and dormitories, while those that value a school's academic quality are the minority, high-achieving students.

A New York Times article from September 2014 highlighted schools large and small —LSU, Missouri State, Auburn, Pensacola Christian College—spending big for waterpark-type facilities. For example, ADG has been helping North Dakota State with a project set to break ground this year that will include unique features like a vortex pool, a rain curtain that falls on people sitting in lounge chairs, a zip line, a central fire pit and a bubble bench. The last is an aeration system "so bubbles will caress your skin from underneath," Caron said.

The same facility will have a six-lane lap pool for intramural activities and fitness swimming, and some deep water for scuba.

"That's what the college rec market is going for: individualization, customization," Caron explained. "What does this space do for our students, who are paying for it? It's a place to get fit and be fit and be healthy and also socially healthy."

David C. Dennis is the campus recreation director at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, Ark. In 2012, UCA began renovating and adding to its Health Physical Education Recreation (HPER) Center, including plans for some type of water recreation. The original drawings called for two pools, a 25-yard pool for serious swimming, and one for recreation, but during budgeting talks, one pool was taken away. Dennis and his staff had to decide which would stay.

"We decided our best course would be to include the 25-yard lap pool," he said. "This seemed to be a better option for us because we could have a nice lap pool and also include some recreational components for students to enjoy. We felt both aspects contribute to student overall health."

The pool, designed and overseen by Counsilman-Hunsaker, has six lanes, equipment for water basketball and water volleyball, a 1-meter diving board, and a climbing wall. Dennis said 25 yards was ideal for available land and costs, the distance is fine for non-competitive lap swimmers, and 25 yards is the competitive distance for the local high school that uses the pool for practice and meets.

Scott Hester, president at St. Louis-based Counsilman-Hunsaker, said water depth and temperature are crucial to pleasing fitness and competitive swimmers and those who use the pool for recreation and therapy. The compromise is especially difficult if only one pool is available. He said competitive swimmers want temperatures between 78 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold for recreational use. He says 82 is a good middle ground.

Depth issues can be handled with a movable floor, but of course that is a luxurious capital expenditure. The majority of planners have to consider depths necessary for starting blocks and kick turns, playing children, diving boards, and exercise and therapy that requires feet on the floor.

"Most competitive swimmers are going to want depths of six-plus feet throughout, and that allows you to not worry about touching the bottom and have starting blocks at both ends of the pool," Hester said. "Psychologically, swimmers feel they perform better in deeper water.

"What are you willing to accommodate on? Six-and-a-half to seven feet at one end for springboard diving and at the opposite end you'll have four feet and that allows you to do those floor-based activities. Once you solve that challenge, it's about what activities do we want to do. Is it climbing walls, is it zip lining, is it some drop slides, is it water-crossing activities, obstacle courses?"

Hester said there are a variety of choices for recreational add-ons that can either coexist with other activities or be removable when necessary. Climbing walls and basketball hoops and volleyball nets can be moved. Drop slides—straight flumes that exit a few feet from the water and feature a steep angle—in deep water take up less deck space than spiral slides. There are also zip lines, and rope swings and inflatable surface pieces tethered to the sides or bottom.

Hester's firm designed the aquatics area in the 9-year-old RecPlex at the University of Dayton. It covers the needs of the four main pool-use groups: competitive, recreational, therapy and instructional. The pool is 6,000 square feet, including an eight-lane 25-yard competitive space, a 1-meter springboard, a 32-meter vortex pool, a 1,600-foot whirlpool spa with a 15-person capacity, and a wet classroom.

Beth Keyes, the vice president of facility management for the school, said the competitive space is used by the organized sports recreation program and is rented to local high school teams. Two lanes are used for walking, and the space is available and ready for water polo play.

Keyes said the many uses allow the facility to pay for itself. There are swim lessons for the children of staff and faculty, water aerobics for the elderly, free swim time for students, and the high school team use.

"There's never a downtime because it's constantly used," she said. "All at once is typical. A lot of morning swimmers, a lot of lunchtime swimmers, a lull, and starting at 2 you can't get in that pool. It's very busy for the rest of the evening. It's a constant struggle to make everybody happy and yet pay for yourself."

Hester said in warmer year-round climates, outdoor pools should be a consideration, mainly because without a building to surround them they are cheaper to build and maintain. He said the price range for an outdoor pool is $500,000 for a six-lane 25-yard pool to $2 million to $3 million for a 50-meter pool.

"We do a lot of competitive venues outdoors, as far north as north central California," he said. "Can you use it year round in the cold-weather months? If you can that's a great solution for you. You just eliminated the expense of not only constructing a natatorium, but you also eliminated conditioning that building space year-round, cooling it in the summer or heating it in the winter."

Whatever the pool setup, managers and operators will need the structures and equipment to help all users enjoy the space. Movable bulkheads add flexibility by partitioning pools. Starting blocks can either be permanent or removable. Lane lines need reels, competitions need timing systems and flags.

Kristen Linehan Omli is the director of swimming relations for a company that sells lanes, clocks, reels, flags and goggles to competitive swimming organizations. She said the size of the pool dictates the lane line size, and the first equipment to buy includes lane lines and starting blocks.

"On a basic budget you'd order the 4-inch lane lines," she said. "That will cost less than a 6-inch lane line, but you're still going to get a great lane line. You'd order a less expensive timing system, a less expensive starting block."

Omli said the good news for operators with a multi-use pool is that lane lines can also be used to cordon off areas for different uses. They are supposed to be removed from the pool, for maintenance and to extend their lives, and they range in price from $1,000 to $3,500.

Clocks are a less expensive alternative to scoreboard timers, Omli added; choose them for durability, mobility and most importantly, visibility and legibility.

Karen Andrus-Hughes is marketing manager for a Canby, Ore.-based manufacturer of starting blocks, slides, game equipment, lifeguard chairs, lighting, lane lines, diving boards, and handrails and lifts for compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

She said her company's starting blocks range in expense from those with an anchor inside the pool deck and those bolted to the deck. If starting blocks are permanent, Andrus-Hughes said be sure to have cones to place on top of them to discourage diving by non-swimmers.

"Community pools don't need to go to the expense of a more elite block and they may want blocks that aren't as high, a block that is more conducive to novice or new swimmers, community-type swim meets," said Andrus-Hughes.

She said multipurpose pools are more likely to want removable anchors on any deck-mounted equipment. If so, they'll need deck caps that cover the hole flush with the deck for the safety of those walking by. Her company's slides are not removable, she said, so care must be taken to place non-removable slides strategically, away from the starting blocks, for example.

Andrus-Hughes said competitive-only pools are in a tough spot.

"They may not be money makers, they may be supported by the tax base, but not a business running in the black," she said. "It'd be pretty tough to be sustained just by public swimming or by competitive swimming. Pools that are doing the best have figured out a way to be multipurpose and used 12 hours a day."

Caron of ADG said trending demographics and surveys of college students bolster the five-year outlook of the high popularity of college and community rec centers with multipurpose pools.

"What it really means and I think is applicable to the public sector as well, is that the things you want, deep water, rectilinear shapes, hard lines, cool water don't really mix well with your open, revenue-producing activities," Caron said. "Those programs want shallow water, want warmer water and they want the curvilinear spaces so that they have better sight with their instructors.

"That's not to say you can't do it and do it well, but there is a juxtaposition of those two ideas, and having them cohabitate is an issue that hasn't been 100 percent solved."

© Copyright 2021 Recreation Management. All rights reserved.