New Pool Rules
The Newest Natatorium Designs Offer Something for Everyone
By Rick Dandes
The diversity of aquatic programming and the varying recreational needs of a community, combined with sweeping advances in equipment technology, have had a major impact on natatorium spaces. Everything about natatoriums has become much more sophisticated than 20—or even 10—years ago, both in terms of function and the way pools are designed.
"The biggest trend I see in natatorium design, and even the pools themselves, is the creation of multigenerational spaces," said Scott W. Hester, president of aquatic design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker. "More often than not, we are creating a natatorium space that has multiple bodies of water. Those bodies of water typically have various water temperatures and water depths. Those are generally the two biggest differences amongst aquatic user groups."
For some users, a natatorium is where they compete in an aquatic sport; others might be there strictly for instructional activities, like learning to swim, or fitness and therapy. "Each group has specific and different wants and needs," Hester said, "but usually, water depths and water temperatures are the biggest differences. Creating a natatorium space with multiple bodies of water can accommodate all those different user groups."
It is particularly important if you are planning a competition-based pool, to ask yourself what can be done to make the space more recreation-friendly as well. What can be done in that type of indoor pool to bring in items such as climbing walls or zip lines, rope swings and obstacle courses.
The object here, Hester said, is to take pools that have traditionally been targeted for one specific user group and allow that pool to become more user-friendly for additional recreational user groups. "You can do that using manufactured rock wall systems, faux rock walls, where they look natural. The manufactured ones are traditionally smaller, more mobile, and it anchors to the deck. You can utilize starting platforms for zip lines. It's a simple thing to do."
Moveable bulkheads are also becoming increasingly popular, explained Ted Haug, principal, chief creative officer, Legat Architects.
Bulkheads allow you to increase or decrease the size of the pool based on the functions of that day, allowing you to divide the pool for, say, lap swimming and dive practice. "By the same token," Haug said, "you can slide that bulkhead down so that … most of the area can be used for water polo. This is a sophisticated way of dealing with multiple sports and multiple uses while still using the same pool. That applies to learn-to-swim, so that you have a shallower end of the pool where kids can still get in the water without feeling like they are going to drown if they get into the water and can't touch bottom."
Another trend, noted Frank Parisi, vice president and principal, Williams Architects, is to incorporate water aerobics programming in therapy pools. "As designers, from early on in the planning process, we start collaborating, seeking partnerships with other entities like special recreation associations or hospital entities that might want to come in to use our facilities. People talk about cost recovery and revenue generation with regard to indoor aquatics, and all of them will say it depends on how the pool is programmed."
A pool is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week operation; whether there is a user in there or not, you still need to circulate water for health requirements. So what designers, in concert with pool owners, are trying to do is program their pools more toward a fitness component so they don't sit idle during the hours when bather loads lighten.
Besides competition and therapy, there is the multitude of leisure aspects that go along with designing a pool, Parisi said, picking up on the idea of multi-use pools. "An example of that would be, in one body of water you may have three lap lanes for fitness swim, you'll have zero-depth for a play feature for children, you might have a swim channel, which is also used for resistive programming, as well as an entertainment value. And then you can start incorporating slides and other play features that go along with that. You can put a climbing wall in a natatorium on the deeper end of a pool and now have a different function and a different experience for the user."
The other thing Parisi has seen that saves on deck space and bodies of water is a runout slide, that doesn't have a body of water that connects to it. This is common at waterparks, he said, "but we've been incorporating shorter ones for different age groups where you don't actually have a body of water, which makes it very economical; it also requires less guarding on the runout, versus if you had it connected to a full body of water."
The bottom line, Parisi said, "is that we are appealing to a wide demographic, and that is true of any fitness (or recreation) facility these days. You want to grab the learn-to-swim people all the way up to the active adults. From the kids to the seniors. Seniors will be more inclined to use the therapy pool, and if you are in the middle age group you might want to do deep-water aerobics."
Haug also has seen a lot more separation of pools, but cautions that it does come at a cost because every time you separate bodies of water you need extra filtration systems, which increases the cost to build and to operate the pools. "The latest pool that we are doing is FMC Natatorium at Ty Warner Park, in Westmont, Ill.," he said. FMC ("For My Children") is the name given to the facility by the owner. It is a 50-meter pool, with a warm-up pool attached to it.
"That is the big reason behind separating pools," Haug said, "because of the temperature differential. Lap swimmers want the water colder. Learn-to-swim and elderly folks like to have the water a little bit warmer, and they want more of a safe environment in which to go swimming. So pool depth is something of a concern here as well, and the second pool allows for water aerobics and things like that."
The FMC Natatorium is aiming to capitalize on the underserved community that surrounds it. "They do not have a pool other than the University of Illinois in Chicago that can hold some of these giant invitational meets," Haug said. "With independent swim teams, you have literally thousands of kids coming to compete. You also need to have sufficient spectator seating and a pool size that can accommodate these invitationals."
