Avoid The White Elephant

By Jonathan Kinsley

The “valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby was a real place, known in Fitzgerald’s time as the Corona Ash Dumps. In the early 20th century, it was literally a vast disposal area for coal-burning stove ash—as well as manure and garbage. Previously an estuary into Long Island Sound, it was an unmitigated eyesore.

In the late 1930s, “master builder” Robert Moses, then the New York City Parks Commissioner, cleared the area and created what was then called “Flushing Meadow Park,” in anticipation of the iconic 1939-1940 World’s Fair. Twenty-five years later, the World’s Fair returned to the park, with soaring structures and the massive Unisphere that made the park world-famous.           

The pool/rink building designed by Handel Architects was first conceived in the late 1990s as a community recreation facility. Construction was started but suspended after the events of 9/11. The effort was rekindled in the early 2000s for the city’s 2012 Olympic bid. The new building was to be the water polo venue, and it needed to accommodate 5,000 spectators for only 2 months of the Olympic events. Since pilings were already driven, the architects studied whether the building could be sited as originally planned—the pool facility and ice rink facility perpendicular to one another—or whether there was a better arrangement that retained as many piles as possible, accommodated the temporary seating, and would function post-Olympics as the community facility originally intended.

One of the challenges that cities often face when new facilities are planned for massive sporting events like the Olympics is to accommodate the crush of people who attend the events, but also consider the day-to-day users who will visit when these events are over. This often leads to some form of over-building, requiring a higher level of maintenance or operational costs than initially intended. In short, how does one keep these Olympic “legacy” projects from becoming “white elephants”?

Simplifying The Shape
Handel Architects addressed this issue in two ways: First, the ice-rink was re-sited, positioned end-to-end with the pool and retaining the majority of the existing pilings. This simplified the shape of the enclosure, centralized the lobby with a single administrative/security desk for the pool and rink, and reduced some of the floor area.

Second, we challenged the conventional wisdom that large interior volumes should be structured in a particular way. Both the pool and rink had to be clear-spans, that is, with no columns supporting the roof in the space. A long-span truss system is a common solution for this type of problem. Olympic standards require the bleacher seating to run the long direction of the pool (over 200 feet), and with no intervening columns blocking spectator viewing; trusses run parallel with the length of the pool, and need to be very deep. We were also concerned that exposed steel trusses in the heavily chlorinated environment of the pool area could pose significant maintenance costs over time.

Redirecting The Design
The solution for supporting the building was a cable-stay roof structure. This takes the weight of the roof and channels it into a soaring mast. The cables balance the weight of the roof on the mast, creating a support entirely removed from the chlorinated interior. The mast and cables define the building while echoing the pavilion structures from the 1964 World’s Fair—a new, relevant icon in this historic park setting.

The cable-stay roof made sense financially as well. Though initially more expensive to build the structure, there were cost savings elsewhere that more than made up the difference. Since the massive trusses weren’t needed, the entire building volume was reduced. Less volume to enclose meant saving significant money on the exterior facade and, more importantly, less air to heat and cool on both sides of the facility. Savings accrued in front costs of a smaller mechanical system and reduced energy demand, thus saving $150,000 per year in operating costs.

Selecting The Right Materials
Materials were selected for ease of maintenance. The building's exterior surface is made of pre-cast concrete panels with blue and yellow glass-tile insets. The panels are easy to build, easy to transport, easy to put up, easy to clean—and as a bonus they never have to be painted.

Inside, the two main rooms are essentially opposite environments—the ice-rink is cold and dry, the pool warm and wet—so a thermal barrier between them was required (essentially an additional exterior-type wall). Cement panel walls will never rust and require only a minimal amount of caretaking.

Ease of maintenance extended beyond the building’s walls. The landscape plan called for the return of a more natural habitat, encouraging indigenous grasses and other water-loving plants to form a wetland “garden” that will minimize mowing, planting, and landscape costs.

Lowering Operating Costs
The lesson is important: The conventional solution might first appear straightforward, but has hidden costs. The alternative cable-stay roof system, while incrementally more expensive than the trusses, created collateral savings in total project hard cost and, more importantly, significantly lower operating costs. We recommend doing this type of cost-benefit analysis between initial capital cost and long-term maintenance expenses; it puts the lifetime project cost into perspective and allows for smarter planning.

The project was delivered on a fast-track schedule and met the original budget of $67 million. In its final form, the Olympic-sized pool is fully accessible; an unusual feature is that one-third of the pool floor moves vertically, permitting various depths of a few inches up to 8 feet, and two movable bulkheads can configure the swimming area for different competitions. An outdoor terrace is accessible from the pool deck.

The pool and ice rink are both wildly successful. Over 100,000 members have joined the facility since opening, and the pool is in constant use. The parks department appreciated every effort we made to find cost-saving solutions that would allow them to operate and maintain on a small budget what has become the largest indoor facility of its kind in New York City.  It is a fitting recreation pavilion for the 21st century.

Jonathan Kinsley is the Director of Marketing for Handel Architects in New York City. Reach him at jkinsley@handelarchitects.com, or visit www.handelarchitects.com.