How to Combine Community Use and Competition in Aquatic Centers
By Ted Watson
In developing a multi-use aquatic center, designers and operators are often met with a fundamental challenge — how to combine the demands of performance-based competition with those of community-based leisure offerings under one roof. To put it another way, how can your aquatic center train athletes, teach tots and entertain thrill-seeking bathers all at the same time?
Two projects recently undertaken by our design firm and local partners have addressed this challenge.
First, a survey of both campus and civic aquatic facilities throughout Canada and the United States revealed that these facilities were geared almost exclusively toward either competition or community, and the ones that did combine both programs were found to have clear drawbacks, significantly limiting their ability to deliver one or the other program to its full potential.
On American campuses, there appeared to be an extreme focus on competitive aquatic programming — often with multiple training basins, significant grandstands, event infrastructure and associated performance support spaces. Given the emerging trend for greater campus recreation and "aquatainment" offerings, it seemed leisure-focused aquatic spaces were often developed as distinct but cojoined aquatic halls or as entirely separate facilities.
On Canadian campuses, aquatic spaces were comparably focused as highly functional but "cold dark-blue rectangles" of competitive training programs. There was, however, noticeably less event capacity. These facilities creatively offered programming flexibility for other leisure-based group activities but none provided the leisure features that are now considered standard within community-based aquatic spaces: lazy rivers, Tarzan ropes, basin variety, water spray features and the like.
What we have seen as a regional trend over the past decade is that municipalities throughout Western Canada have become pioneers in developing integrated competition and community-use facilities, showing numerous examples of successfully combining 50-meter competition programs with leisure-basin community offerings within a single aquatic hall. Understandably, due to the community bias of these facilities, it was found that various competitive aspects — such as event hosting and training functions — were significantly restricted at these venues due to acoustic, operational and user-space challenges.
For the University of British Columbia, the competitive aspect was a key driver for the facility, and in no way could it be compromised. The project was mandated and has now been seen as the state-of-the-art campus competition facility in the country.
The extremely tight budget for the project limited any opportunity for isolating the programs — they needed to be together, under one roof. It was also clear in the client's agenda (and a truism seen in other Canadian examples) that combining multiple pool basins, varied user groups and flexible programming opportunities delivers the highest-value space by increasing participation, excitement and interest. Multiple water bodies and aquatic features viewed in close proximity also create a collective "wow factor." From the university's perspective, a child from a learn-to-swim program watching an Olympic athlete train and imagining, "Maybe someday that could be me," would be the ultimate indication of success.
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In addition to delivering the most comprehensive high-performance aquatic facility in New Zealand, there was an equally important agenda to deliver the country's most ambitious leisure water and play zone, with inventive and outrageous flourishes of indulgence and aquatic enjoyment.
Many of the operational design strategies implemented at UBC Aquatic Centre were undertaken here to help merge these dual goals. Further innovative aquatic programming was developed to help create unique and memorable competition and community programs. The express intent was to provide the entire spectrum of aquatic experiences.
The following features express the facility's fun side:
A series of six HydroSlides and a tall glassy tower penetrate the front facade and become the facility's key outward expression of community fun and engagement. A grand canopy to the street architecturally contains these sleek black serpents, and provides shade and shelter for a connected outdoor splash pad and café below.
From the sidewalk, one sees jubilant sliders climbing the tower, and through the full height glazing down the length of the hall, one can also see the diving towers: "sentries" that mark the far end of the site. The clear message of these iconic bookends is an invitation for amateur thrill-seekers to engage with elite athletes.
Shallow-water play / beach café
This space is highly dynamic and charged to engage families and children. The bulk of the open leisure water is here, along with considerable shallow-water play space that includes an 18-foot-high inhabitable play structure. A beach entry and deck chairs surround a café.
In addition to providing a large, open community leisure space, three partially separate and more private spaces were also developed as part of the holistic aquatic experience.
Warm-water space specifically for adults to relax and undertake therapy is located adjacent to but acoustically separate from the leisure hall. Operable walls allow this area to be opened as part of the full leisure space. In addition, a learn-to-swim space is acoustically isolated off the main leisure area, allowing for security and auditory control for young students. Finally, an innovative sensory water center has been developed as a wellness and special treatment therapy space. This healthcare offering within the aquatic space is closely associated with a rehabilitation therapy provider located off the lobby.
Dry-land training and dry diving
In addition to the fully flexible competition basin designed to be capable of hosting future Commonwealth Games, a dry-land training space is located (along with performance coaching spaces) immediately off of the competition deck. Dry diving is also located in proximity to the dive towers to allow for viewing and participation of athletes both in and out of the pool.
The UBC and MSF projects were undertaken by MJMA in association with local partners Acton Ostry Architects (UBC), and Warren and Mahoney Architects and Peddle Thorp Architects (MSF). While these projects differ greatly in scale, they both focus on maximizing programming flexibility while maintaining dual community and high-performance functionalities. Both projects have been carefully designed to ensure that all members of the community — regardless of age or ability — are capable of participating and are encouraged through proximity to take further steps toward greater and more advanced participation.
Equipping Pools for Competition
Let's assume that your competition pool is no shorter than 25 yards, 25 meters or 50 meters with touchpads installed. No touchpads? You're allowed to add an extra 0.03 of a yard or meter, respectively, to the minimum length, per FINA rules. Let's also assume that you have 16 to 20 feet of deck width to accommodate not only spectators, but dozens of idle swimmers and roaming meet officials, who combined likely outnumber the spectators. Sufficient locker rooms, storage rooms and auxiliary spaces to accommodate team training and massage are a plus (and required if you plan to host an NCAA event).
Seven Steps to Ensure Proper Pool Water Quality
Today's commercial swimming pools — whether built for competition, recreation or wellness — are complex operations. And that's before anybody takes the plunge. Add swimmers, each introducing a paper clip's worth of organic material to the water, and you have a recipe for what one pool professional calls "homo sapiens soup." Large bather loads bring even greater challenges to the delicate but critical process of keeping the water clean, disinfected and safe for users.