Design Trends in Outdoor Aquatic Facilities
By Dave Ramont
If you've visited an outdoor community swimming pool in the past few years, you've likely noticed that it's "not your daddy's swimming pool anymore." The old rectangular, flat-water pool—which maybe had diving boards or a slide—may not be extinct, but it's certainly an endangered species. Today's aquatic facilities offer plunge pools, zero-depth entry, children's activity pools and water playgrounds. Multi-level water play structures, various waterslides and leisure rivers. Sports challenge features such as zip lines, climbing walls and aqua courses. Family picnic and sand play areas, interactive features, and multiple support components.
Many municipalities and parks and rec departments have noticed an increased interest in aquatic recreation in recent years, yet attendance at their facilities has dropped. Therefore, it's crucial for them to evolve and embrace new trends and update existing facilities if they want to remain competitive and attract visitors. Water Technology Inc. (WTI), an aquatic planning, design and engineering firm based in Beaver Dam, Wis., has conducted recent studies showing that many new or revitalized outdoor family aquatic centers have exhibited a marked increase in attendance, with several experiencing up to a 200 percent rise over the former traditional facilities. They've found that combining the traditional aquatic requirements of competitive swimming, exercise and fitness with the right blend of leisure and entertainment features has proven successful for communities of all sizes.
The New Economics
One thing that's changed over the past couple of decades is the desire of cities and parks to have their facilities become more economically self-sustaining. Dennis Berkshire, president of Aquatic Design Group (ADG), based in Carlsbad, Calif., reflects on how 12 or 15 years ago they started seeing park and rec departments moving away from the neighborhood swimming pools and community centers to more regional aquatic centers. And they found that, as they started adding more amenities, they had the ability to increase the operating cost recovery potential of a facility. "So if we took a typical (rectilinear) pool, we would find that on average it would generate 40 or 50 percent annual operating cost recovery," with the municipalities subsidizing the remainder. "As we start adding more recreation value to the facility, then we have the ability to push that cost recovery to 70, 80, 90 percent levels," he said.
Tom LaLonde and Rich Klarck have also noticed this trend. LaLonde is vice president and managing principal and Klarck is lead aquatic engineer at Williams Architects, based in Itasca, Ill. "Operational efficiencies have come to the forefront in recent years. Park districts and municipal rec departments are more cognizant of fiscal responsibility for the operations of their facilities. Nowadays it's customary to expect revenue generation to pay for the operation of the facility. If that's not possible, owners are trying to get as close as they can," they noted.
Doug Whiteaker, principal at WTI, echoes how communities are becoming more fiscally conscious. "To minimize the operational subsidy required by today's community governments, facilities must conserve operational expense and generate revenue through broad appeal to community users to achieve a higher percentage of cost recovery," he said. "The communities that create these facilities want to deliver on the appeal of the facility but also want to provide a sustainable venue that continuously delivers a safe and memorable experience at the lowest operational cost without sacrificing safety."
An Expanding Audience
Besides economic sustainability, aquatic centers have evolved in many ways over the years. LaLonde and Klarck noted that pools in the past—40-plus years ago—were largely limited to depths of 3 feet or more. A typical pool was rectangular and surrounded by concrete decks and a chain link fence. Then 30 years ago the zero-depth entry was introduced and pools took on new forms. Natural enhancements were added, making it more park-like. Now some facilities are moving away from broad, zero-depth entries, since they require larger sites and pools as it can take as much as 50 to 60 feet in distance to enter deeper water (3-feet-plus).
While zero-depth entry is still popular, step-in entries are becoming more prevalent. "The step-in entry not only provides ease of access into the water, but can provide access to deeper water in a relatively short distance (less than 10 feet). Expansive step-in entries (12 to15 feet wide) can have a designated area where people enter the water yet still provide a great area for people to congregate and observe or be involved with the activities in the pool. In addition, step-in entries offer children a safe introduction to 2-to 3-foot water depths," they said.
Berkshire noted that in the past decade or two, the industry really started to be driven by a new mindset. And that is to reach out to the entire community for aquatics, and not just specific special interest groups. He cited an example where ADG recently did a city-wide aquatics business plan for the city of El Paso, Texas. And in El Paso they found that estimates were that 15.7 percent of the population would participate in municipal swimming in one way or another, whether that's swim team, triathlon training, water polo, laps, fitness classes, swim lessons, lifeguard training or just straight recreational swim. But when considering all of the organized teams and groups—the swim teams, the water polo teams—they represented less than one-half of 1 percent of the population. Yet they are the ones who will show up at the city council to say they need a 50-meter Olympic size pool or more competitive-type venues. "It kind of drives home the numbers," Berkshire said. "While those organized swim groups are the most vested swim groups—they're the ones that are there daily and in some cases twice a day—and we do need to be able to support their needs, that's not the community. So if we're really trying to get a facility that can reach out and meet the needs of the entire community, from children at 6 months of age to people that are 96 years of age, it's a different venue."
