For more than a decade, the United States government has required and regulated accessibility at swimming pools, wading pools and spas, to make them available to any potential swimmer or dipper. Aquatics design veterans recall that the regulations found in the 2010 Standards for Accessible Design — under the Americans with Disabilities Act — were initially seen by some recreational and hospitality pool operators as an added hurdle to operations.
“It took a handful of years, I would say probably two to three years, before the code became fully understood,” Scott Hester, president of aquatic design firm Counsilman-Hunsaker, says. “Like a lot of new codes, people don’t quite understand completely what the requirement is, and therefore, we would hear stories of facilities falling short. That very quickly changed to where the culture and the industry are pretty consistent.”
Nabil Khaled, vice president of Spectrum Aquatics, which manufactures and designs aquatics components such as rails, lifts and other pool deck equipment, likewise has seen an evolution in understanding among aquatics professionals. “Now they see an advantage,” he says. “First of all, to do the right thing to accommodate anyone with physical challenges. And two, it’s an accommodation that will probably give them a chance to increase traffic to the facility. It’s nice to see clients and designers on the same page when it comes to these things. You see more and more that clients are more educated. They do their own research to find what’s the most suitable.”
While the code dictated how newly constructed and altered facilities should be made fully accessible to people with disabilities, the requirement stopped there. Hester says that since the 2010 regulations, he’s seen an evolution from viewing regulations as a possible stumbling block, to facilities simply meeting the standard, to now more of an experiential approach that’s driving design in aquatics environments.
“The biggest change that I’ve noticed, particularly over the last five to seven years, is that the inclusivity side of things has become a much bigger conversation — when you’re talking about the design of a swimming pool, or even an aquatics facility as a whole. It’s more focused on the actual outcomes, or the solutions that create this experience that people have when they’re in a swimming pool.”
Hester and other aquatics professionals say the goal of just meeting codes has evolved into a focus on maximizing water fitness and recreation opportunities for everyone.
Making accessibility the norm
Although facilities in Canada don’t fall under ADA codes regulated by the U.S., the design that went into the 2022 Facilities of Merit award-winning Minoru Centre for Active Living in Richmond, B.C. — which borders the northwestern corner of Washington state, about two hours north of Seattle — went beyond standards required there for accessibility. Take for example what may be considered a somewhat lesser concern in a large aquatic center’s layout: the changeroom. At Minoru, a facility designed by the Vancouver-based hcma Architecture + Design with principal architect Michael Henderson, only a percentage of the stalls were required to be accessible for all abilities, but the designers took it a step further.
“Whereas the code minimum might be to make four out of 20 cubicles accessible, we made 20 out of 20 accessible,” Henderson explains. “I think that’s just another way that the facility nods its head to not making accessible or inclusive features special, just making them the norm.”
The goal for the 114,100-square-foot, $71.5 million (Canadian) Minoru Centre, completed in 2020, was to co-locate the senior center and aquatic center — community facilities that were at the end of each of their existing lifecycles — into one building. Henderson says inclusivity, wellness and a facility serving seniors were the focus of the project, with the ultimate outcome being a facility that supports wellness for all ages and abilities.
“Some of the specific things that we designed in, that I think are not obvious why they’re there: we put handrails in every corridor on both sides,” Henderson says. “That’s not a code requirement, but it’s one of those things where 80 percent of the people will never use them, but 20 percent will, and it just extends the comfort and the ability to get around on your own. I think little things like that really go a long way.”
The center includes a health- and therapy-focused aquatic center, the senior community center, a fitness center, athletic team rooms and judging rooms, a social lobby with food service, event spaces, a spectator viewing deck and various outdoor community plazas to facilitate gatherings. The aquatic center features six bodies of water: two hot pools, a leisure pool with spray and play features, a six-lane 25-meter lap pool, an eight-lane 25-meter pool and a cold plunge pool.
“We did the obvious things like putting ramps into the pools — a big beach entry — but then the less obvious features are things like on one of the 25-meter pools, we changed the pool profile at the bottom,” Henderson says. “Typically, the shallow end is shallow for a bit, and then there’s the deep end, and that happens across the length of the pool. What we did in one of these pools was change that so that it’s shallow all along the length and then goes deep toward the other short side, which means that you can have people standing in shallow water along the entire 25-meter length of the pool, which is great for things like aquasize class or water walking.”
