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How to Structure Spectator Seating in Natatoriums

(photo Paolo | background photo by Esto Photographics, Inc.)
(photo Paolo | background photo by Esto Photographics, Inc.)

Spectator seating, a key component in any competitive venue, can often become a hot-button topic when designing a natatorium. Aspects such as quantity of seats, type of seat, location, spectator viewing angles and many more variables will arise when making these important decisions. While there is some level of subjectivity involved, and expectations can vary widely, these choices can have a significant impact on a facility.

(Photo by Fentress Photography) - Click to enlarge(Photo by Fentress Photography) - Click to enlarge

Unlike sports such as basketball, football, baseball and hockey, spectator seating for aquatic sports is almost always located parallel to the field of play so as not to significantly diminish the experience. This allows spectators to follow the event from end to end.

For natatoriums with a pool designed for racecourse configurations in perpendicular directions, such as a 50-meter-by-25-yard pool, seating along two sides of the pool might be preferred. However, given the somewhat unique conditions, providing spectator seating along multiple pool sides should be provided. 

Other aquatic sports such as water polo and synchronized swimming have also traditionally preferred spectator seating that is parallel to the field of play. While some fans may actually prefer a frontal view for diving, industry precedence has been to maintain viewing for springboard and platform diving from the side, as well.

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Location of the spectator seating area in natatorium design can vary significantly. Generally the most advantageous seating is elevated one story above the water based on two factors: viewing obstructions such as people walking back and forth along the deck, as well as a desire for separation of athletes from spectators. As a result, a preference of swimmers and officials is to provide elevated seating with the first row approximately 10 feet or greater above the pool deck. This situation can commonly be found in natatoriums that contain long-course pools or pools with diving springboards and platforms. In these instances, the vertical space for providing second-story elevated seating is almost always available.

With second-story seating, a design that combines permanent seats and portable seating can provide additional opportunities within the natatorium space. Areas where portable seating can be removed make for ideal space to conduct dryland training or other non-water based activities. During larger meets, portable bleachers can then be staged in this dryland training area. In addition to the viewing advantages that elevated seating can offer, space beneath this seating allows opportunity to locate locker rooms, offices, classrooms, meet management areas, pool mechanicals and storage.

Sometimes budget or other factors lead the designer to create mezzanine seating, where the first row is four to six feet above the pool deck. This design offers improved views but lacks the advantages of second-story seating. While seating raised at a minimum of four feet above the pool deck can still provide an excellent viewing experience, it can also present challenges with obstruction of views caused by athletes and officials walking on the pool deck.

(photo by Ken Graham Photography) - Click to enlarge(photo by Ken Graham Photography) - Click to enlarge

The rake of spectator seating is another key sightline consideration. As with other sporting events, ensuring that each spectator has the ability to adequately see the entire field of play is critical to the fan experience in a natatorium. This becomes particularly important with elevated seating, where a ceiling rising up to 20 feet high may be required, the additional materials needed to achieve such heights driving up capital costs.

To achieve a full-field-of-play experience, the quality of one's clear view beyond spectators in front — known in the design community as "C Value" — must be considered. The higher the C Value, the better spectators can see above a person sitting in front of them. In very large stadiums, the quantity of seats makes it prohibitive to develop a consistent viewing experience from every seat. Thus, there is almost always a tiered pricing schedule for seats.

In a natatorium, which may include only few thousand seats, a tiered pricing schedule is unlikely. Having a facility where there's not a bad seat in the house can and should be achievable.

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Seating areas in natatoriums can be permanent, temporary, or a mix of both. Permanent seats are often considered the first choice due to ease of upkeep and lower annual costs. Permanent seating can be either bleacher style or individual seats. For most facilities, bleacher seating provides the most economical solution and can maximize the seat count within the available space. However, for larger facilities that are expected to host national and international competitions, individual seats may be preferred.

Because the harsh environment of natatoriums can wreak havoc on building materials and finishes, material selection is important. Non-corrosive equipment should be selected, and in some instances, concrete-step seating may provide sufficient seating while boasting a low maintenance requirement.

Other issues to be considered include capital costs, ability to convert spectator seating space to multiuse space, frequency of competition events, emergency exit requirements, density of spectators, and requirements for parking-to-seating ratios.

(Photo by Fentress Photography) - Click to enlarge(Photo by Fentress Photography) - Click to enlarge

The most common factors — besides budget — determining the total quantity of spectator seating are pool size and the scale of the events to be held there. A typical seat count for a short-course pool is 125 to 250 seats. Facilities hosting multi-team meets will usually require 250 to 500 seats. Since such events are less frequent, a combination of permanent and temporary seats is the most cost-effective solution.

Occasionally, a natatorium will be called upon to host larger multi-team meets. These facilities can justify 500 to 1,000 combined seats. A long-course pool that will host major competitions will typically require a minimum of 1,000 permanent seats, with space for installing additional temporary seats.

Still larger attendance may occur for special events, such as national collegiate championship meets, which frequently accommodate 1,500 to 2,500 spectators using a combination of permanent and temporary seats. Prior to the event's demise, the U.S. Olympic Festival requirements were 2,500 to 3,000 seats. Major international swimming events such as the FINA World Championships or Pan American Games typically require 7,500 to 10,000 seats. At the top of the scale are Olympic aquatic venues, with a requirement of 15,000 to 20,000 seats, including up to one-third reserved for VIPs, athlete family members and the media. Such events require a huge investment of resources and logistics on the part of a facility, but come with a worthwhile payoff.

Other factors that must be considered with spectator seating include controlled access, traffic patterns that do not cross wet decks, ADA design issues, emergency exits, spectator-only restrooms, and custodial care. Each of these items should be carefully evaluated so a clear understanding among both the professional design consultants and owner are consistent. It is also likely that jurisdictional code requirements may impact several of these design considerations.

Designing the appropriate spectator seating location, style and quantity involves many considerations. Providing ample space for spectators in a friendly and comfortable environment is critical, and all factors should be considered by developing a list of preferred solutions that are prioritized and matched to fit a budget. While this goal may seem difficult to achieve at the onset of a natatorium project, proper planning and design can result in a facility suited to meet spectator expectations for many years.

Scott Hester is president and principal with St. Louis-based aquatics engineering firm Counsilman-Hunsaker.

This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Athletic Business with the title "Spectator Splash"

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