Aquatics for Everyone

Natatoriums Meet a Range of Community Needs

More people are putting health and wellness front and center, whether it’s by incorporating more nutritious meals or finding new ways to exercise. As the will to get healthy and stay fit continues to grow, so has the appeal of natatoriums to reap all the benefits—both physical and mental—of working out and relaxing in the water. Everything from low-intensity and high-intensity exercise to competitive-style events is being offered.

Demand on the Rise

There has been a substantial increase in user demand as well as a desire for indoor aquatic facilities nationwide, according to Mike Wekesser, sports practice studio leader with JLG Architects, an architecture firm in Minneapolis.

“Communities are asking for natatoriums with lap swimming, water aerobics, deep dive pools, ninja play training, designated space for children’s swim lessons, and additional pools to host an array of family and adaptable activities. It’s really increasing the number of pools we plan for, the size of pools, and ultimately, the size of facilities,” he said. “Americans’ desire for health and wellness is on the rise, and more people are recognizing the appeal of aquatic centers and natatoriums for the mental and physical health benefits—places that will help combat seasonal depression, keep their families active, and inspire them to learn new skills with the option of group or individualized training.

“In the past,” he said, “aquatic centers were primarily stand-alone facilities. Today, we are seeing a trend of aquatic venues combined with other sport venues—for example, large aquatic centers with sport courts or ice hockey. They are not simply recreation centers; they respond to specific sports’ needs for specific communities.”

What’s more, larger, shared venues present opportunities for architectural and engineering solutions to optimize the building’s footprint and operational efficiency.

“The newest natatoriums boast green strategies to recycle water, create efficient heating and cooling systems, and use natural chemicals or processes to clean and filter the water. One passive heating strategy is to draw the water to the roof, heat it with the sun, and then return the heated water to heat the pool,” Wekesser added.

Driving Trends

Justin Caron, principal and CEO of Aquatic Design Group, a California-based full-service aquatic architecture and engineering firm, noted some of the latest trends in designing indoor aquatic facilities.

“Flexible use and multiple pool tanks continue to grow in natatoriums,” he said. “Pools with different temperatures, depths and amenities allow facilities to offer a wide variety of programs. This trend allows the operator to cater their programs to all users regardless of ability level, age or comfort with water.”

He also said that dry-side amenities are growing in popularity. “From seating areas, to classroom spaces, to lounge areas, to universal locker and changing rooms, to therapy-specific spaces, modern natatoriums are evolving to provide spaces and places that allow all potential users opportunities to comfortably recreate, relax and recover.”

Another trend is that “Air quality continues to become a driver of design. The days when substandard air quality was acceptable are gone,” Caron added.

Sustainable Design

Mary Chow, architect, AIBC, LEED AP BD+C, CPHD, associate vice president at HDR, Inc., a company that specializes in engineering, architecture, environmental and construction services, said that “As facility owners become more aware of the need for sustainable buildings, sustainable design—specifically social sustainability—is arguably one of the main trends for indoor aquatic facilities.

“Increasingly, sustainable design considers both the social and environmental realms of a project by evaluating measures and implementing specific selected goals in these facilities,” she said. “Social sustainability measures include human health and community health, while environmental sustainability considers decarbonization, water supply and quality, air quality, etc.”

For example, Chow noted, “one specific social sustainability goal for the Prince George (British Columbia, Canada) Downtown Pool is the application of Universal Design principles in all areas of the facility and site.”

HDR is leading the design for the new facility, which is on track for completion in September 2022. The project involves transforming the existing Four Seasons Leisure Pool into a new, sustainable, modern facility.

Features will include: a six-lane, 25-meter lap pool; a four lane, 25-meter teaching pool with warm water and shallower depth; a leisure pool with a lazy river, beach entry and play features; a large waterslide with a run-off lane; dedicated male and female change rooms; a large universal change room; and more. In addition, each of the pools will have a shallow entry and “pool pods” that will allow people with mobility devices to enter the pools easily.

“Universal Design,” Chow explained, “is an umbrella term that also considers accessibility, inclusivity, equity and strives to make aquatic facilities welcoming to all. This means being intentional with removing barriers that prevent individuals and families from participating. It also means that all visitors to a universally designed facility feel that they are an equal participant.”

For the Prince George pool project, environmental sustainability includes connecting the building to a district energy system for building and pool heating. In addition, “Triple-glazed electrochromic glass is used for the natatorium for increased thermal insulative values, while allowing the glass to be automatically tinted to control heat buildup and glare through the day. For the pool filtration system, a regenerative media system was selected to reduce water consumption for the pools,” she explained.

Interactive Experiences & More

When it comes to pools, Connor Riley, studio director at aquatic planning and design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, said there are many clients that want to see interactive features, “things that will keep people coming back time and time again.”

He said, “It’s those times of day [when] nothing is going on, that facilities want to maximize the open water. What can they do to keep people coming back?”

For example, a ninja-inspired obstacle course, inspired by the popular reality TV show American Ninja Warrior. The retractable obstacle course can be used for fitness classes, challenge courses, competitive events and more. The system hangs from the ceiling, and with one push of a button, can be lowered down to water level in 60 seconds. Some of the features include a traverse beam, horizontal ladders, overhead rings, underwater hoops and more.

Other aquatic activities and features that are popular include inflatable obstacle courses, as well as climbing walls, ziplines (especially racing ziplines) and competition racing type events, he noted.