Whiteaker agrees with this new focus, adding that the design of aquatic facilities for parks and rec departments has evolved to include the important core elements that help engage citizens to increase their quality of life experiences in their communities. "These core components include pools for important programs such as learning to swim, some level of competitive swimming and diving, and recreation. People have also enjoyed other community leisure pools and the private waterparks, and have expressed the desire to include these family fun elements into their renovated or new aquatic facilities to help encourage more use by a broader demographic," he said.
Eye on Sustainability
There are other forces at play that influence design trends. Berkshire said that it seems like there's always some kind of underlying theme every few years that tends to direct the industry. "We've seen things like VGB (The Virginia Graeme Baker Pool and Spa Safety Act) that came in and really started driving the industry for a couple of years, everybody having to make sure their aquatic centers were VGB-compliant. Then ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) regulations came in after the VGB, and that became a big hot button and all pools had to be accessible and inclusive to meet the requirements for ADA accessibility."
He went on to say that once the economy took a downturn, everyone started looking at things driving the industry like sustainability: How to reduce water usage? How to reduce labor requirements? How to make these things more cost-effective from an operation standpoint? "And now we're seeing the economy starting to take back off, and so there's a lot of pent-up demand within the industry," he added. "At our level we see that first with lots of studies where cities and communities want to plan for how they might go into satisfying the needs for aquatics within a community or school or university, whatever that might be. So that's kind of the big picture of where we see things."
But even as the economy continues to improve and budgets are loosening, sustainability from an environmental standpoint is not going away any time soon. Conservation and green features will surely continue to be part of design trends going forward.
LaLonde and Klarck related how energy codes are catching up to LEED requirements. (LEED is the most widely used green building rating system in the world.) In the state of Illinois, where Williams Architects is based, pools that are heated now require covers. (This applies to any state that has adopted the 2015 International Energy Conservation Code.) Covers minimize evaporation from the pool, which saves on energy by not having to re-heat the water.
They went on to point out other popular eco-friendly features, such as regenerative filtration, which uses minimal water, thus requiring less heating and makeup chemicals, and provides longer filter runs and superior water quality. "A regenerative filter also has a very small footprint, which can reduce the size of the filter building, therefore reducing building costs."
VFDs (variable frequency drives) also conserve energy, extending the life of a pump and allowing fine-tuning of flow (better control). "The VFDs can be interlocked with flow meters for the circulation pump, which will ramp the pump speed up as the filter gets dirty," they explained.
LaLonde and Klarck encourage clients to specify high-efficiency water heaters as budget allows. These water heaters typically run at 97 percent efficiency and provide other benefits, such as having a sealed combustion and exhaust so they are not exposed to the corrosive elements in the mechanical room, which extends the life of the heater. They added that "the combustion air and exhaust can be piped in PVC pipe, thus reducing large duct work. The heaters are smaller, which results in a smaller building footprint, reducing costs as well."
They also encourage clients to install a system controller, which operates and monitors the entire filtration system. System controllers have the capability of connecting remotely, which means the controller can be accessed from smartphones, tablets and computers. "This provides more direct control along with more efficient and effective operation, potentially reducing staff time. The controller is interlocked with the water heater, level control, filter and circulation pump, as well as feature pumps. All these items can be viewed on the system controller and can be customized to different degrees of control," they said.
For the bathhouse, some energy-saving concepts LaLonde and Klarck typically include are solar power for the water heater, photovoltaics for electric power, and natural daylighting and ventilation. They also use LED fixtures and in some instances solar-powered site lighting, plus automatic flush valves and on/off faucets.
With regard to energy conservation, Whiteaker concurred with the use of regenerative filters, VFDs and pool covers. He also pointed out other green features such as water chemistry automation, to provide sanitary water conditions and efficient use of sanitation products, as well as supplemental sanitation, such as UV systems, to remove potentially dangerous pathogens that can harm users and mitigate the byproducts of disinfection.
The waterpark is one of the fastest growing categories of entertainment venue, with an annual growth rate of more than 7 percent. There are more than 1,200 in the United States with more opening every year, and they're quite popular in international markets as well. The first large-scale commercial water park, Wet "N" Wild, opened in 1977 in Orlando, Fla. It was created by George Millay, who became known as the "father of the waterpark," and featured numerous water-oriented rides, a lazy river and a wave pool. Through the years it's been the birthplace of many innovations now considered a common part of the waterpark experience. But, though it attracted 1.3 million visitors last year, it's closing the doors at the end of 2016.
So what are some of the "fun elements"—the must-have amenities that are attracting visitors to waterparks and other aquatic facilities these days? There are numerous types of waterslides for all age levels to enjoy, from tot slides to larger waterslides. There are tube slides, body slides, drop slides, bowl slides and water spraygrounds. Interactive, multilevel play structures with dumping buckets, geysers, pulleys and rope ladders are highly sought after. Zip lines, slack lines and climbing walls are also very popular. Diving boards have been making a comeback. There are also mat racers, flow riders and action islands, as well as boxed surfing mechanisms and inflatable aquatic obstacle courses.
