Aquatics Centers

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is widely known as one of Clint Eastwood’s most famous and successful “spaghetti westerns.” In the plot, Eastwood (the good), Lee Van Cleef (the bad), and Eli Wallach (the ugly), each hold a piece of the puzzle needed to find a fortune in hidden gold.

So, maybe, if we wanted to have a little fun, we could argue that aquatics centers, in many regards, bear a worthwhile comparison to this epic film. Like a Clint Eastwood film, the development of a community aquatics center typically carries center stage, presents blockbuster opportunities to market your programs and leaves first and last impressions about how popular your department is in the community. Like the actors in the movie, each with a puzzle piece, the companion parts of the aquatics center must work together in order to present an award-winning product.

* The Good – waterslides, lazy rivers, fountains, sprays and waves

* The Bad – operational equipment, energy bills, regulations, vandalism and horseplay (whatever happened to those “No Horseplay” signs anyway?)

* The Ugly – locker rooms, restrooms, hallways, and supply closets

System Thinking

Most municipal parks and recreation administrators would probably concede that aquatics represent one of the most significant and challenging service areas in their departments: operational processes, staffing solutions, bather load, public health regulations, energy management, and the list goes on.

Let’s start with the building itself. The days of rectangular lap pools or competition-only facilities are, for the most part, long-gone. The new aquatics center is typically a full-service building challenged to incorporate competition, instruction, spa elements, spectator space and just wild-assed fun. They serve as the major drawing card to most community recreation centers and, therefore, are both a significant cost and a revenue center in the building.

Once built, most new aquatics facilities are getting “loved to death.” These creations are more art than science and, like an Eastwood film, have a little something for everyone. It would probably be safe to assume that most municipalities do not have a formal system to ensure that on-going capital needs are routinely addressed and that the building systems and specialty infrastructure are being planned for major repair and replacement. So, our guess is that most major projects will be delayed.

In other articles we have talked about “systems thinking,” and while this article is not really about that, it bears mentioning.

Build a system where the awareness of your facility’s parts (infrastructure, operations, policy and financials) are a collection of interacting, interrelated and interdependent pieces that together form the whole package.

The Good

The play features found in these new buildings are changing almost as fast as the information technology hardware and software -- water buckets are being replaced by spray grounds which are being replaced by water cannons -- and the trend is to make sure the entire experience is themed!

As you embark on the initial design, consider adding a significant amount of additional conduit, which will allow you to change the scene easily in years to come.

Look for likely areas for expansion, and put in as much as you think you can’t afford. And, don’t forget the full-range of ages you are serving now and likely to serve in the next 10 to 20 years.

The Bad

Custodial Spaces – Be generous, in this instance; more is more. Smaller, well-placed wet-mop sinks and closets demonstrate a commitment to cleanliness that just isn’t easy to manage when the custodial supplies are all in the back of the building somewhere. Like good putting greens on a golf course, cleanliness is an absolute must in a recreation facility.

Energy Conservation – HVAC, pumps and other energy consumption elements are often under-prioritized when fighting for money against the fun stuff. The average government building is about 30 percent inefficient from day one, and aquatics centers, by design, have so much more energy equipment in them, so that average is probably low. When you couple that statistic with the average increase in the cost of energy (16 percent annually), you’ve really got something to think about.

Let’s say your annual energy budget in the building is $100,000, so in year two it’s $116,000, and so on. In 10 years, the inflationary cost will be $441,000 per year. If you were able to make the facility 30 percent more efficient, you would be able to save $755,000 in the operational budget over those 10 years and millions over the life of the building. Think green and think smart!

For example, at 10 a.m., when the seniors are only using the lazy river for low impact resistance exercise, are you able to isolate that system? Light fixtures and controls, energy efficient pumps and window blinds are all part of the equation.

Finally, air exchange is the single most important aspect of managing energy costs and customer satisfaction. Never value-engineer this system. Hire a great pool consultant and include your facility maintenance group in the design phase. They’re the ones that are going to be called in later for the save!

The Ugly

The Que - Not enough time is assigned to figuring out how your customers are controlled and queued when entering the building. Most of us end up adding portable barriers, rope, strapping, etc., and while that certainly gives us flexibility, it’s really sort of bush-league, given the million of dollars we spend in the rest of the building to make those areas work right. Visit other centers, stage some mock exercises with your clerical staff, anticipate both typical daily use and what happens when three bus loads of child- care centers show up at once. Keep the flow!

Locker Rooms – When someone invents the perfect locker room, that person should be canonized. It seems locker rooms are too small, too big, too nice, not nice enough, with cheap lockers, expensive lockers, yada, yada, yada! So let’s simplify the most important themes:

1. Sanitation, ease of cleaning

2. Safety, privacy and comfort

3. Durability

All surfaces and amenities need to be processed through these filters long before you worry about color. You wouldn’t buy a car because of its color, would you? O.K., maybe that’s not a good analogy.

While we’re on the subject, locker rooms, like parking lots, are the number-one location for vandalism, theft and frustration, including such bizarre behavior as, “Who flung da poo!” So, try and imagine the worst and hope for the best.

Finally, strongly consider family locker rooms but realize they are a challenge. Properly used by responsible adults, they are great; used by pubescent teens as a “Petting Parlor,” they’re not that great!

Spas & Saunas – Limit access to only the main pool area because access into corridors and locker rooms really challenges already limited staffing problems.

Staff - Aquatics staffing is the bane of every administrator’s existence. Imagine putting your entire organizational cache into the hands of a 16- to 19-year-old Baywatch hunk or hunkess. From finding a sufficient candidate pool and competing in the market with salary, to maintaining certification and staying focused and on task, hiring credible supervisors and managers is the most important part of the program. Work to hire leaders who can create a professional image, and coach the younger staff. Their communication and management skills are far more important than their lifesaving prowess.

When all is said and done, remember the movie Caddyshack. While the Baby Ruth candy bar is floating in the pool and the Jaws music is beating -- Danuh, Danuh, Danuh -- be Carl Spackler and do the hard work to get to the satisfying center. It’s well worth the effort.

Don Bessler is Director of Longmont Parks, Open Space & Public Facilities. He can be reached via e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Jeff Friesner is Manager of Recreation for the City of Longmont. He can be reached via email at