Still, “One of the most popular programs is a learn-to-swim program—kids coming to swim lessons. That’s always been popular,” Riley said, adding that there also has been a lot of interest in water aerobics, like Aqua Zumba, especially with seniors.

There also is “Cool stuff with paddleboards, yoga on the paddleboards, water walking … Water walking is a great workout. In a lot of pools, we put in some moving water, a current channel, lazy river, a wave machine. So, it’s not just static water,” he added.

Caron pointed out that “The kinds of programs designers are accommodating are as varied as pool shapes and sizes. The fastest-growing programs continue to focus on providing some differentiation from other facilities.”

Frequently requested are “Thrilling and challenging aquatics, such as those provided by NinjaCross, waterslide manufacturers, surfing experiences, and exercise classes like stand-up paddleboard,” Caron said. “On the competitive side, water polo, a mainstay for over a generation in certain markets, continues to find new footholds. Floating cage courses are becoming the standard for areas in which water polo teams thrive.”

Meanwhile, Wekesser noted that “Although it has not been common practice in the past, large aquatic centers are now one of our most requested features in private and public development master plans. Not only do these centers provide a public service and address the needs of the overall development, but they also provide financial support and revenue that benefits the overall success of the development.

“Right now, we are designing a lot of programs for health and wellness as a holistic experience, with aquatic features leading the charge,” he said. “This includes orchestrating a more personalized, private and spa-like experience with smaller pools for swimming in place, physical therapy/rehab, or relaxation. These smaller pools are designed to accommodate either one person at a time or a small group. We are also using an array of high-end, upgraded materials that work together to reflect a spa-like experience, tailored to individuals within a public setting.”

Whether it’s in the community or the collegiate environment, natatoriums also are gaining popularity as competitive venues, “with the requirement for larger and different types of pools as well as spectator seating, locker rooms, enhanced ADA accessibility and training facilities,” Wekesser said. “These competitive facilities not only serve local swimming clubs, but also collegiate and semi-professional teams and leagues. Competitive venues have even sparked renewed interest in more extreme sports like deep diving, which is pushing programs to support pool depths of +/- 45 meters/148 feet for diving lessons and practice that will prepare individuals for deep sea diving.”

According to Chow, “Program types focus on social and physical wellness, education and community leisure.” She added, “For that reason, flexibility in adapting to various swim programs and appeal for all ages are key to reaching a larger demographic of community users; and this underlies the design of the Prince George Downtown Pool,” she said. “The facility not only caters to ever-popular swim lessons, which is considered a basic life skill and key to drowning prevention, but also the provision of leisure swim and play opportunities for family members of all ages.”

Competing Needs, Changing Needs

“It’s worth mentioning that there is a tug between providing water time for swim lessons and public leisure swimming versus swim club needs,” Chow said.

As an example, in Prince George, “a second pool facility located outside of the downtown core caters to swim meets, scuba diving, dragon boat training, synchronized swimming,” she said. “However, because of the demand for swim lessons and public leisure swim, the new facility complements the existing by providing dedicated water to those high-demand programs.”

With regard to how changing program needs affect the design of indoor pools, growing and evolving programs are “causing designers to increase storage capacity and causing operators to rethink downtime between disparate programs to allow for adequate setup and tear-down times,” Caron said.

Meanwhile, Wekesser noted that “Traditionally, aquatic centers have been introverted buildings—pool or pools within a solid block building with no windows. Centers have now become more architectural and open, with windows and spaces that increase natural lighting and allow swimmers a connective view to the outside environment. In addition, swimmers’ desire to ‘soak up the sun’ has led to facilities that feature both indoor and outdoor pools, providing alternative, seasonal experiences.

“Some centers,” he said, “are even providing pool structures that have the ability to transform into an outdoor experience by taking the glass façade of the building and pocketing or retracting the glazing to open up the building to the outdoors. This creates an indoor building that opens up and becomes an outdoor experience.”

He added, “The most extreme example of this new type of facility is in New York City, which has just approved the development of the +POOL, an outdoor, heated public swimming pool that floats on the Hudson River. It is washed in sunlight and offers fantastic views of the New York City skyline.”

At HDR, it is understood that “not all pools can ‘be all things to all programs,'” Chow said. “The key then is to understand how a new facility fits into an overall recreation strategy within a larger context, such as a city or campus. Because of the extent of shallow water and the large universal change rooms, the new Prince George Downtown Pool will primarily draw families and emphasize leisure and swim lessons. The only other club program that will be accommodated when the facility opens will be the BC Special Olympics Club, who will benefit from the universal design and accessible change facilities.”

Some of the design priorities “include providing play features that will attract tweens, teens, which often is a demographic that disappears from recreation facilities if programming is not geared toward them,” she said. “A NinjaCross obstacle course was added to the project alongside of a large waterslide,” providing a “fun way of promoting physical activity through competition, challenging skills and fun. Ultimately, it is the intent of facility programmers to determine if the [course] can be more than just another leisure attraction and provide programming for use as [a] fitness program.

“The unseen social aspect of an indoor aquatic facility is important to integrate into the design. These aquatic facilities have the ability to improve the social connection of every community member from young to old,” she added. “Creating welcoming spaces to gather for dry activities as well as designing the pool tanks and decks for social interaction and making new connections are a priority.” RM

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