One of today's most popular attractions is the leisure (lazy) river, which offers a continuously flowing stream, forming a loop within the park where guests can relax and float on inner tubes. Inside the loop, the area can be accessed by bridges over the river to create family picnic areas or action islands for teens. LaLonde and Klarck agree that lazy rivers continue to be a huge attraction, even though they're expensive to build and operate. But "by creating different amenities within the lazy river island, unique activities can be created to extend the length of a patron's visit and create fun zones for older children and teens," they pointed out.
Providing partial shade over shallow water and tot pools is appreciated by parents. Teens and young adults are drawn to more intense waterslides and thrill rides. Providing a mix of body slides and tube slides, and both open and closed flumes, offers patrons more diversity. Big tube slides can accommodate multiple riders, while head-first mat racers allow guests to race with their friends. Another thrill ride is artificial surfing, which uses high-output pumps to produce a flow of water just a couple inches thick over a fixed padded surface. This can provide a level of competition, and spectators enjoy it, too.
Whiteaker believes that paramount to the "watertainment" side of the aquatic experience is the element of a unique, memorable experience every time a user enjoys a facility. "One way this is happening is to install components that provide a level of friendly competition between users, such as basketball hoops, slack lines, zip lines and waterslides with timing or sports challenge elements that display to riders and their friends their times or speeds going down the slide or how many targets they touched on the way down or both," he said. "Another aspect changing the waterslide experience is new slides with a changing theme through the use of LED panels. Each time a user enjoys the ride they can experience a different ride, interactive gaming, internal theme or varied graphics," he explained.
LaLonde and Klarck also look to find creative ways of integrating technology, such as turning spraygrounds into something different in the evening with LED lighting, or creating interactive learning experiences, such as using activators whereby a child can step on a button and it starts a water activity, or use progressive features which cause a chain reaction.
Another hot trend right now within the industry is the inflatable obstacle course, according to Berkshire. He explained how some cities might have, for example, a 50-meter Olympic-size pool, and they're finding they can assemble the course during certain periods and charge an extra $5 for kids to get a wristband to be able to use it. "Now you have the ability to build a competitive deep-water pool, but how do we bring in recreation uses to it? So that's a perfect opportunity," he said.
Find Your Theme
WTI's marketing literature details how themed environments and attractions within a park, and the ability to package some sort of adventure, add to the visitor experience, will increase their length of stay and increase value to the entertainment dollar. A well-thought-out theming package allows the waterpark developer to create an instant atmosphere when guests enter the park. Examples of various themes include pirate coves, water jungles and rainforest temples.
One place where creative theming was implemented is in the desert of Washoe County, Nev. Officials there determined that a splash pad would provide a cool respite for kids without the operating expense of a typical community swimming pool. But they didn't want something generic. Their hope was to complement the region's beauty and reflect its history.
ADG became involved with the project, and several ideas were pitched, but it was an aviation theme that prevailed. That's because the National Championship Air Races are held nearby every September, and the event has been a cherished part of the region's heritage for more than 50 years. The project proved challenging, with ADG enlisting four manufacturers to supply all the various aviation-themed amenities, some resembling the planes and biplanes that typically partake in the races. One water-spraying feature was made to be a miniature replica of the Reno Stead Airport control tower. The splash pad's "runway" divides the facility into two zones: one for tots and one with water cannons and slides for older guests. Water jets, flush to the rubberized surface on both sides of the runway, eject columns in a synchronized, escalating pattern to resemble a plane's takeoff.
An Ongoing Evolution
Outdoor aquatic facilities continue to evolve around the wants and needs of visitors, the innovative ideas of designers, new technologies and sustainability considerations. LaLonde and Klarck of Williams Architects sum it up by saying that in order to attract the most patrons, a facility should provide multi-functional and multi-generational water areas and activities. These include recreational and leisure components, teaching and training, fitness and therapy, and competition. "A facility that can successfully overlap uses of waters will attract a larger audience and generate more revenue," they said. "Current channels are wonderful for recreation, but can also be used for fitness and therapy."
WTI's Whiteaker added, "What facility operators understand is the importance of multi-faceted programs with water temperatures and water depths that appeal to all age groups. Current designs are incorporating a minimum of three to four pools to accommodate this wide variety of programs."
Berkshire of ADG agrees, and said that a lot of centers look for creative ways to generate revenue by cross-purposing their facilities, using wristbands and fees, etc. And by doing so, some are able to provide free or low-cost lessons and swim times for those who can't afford it, for the betterment of the community. After all, he asks, "How do they reach that 15.7 percent of the population if it's a pool designed for one-half of 1 percent?"
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