Designing The Competitive Pool

By Edwin M. Wallover

A competitive swimmer is a unique athlete. Endless hours of training and study of the mechanics of the sport, while being exposed to an environment that is basically foreign to normal day-to-day human activities, is his or her life. The culmination of the work and dedication takes place in a unique and highly specialized arena—the competitive pool. Properly designing this special type of venue is of critical importance for the design community.

Four main areas of focus, when properly combined, create an environment that will enhance a swimmer’s ability to perform at his or her highest level.

  • Pool profile 
  • Filtration and recirculation patterns
  • Indoor environment
  • Aesthetics of the performance venue.

Pool Profile
Depth helps creates still water for a swimmer. The competitive course should maintain a depth that minimizes rebound from both the bottom and the side walls of the containment vessel. Ideally, the design of the containment vessel should provide the competitive course with a uniform or nearly constant depth over the length of the pool. In the case of 50-meter venues tasked with competitive swimming, a depth of 8 to 9 feet produces an environment that is highly conducive to fast times. In addition to the overall depth profiles, gutter design is also a critical component. Ample capacity within the gutter to retain side-wall rebound is another important feature that creates smooth water throughout the pool.

In instances where a 50-meter pool is not financially viable, a “stretch pool” can offer an operator faced with multiple programming functions (swimming, water polo, synchronized swimming, and diving) with a deep-water competitive course while still offering a small area for shallow-water teaching and training. The use of a movable flow-through bulkhead can enhance programmability while maintaining a venue that promotes fast swimming.

The Greensboro Aquatic Center in Greensboro, N.C., uses a movable bulkhead. The 50-meter stretch pool features two 5-foot flow-through bulkheads, which enhance the programming of the pool. The pool can be transformed into 25-yard, 25-meter, and 50-meter configurations easily to accommodate NHSF, NCAA, or FINA standards. 

Filtration And Recirculation Patterns
The trend today for mega meets with thousands of splashes has compounded the overall quest for great water. It is becoming clear that the standard 6-hour turnover rate is simply not well-suited to a competitive venue. Increased filter capacity, combined with variable frequency drives on all pump assemblies, provides the operator of a venue the ability to “fine-tune” recirculation to respond to the demands placed on the pool during a large meet. The old practice of simply turning off the filters to quiet the water cannot be permitted. Having a means to vary the filtration rates to boost filter flow as needed keeps the health and well-being of swimmers in the forefront. 

In addition to filtration, improved sanitation systems that incorporate ultraviolet light to control chloramine build-up and waterborne pathogens are now an industry standard. New mediums to control biofilm within a pool’s recirculation systems are also gaining acceptance as well as supplemental exhaust devices that remove chloramine-laden air from the surface of the pool. Keeping a swimmer at his or her peak by providing good air should be the focus of the design process for filtration and sanitation system development.

In order to enhance a swimmer’s ability to perform at peak levels, the location of filtered-water returns and the fast removal of surface rebound also must be considered. The use of oversized stainless-steel recirculating gutter systems provides the ability to locate returns in a manner that will have little or no impact on a swimmer. By retaining excess wake in the gutter, pools can be designed to level the playing field across all lanes. New high-performance returns that have been developed in concert with pre-engineered pool systems, such as the Myrtha Pool Competition inlet, eliminate the need for in-floor inlets. Both the traditional pneumatically placed concrete pool and pre-engineered vessels offer swimmers high-quality options.

Indoor Environment
Without question, air quality dominates any conversation about a competitive pool. Thousands of splashes create significant biological loads within a pool. While most aquatic architects adhere to the school of thought that air-quality issues usually stem from out-of-balance water chemistry, eliminating the source of the problem, tri-chloramines, can be enhanced with a well-designed and well-balanced air-handling system.

Spectator comfort and swimmer comfort differ drastically. Low humidity and moving air favor spectators, while the last thing a swimmer wants is a breeze! A warm, stable environment keeps the swimmer from cooling too rapidly within the space. Most large-scale facilities struggle to balance the needs of the two factions.  Supplemental cooling systems for spectator spaces are normally included in a venue. The basic rule for swimmer comfort is based upon an air temperature that is 2 degrees warmer than the pool water, with a relative humidity between 55 and 60 percent. This can be readily accomplished through thoughtful and careful design.

With today’s trends for environmentally sensitive solutions, heat-recovery dehumidification systems are rapidly becoming the norm for aquatic-venue designs. Utilizing heat generated from the compression cycle, while removing water vapor from the air, pool water temperatures can be maintained. Where excess heat is generated, it can be used in other areas of the building to reduce overall heating loads. One issue designers must focus on is the need for a “tight envelope” for the dehumidification system in order for it to perform properly. This issue has opened the door for innovation in the design community. By removing the chloramine-laden air at the surface of the pool, the comfort of the swimmer, coach, and staff has been significantly improved. Mechanical designers are also responding to this condition with new approaches to indoor air circulation. 

Aesthetics Of The Performance Venue
The combination of a unique visual experience featuring properly illuminated decks and pools, careful selection of materials and colors, and, most importantly, pristine water, provides swimmers a space and experience that brings out the best in their abilities. Spectators influence the sights and sounds of a meet, all of which combine to elevate the drive to perform at one’s best. This holds true for a high school venue, all the way to the major collegiate and regional venues where thousands compete on a national stage.

Architecture has the ability to instill a sense of awe, excitement, and, most importantly, perception.  If all of the components of a building converge properly, the swimmer knows he or she is swimming in a “fast pool.” Just look at the records that have fallen in the new GAC in Greensboro. Since the venue’s opening in August 2011, many American, U.S. Open, and NCAA records have been set in the pool, including eight in the 2014 and 2015 seasons alone. Simone Manuel, Missy Franklin, Katie Ledecky, Kelsi Worrell, and Connor Jaeger have all struck gold in this venue. The GAC placed design at the forefront during the planning process.

By maintaining these four principles in the planning process, “fast water” can be achieved in the competition pool.  Blending design, technology, and a focus on the needs of the competitive swimmer must be at the forefront when planning any new competition-based aquatic facility. These guidelines work; just talk to the folks in Greensboro!

Edwin M. Wallover, III AIA, NCARB is president of WALLOVER ARCHITECTS incorporated in Lancaster, Penn. Reach him at
Bucknell University:
Programming Consultants: Rosser International, Atlanta, GA
Architect: EwingCole, Philadelphia, PA
Aquatic Architect: Wallover Architects incorporated
Central York High School:
Architect: Schrader Group, Inc., Philadelphia, PA
Aquatic Architect: Wallover Architects incorporated
Greensboro Aquatic Center:
Programming Consultants/Design Architects: Rosser International, Atlanta, GA
Architect of Record: TFF Architects, Greensboro, NC
Aquatic Architect: Wallover Architects incorporated