An important question any designer will ask is what level of competition you want to hold in your natatorium. Certain levels of competition require sufficient spectator seating, which increases incrementally. "If you have a district meet, you need to have a certain number of seats," Haug said. "And for a state meet the seating number goes twice as high. At the FMC, the seating wraps three sides of the pool and is five or six tiers deep, and we have a complete kitchen and concessions area on that level."
Designs for indoor municipal pools and high school and college pools are becoming similar, and this has been trending for some time, Haug noted. On occasion, he said, you'll still see a high school district building a pool at the same time a municipality is building one. "I've always felt that was kind of ridiculous," he said. "Here, within one community, two pools are built that will probably compete at some level. You have a high school pool used pretty much by the high schoolers with limited public use near a pool that could just as easily offer pool time for the high school swimmers."
Haug spent a few years designing pools in Europe where they didn't do anything like that. "Communities would build a standalone pool next to their schools," he explained, "and schools were always built on a campus. So, when kids took up swimming they walked over to the community building where the pool is located and had their lessons. The community building was open to the public all day and had lanes reserved, much as you see today in a YMCA where swim lessons are conducted. You would have lanes reserved so people could go lap swimming. You really utilized that pool to its maximum use."
Many of the RFPs Haug is seeing nowadays mirror this, with the emphasis on pools built for the entire community, rather than pools built just for a high school or other single entity.
The reasoning behind this makes sense financially. Pools are expensive to build and operate over the long term, and require a high level of maintenance.
"Everybody forgets this when they build a pool," Haug said, "but you have to hire staff to be there all the time. You can't open a public pool without lifeguards there all the time. You are paying for staff, paying for maintenance."
Offering a shared facility can make it easier to get a referendum passed, if that is your goal. "If you are a municipality in concert with a high school board, you want to say, this is not going to be used just by the high school. This is for the entire community. Everybody is going to use it," he said. "I've seen many communities send out RFPs where the pool is not connected to the high school building anymore. It is a separate building on the same campus with the school, but it is standalone building so it truly feels like a pool separate from the high school."
Any discussion about trends in natatorium design has to include and account for technological advances in equipment. Within a natatorium space, it is critical that the swimmers and staff are in a comfortable environment, particularly when it comes to air quality and light.
"You need appropriate humidity levels, light levels and appropriate turnover of the air itself," Hester said. "All of those things create a quality, comfortable environment. With today's technology, you are typically integrating all of the building's conditioning systems so they are synchronized and communicating with each other. I'm referring not only to the building conditioning equipment such as A/C, dehumidification and lighting, but also the pool systems themselves: the recirculation system, the filtration and chemical treatment systems."
How those varying systems communicate with one another is far more advanced today than what it was 10 years ago, Hester explained. Air quality in natatorium spaces has been a real struggle in past years, and the technological advances have been significant.
There are several factors to consider when you start deep diving into the technical aspects of a natatorium. The biggest factor, Parisi, said, is "indoor air quality, and that is attributed to two factors: the chemistry of the water and the movement of air inside the natatorium. Typically, from an energy recovery perspective, you do not circulate 100 percent outside air, because that is not economical. You use a dehumidification unit. Here, the strategy is to circulate so people are comfortable."
The goal, Parisi explained, is to have enough air changes inside and to pick up the chloramines that are coming off the top of the pool. Chloramines are chemical compounds that build up in pool water and can lead to red and itchy eyes, and asthma-like symptoms, as well as causing damage and corrosion to equipment in the facility.
Users are breathing air every second they are in that pool, Haug said, "and as you know the water is chlorinated and as soon as the chlorine eats the microbes in the pool you have chloramines created, which can destroy any metal surface in the environment. It is imperative, both for the longevity of the environment and for the quality of the environment to continually pump fresh air into the facility.
Heavier than air, chloramines tend to "hang" above the water in the pool.
"The challenge," Parisi said, "is to get air movement to come down the walls across the top of the pool, from a design perspective, and then get captured at the other end."
There are various methods for handling this, from air handling design to systems designed to pull air across the pool, isolate it and reject the chloramine aspects of that air. This type of system is attached to a dehumidification unit. These systems are most often seen at competition pools.
Always a Challenge
In any facility, Haug said, costs are a major issue, both initial and long-term costs. The other challenge is performance.
There are two things you cannot sacrifice, he explained: consideration of initial and long-term cost and selection of materials and construction technology; and the performance of the facility both in the design and the environment of the pool.
Creating a building that is mindful of cost, uses money wisely, and pays attention to long-term maintenance and durability issues is the goal of any natatorium designer. And, Haug said, "you must create an environment that is both comfortable for spectators, safe for swimmers, and better for the building environment itself."
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