What Does Renovation Mean for Your Pool?

Courtney Cameron Headshot
[Photos courtesy of WTI]
[Photos courtesy of WTI]

Effective planning for any pool renovation starts with taking an honest look at your budget and answering two questions up front: How much new interest can you afford to generate? And how much can you afford to maintain?

According to Cary Dennis, project manager at St. Louis, Mo.-based aquatic design and engineering firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, many existing aquatics facilities are working with the same spaces and programming that they developed 20 or 30 years ago, even as technology and recreational opportunities have grown by leaps and bounds.

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"In order to generate income and interest, they look at either renovating the facility by enhancing it with new features or at a complete removal and replacement," says Dennis, adding that rapidly growing construction costs are driving more prospective clients toward renovation over replacement to get more out of their dollars.

Justin Caron, principal with Carlsbad, Calif.-based swimming pool contractor Aquatic Design Group divides these projects into three tiers of renovation:

According to the team at Water Technology, sitting down to a renovation project involves a series of steps:

• Tallying up what it will take to bring the current facilities up to code
• Doing preliminary cost analyses
• Considering the facility's user base
• Meeting with stakeholders
• Selecting amenities for budget consideration
• Getting a cost estimate from a qualified pool contractor
• Prioritizing, setting phases if necessary and confirming a final budget

I. Renovating for code compliance
As codes evolve and pools and aquatics equipment ages, facilities need continual renovations to maintain the safety and usability of their pools — things such as pool deck resurfacing, drain and gutter replacements and upgraded filtration systems — or what senior business development coordinator Jennifer Gerber of Beaver Dam, Wis.-based swimming pool contractor Water Technology likes to call "back of house" upgrades. These are improvements that eliminate the signs of wear and tear that discourage even current patrons from coming back, and include sand in the pool from worn-out filters, voids and cracks in the surfaces from pools that have shifted over time, or rough and broken gutter covers.

Water Technology's regional director of project development Robbie Hazelbaker agrees, saying, "Before we can talk play value with an owner, flow rates need to be considered, skimmers or gutter functions evaluated, and mechanical efficiencies measured."

"You have to have all of the ugly pieces running and working well for all of the pretty pieces to function properly and bring people in," says Gerber. "Even though they're not the sexiest jobs, getting all of the mechanical systems to work together for clean water and clean air — that's really going to be the place to start. Then you can look at adding amenities that you can see and touch and play with."

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II. Renovating for operations optimization
The second tier of projects gets to be a little more fun — in both form and finance. This includes renovations that improve the efficiency of a facility's pool systems or add a little flair to a facility. Says Caron, "I lump those together in that they both impact your bottom line. If you improve your systems you're going to save money, and if you add a feature or attraction you're going to bring in more money."

According to Caron, many renovation projects involve clients wanting to create new interest and new programmatic opportunities in an existing facility, and he attributes that to a recovering economy. Facility operators are looking to add on what Caron calls "low-hanging fruit," or features that create a lot of excitement for a relatively low initial investment. These include equipment such as inflatables, slack lines, zip lines, lily pad walks and removable climbing walls — "something they can do quickly without having to go through a public bid process."

These new recreation opportunities don't require significant changes to the infrastructure of a pool, and they can bring new use to a section of a facility that hasn't been generating revenue. "A facility that offers a multipurpose room for birthday parties and the like can charge about $200 for a two-hour party," Carron says. "If they offer that with an inflatable, now it's $350, so it pays for itself pretty quickly."

Meanwhile, on the systems side, an influx of new technology is streamlining operations, cutting down on oversight man-hours and conserving time, money and natural resources. Facilities are adding secondary disinfectant systems, upgrading their filters to more modern regenerative systems, upgrading their original industrial boilers to high-efficiency heaters with external heat exchangers, installing automated controllers and replacing outdated piping. All of these replacements represent a higher up-front cost, but increased modern efficiencies have the potential to offset those costs in the long term.

