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Bathhouse Confidential: How to Ensure Return Visits

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[Heights Family Aquatic Center Bathhouse]
[Heights Family Aquatic Center Bathhouse]

Although some outdoor pool facilities have been closed since Labor Day, outdoor aquatics centers in many warm-weather states remain open longer. Critical to the success of any outdoor pool facility is the bathhouse — which typically is the first structure patrons see and visit en route to the pool deck.

Because the term “bathhouse” can be misleading, let’s define it for the purposes of this post. Think of a bathhouse as the communal space where separate male and female restrooms, lockers, changing areas and showers are located. Administrative operations, a lifeguard room, concessions and other services often are inside bathhouses, too.

Here is a good example of a pool bathhouse featured in AB’s Aquatic Design Portfolio.

The Spanish-style bathhouse at the Marine Park Aquatic Center in Fort Worth, Texas, is adjacent to the pool in the photo.

It’s easy to diminish the impact of bathhouses, both in daily operations and in renovation and expansion discussions. That’s why you should ask yourself the following questions on a regular basis:

• Is it a pleasant place to be? 

• How often is it cleaned? 

• Is it too small? Too large?

• Does it provide sufficient accessibility for people with physical challenges?

• Is space dedicated to family use? 

While it is tough for any manager to answer all of those questions with a definitive “yes,” keep in mind this pool industry saying: “A nice bathhouse may not bring people to your facility, but a bad one will keep them away.” I would argue there’s some truth to that statement. A poorly maintained bathhouse won’t necessarily keep serious swimmers away; they’re at your facility for the workout, anyway. But a welcoming bathhouse most certainly will attract families and other leisure swimmers — and keep them coming back. Moms tend to make the decision which pool to go to, and they favor clean, safe places. 

Here are three ways to make your bathhouse a better place:

Keep it clean

It goes without saying that cleaning is the most important thing you can do to maintain your bathhouse’s appeal. The day-to-day rigor might be difficult, but it’s necessary.

• Do you have a documented cleaning regimen? 

• Do you encourage patrons to notify you or your staff of issues? (And do you quickly resolve those issues?)

• If you outsource maintenance, is it clear which tasks the contractor conducts and which ones your staff performs? 

• Do you have the necessary tools and materials handy for staff to resolve daily issues? 

Hold employees accountable for their responsibilities, and consider requiring staff to use the public facilities, if you don’t already. This allows them to spot issues quickly and eliminates the “ours/theirs” mentality. Reward staff members for their diligence in maintenance duties.

If your bathhouse is in some degree of disrepair, replace finishes with ones that are durable and easy to maintain. You won’t be able to do much better than tile finishes (glazed for walls and non-slip for floors) with dark grouts. Bare concrete floors are common, but concrete is a sponge. If not sealed regularly, concrete will not only stain but it also will smell.

Here is how to remedy dirty concrete:

• Power wash it thoroughly.

• Acid etch it.

• Apply a penetrating sealer. Test in small areas until you find a sealer you’re happy with, as some can be slippery. 

• Regularly reseal the floor at least as frequently as the manufacturer recommends. If you wait until you see staining, it’s too late. 

Painted epoxy floors also are common but they have a limited lifespan, and traffic patterns wear quickly. If you go this route, expect to top coat regularly. Another option is high-build, non-slip epoxies, such as those used in commercial kitchens. They will last much longer but are pricier than tile.

Keep it fresh

Just as we say about storage space (see below), it’s impossible to have too much ventilation. The most important sensory perception in a bathhouse is not via the eyes, but via the nose. Patrons can tolerate seeing a little grime, but if the place smells musty or stale (or worse), they may choose to pee in the pool next time instead of assaulting their sniffer by using the bathhouse restroom facilities.

Remember that local building codes dictate the minimum amount of ventilation required in a given room. The air volume in bathhouse toilet rooms should turn over much more aggressively than in other spaces. Natural ventilation works terrific, but do not rely on it, as breezes are not always blowing. Stagnant air is the enemy.

Keep it bright

Bright rooms are easier to clean and feel safer and more accommodating. Light-colored finishes will increase the welcoming factor, too, and natural daylight can add significant warmth to a space. In existing buildings, small skylights, such as a Solatube, are affordable and easy to install in most any roof. For new projects, consider skylights and clerestories.

Be careful when relamping light fixtures. Don’t simply purchase and install the cheapest bulbs; they often lack warm-colored lamps, which are much preferable to cool ones. Use lights with a color temperature no lower than 3500K and a CRI (color-rendering index) of 75 or better. Warm light is more similar to the sun’s rays — and makes views in the mirror much more attractive. 

Building a new bathhouse? Here are some tips that can be difficult (if not impossible) to change later.  

1. Build with masonry 

Masonry walls will survive the life of the building, and they will never rust, mold or rot like cavity stud walls.

2. Provide multiple family changing rooms 

Two decades ago (when many existing bathhouses were built), family spaces were a novel idea. Today, they are expected — so much so that one or two family changing rooms are rarely enough for many facilities.

3. Consider wall-hung toilet fixtures 

Being able to power wash and mop under toilets will do wonders for your ability to keep bathhouses clean. The argument against wall-hung fixtures often revolves around the risk of vandalism, as patrons can jump on toilets and break them off the wall. Know your clientele and base your decision on that information. If vandals are a realistic concern, consider going with stainless steel fixtures.

4. Install touch-free fixtures

These are much more sanitary than manual ones. They also cut down on odors by flushing every time.

5. Ensure that floors properly slope toward drains 

Adding another drain or two is a cheap add-on when building new; it also will prove invaluable when cleaning.

6. Use solid plastic or phenolic stall partitions

They will last the longest. Stay away from steel — even stainless.

7. Plan space for a large waste bin

This is rarely given proper consideration. Usually, small waste receptacles are built into the wall. These are never enough, which is why a big plastic bin typically winds up somewhere in the room — and in the way.

8. Ensure adequate storage  

You can never have too much storage space. While this is true for most any building type, it often is forgotten in a bathhouse. The maintenance closet always seems to get squeezed down to a space barely large enough to fit a sink and a shelf. If you don’t make it easy for your staff to clean, they won’t.

9. Put a spigot under the sink in each room 

The plumbing is already in place, so installing a spigot is practically a free add-on, and convenient forever. 

If you are interested in an “extreme makeover” of your bathhouse, consult with an architect or interior design firm that has a track record with aquatic facilities.

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