Another feature unique to the Minoru Centre is what Henderson calls the Infinity Edge, which puts a raised edge on the pool to help people of all abilities hop in. “It’s at bench height, so if you’re in a wheelchair, you can just wheel up to it. And if you’re the type of person who can get in and out of the wheelchair by yourself, you could transfer onto the pool edge and then enter the pool that way,” Henderson explains. “Whereas if you don’t have that, you’d have to transfer into a lift, and then in the pool. Or you need a special wheelchair that can go down the ramp and into the water, and then someone has to go in with you to take the wheelchair. For people who can get in and out of a chair by themselves, which is actually quite a large group of people, they really appreciate that, because they don’t have to have an assistant with them.”
Henderson says that once the Minoru facility opened and people were using it, operators found the Infinity Edge was appealing to more than just the group for which it was initially designed.
“What we found was that able-bodied people also really liked getting into pool that way,” he says. “It’s hard sometimes to get down to the pool level. You have to kneel down, and then let’s say you have a sore back, or you’re just a little bit tired, or a little bit old and creaky, you don’t have to get all the way down to the pool deck. You can just kind of plop onto the bench and plop into the water. I think that was kind of one of the surprising things.”
Henderson adds that he’s aware of raised-edge pools in Europe, but until Minoru, there hadn’t been any in North America.
Inclusive becomes standard
One project that Counsilman-Hunsaker worked on early in the ADA standards era went above and beyond — literally — what was being required for pool entry.
The Children’s Specialized Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., wanted to be able to take swimmers with ease from the changing area into the pool area, so Counsilman-Hunsaker helped them design an overhead beam rail system to transport a person from the locker room to the water directly. “That’s obviously going well beyond requirements,” Hester says, adding, “It’s a really cool design solution.”
Another early example of going beyond standards is a rehabilitation facility for wounded veterans in San Antonio, Texas. The 65,000-square-foot Center for the Intrepid serves troops undergoing physical and occupational therapy, which includes an aquatic center with traditional therapy pools with ramp access, transfer walls and railings. But a creative idea emerged to include a feature that isn’t necessarily thought of as rehabilitative, and despite skeptics, its inclusion was a success. A FlowRider wave feature, which helps simulate surfing and is often considered more recreational than rehabilitative, was just the creative amenity to inspire wounded warriors, even in a rehab pool environment. “Sometimes what I’ve found is that inclusivity is just not approaching the design with a mindset that only certain people can do certain things or enjoy the activity,” Hester says. “The thought process was, ‘Okay, well, we’ve got a lot of soldiers here who have missing limbs, so they wanted to provide something that really challenged them.”
Not just about physical access
“You know, inclusivity is not just really about physical access, it’s also about: How do we design something that’s as culturally inclusive as possible, as well?” Henderson says. That came into play in creating the Minoru Centre, because one of the many programs the facility wanted to include was swimming for Muslim women, which is a challenge in most North American pool environments. Part of Muslim culture requires that women cover themselves except for their hands and faces in public places for modesty. “We had to be able to accommodate privacy for Muslim women swimming,” which was achieved by being able to partition off part of one of the pools for the program, and transition back after class, Henderson says.
Hester says he encountered a similar request about seven years ago in creating the Toronto Pan Am Sports Centre in Canada. One element of the facility was a secondary, 50-meter warmup pool. “One of the unique aspects of it is they did have a curtain wall that could be lowered and split the pool in half. And they could completely separate any sort of visual connectivity, allowing specifically for Muslim women to use that pool at certain programmed times each day.” A moveable pool floor also helped accommodate adult learn-to-swim lessons for the Muslim community.
Inclusive design is good business
Hester explains that outside of the 2010 code reinforcing societal infrastructure that is readily accessible and useful to all individuals, inclusive design is also just good business. “You want to minimize the amount of limitation that any person, of any shape, size or physical ability or disability, may experience,” he says. Therefore, the more people can utilize the facility, the more patron coming and going it inspires, and the more valuable it becomes.
“That’s really what inclusive design is all about.”
It’s the same notion behind the Minoru Centre’s creation. “It’s not a geriatric facility; it’s just a facility that can accommodate the widest range possible of accessibility features,” Henderson says. “At 55, you could be totally able bodied and super fit, or you could not. And then as you get older, the different levels of ability really change.”
Henderson says that the collective group of pool operators is in some ways a small commonwealth, and new facilities — especially unique ones like the award-winning Minoru — can make waves.
“When there’s a new facility, not just ours, but when there’s a new one, everyone kind of knows about it,” Henderson says. “And everyone’s going to get kind of excited about it. Take Minoru as an example, I think it has and will cause change. And every project will be of a slightly different focus, but it’s a wellness-focused project, and people see that and then they also see how popular it is with everyday people. The connection between what the client and the public want and wellness is really resonating. It changes the approach. And I think Minoru is part of that change.”