According to Hazelbaker, the filters use significantly less water for backwashing, while the UV disinfecting systems save money on chlorine, and variable-frequency devices can slow systems down while they aren't being used to conserve energy. "Even though you're not going to make up your capital cost in the short term, all these efficiencies really add up," he says, "and we didn't have those items 15 to 20 years ago."

Adds Carron, "I think that's only going to continue to evolve and become more and more commonplace as people become more comfortable with technology."

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III. Renovating to start over
The third tier includes what Caron calls a whole-site renovation, essentially demolishing the existing facility and rebuilding in its place. "This is, of course, the big dollars," he says. "You're taking down your facility or at least a portion of the facility for a season or two to add new amenities, replace existing pools or alter the dimensions."

Often, these renovations return a finished product that is more based in warm, shallow water and recreational spaces than the traditional rectilinear lap pool, with communities updating their offerings to meet modern patrons' expectations with comfortable deck seating, shaded areas, Wi-Fi and other amenities and support spaces. This newer style of aquatics facility may look busier than the traditional pool, but a carefully thought-out recreational facility can be just as much an upgrade in efficiency as new systems technology when it comes to cutting down on staffing expenses.

"The new designs are much more open, kind of like our living rooms are in our newer houses," says Hazelbaker. "It's a lot more open and you can see more, and it cuts down on lifeguarding even though there are all these new amenities. If they're designed right, you don't need a guard at every corner because there are no corners."

Playing the long game
Before jumping into any renovation project, it makes sense to set a plan — and in the case of pool renovation, facility operators may find themselves planning further ahead than they had originally intended. According to Hazelbaker, "Good planning should take place on a spreadsheet before budgets are set and after a thorough pool examination."

This gives designers and operators a chance to evaluate the scope of the pending project and to determine a realistic starting point. "It's really helpful when they haven't set a budget yet and we get to do it together," Hazelbaker says, so that facility operators — especially those who need to raise money for the project or seek approvals — know how much to ask for. "If you don't have that working for you, you're off-balance from the start because you always have to be concerned about the budget."

Designers love to get to the point in a project when they can meet with clients to talk about slides and water walks, but as Hazelbaker puts it, "If you don't do the basic stuff first, then your renovation is not going to last the 30 or 40 years you want it to."

Caron adds that it's very helpful to bring an open mind to the planning process. "There are a lot of people in the aquatics industry who are extremely knowledgeable — they have been in the industry for a long time and they read the publications, they talk to their peers, they go to the conferences and they go to neighboring facilities and just check things out," he says. "Those people typically have a good idea of what they want, but they're also educated enough to know that there may be some things they don't know. We love having the opportunity to work with those folks."

Setting the right budget to get the necessary things done without sacrificing the fun may entail phasing. "We try to design facilities that can be retrofit with new features down the road," Dennis says. "We'll put in the footings and foundations for a different slide or water feature that can be switched out later. It's about being able to have the ability to adapt and change." 

According to Gerber, designing spaces with what she calls a "master-planning eye" ensures that a facility can continue to grow in the future. "If they think funding is going to become available and they might add or renovate again, how can we ease that burden on the front end?"

More from AB: Key Concepts to a Successful Pool Renovation

Renovation can mean a lot of things, from simple upgrades that make a facility run more smoothly to a complete overhaul that can make a whole community feel excited about a tired aquatics facility again. Across the board, consultants agree that keeping up with ever-evolving technologies can be challenging, and budgeting the right amount of money for a future renovation even more so. "The decision to renovate or replace is all about staying relevant to the community," says Hazelbaker.

To that end, aquatics facility renovation projects can be as varied in shape and scale as the communities they serve.

This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue of Athletic Business with the title "How to determine where you are and where you’re going" Athletic Business is a free magazine for professionals in the athletic, fitness and recreation industry. Click here to subscribe.


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