Designing an Aquatics Facility to Maximize Programming Flexibility

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Photo of Echo Hollow Pool courtesy of Water Technology Inc.

When the City of Sedalia, Mo., began designing the aquatics components of what would become the 92,000-square-foot Heckart Community Center, plans called for a leisure pool, a competition pool and a whirlpool. But then local school district officials dove in and contributed $6 million to the project in order to expand the competition pool to include eight 25-yard lanes and a diving well with two diving boards.

And just like that, the $23 million facility became a hub for practically all aquatics activity in the city of more than 21,000 residents when it opened last year.

Today, Heckart Community Center is home to two high school swim teams, two dive teams and one youth swim club, and the facility offers open swim and lap swim in a cool-water competition pool and a warm-water lifestyle pool. Leisure play is accommodated with a waterslide and zero-depth-entry splash play zone, and the facility hosts birthday and end-of-the-school-year parties, as well as special holiday-themed events. Local kayaking and scuba diving groups have expressed interest in programming their own activities at the facility, and nearby Whiteman Air Force Base has approached the city about using the diving well to train pilots for emergency water landings.

Despite the center’s first-year success, building and programming an aquatic center for maximum programming efficiency isn’t easy. But maybe it’s not supposed to be.

1920 20 Copy CmykPhoto of Echo Hollow Pool courtesy of Water Technology Inc.

“We keep an open mind,” says Clara Scott, the aquatics manager at Heckart. “I don’t have a swim team background; I just love pools and grew up lifeguarding. We’ve faced some challenges, but we’re here to serve the public, and if a new program is good for the community, I’ll try anything once.”

Sedalia voters overwhelmingly supported the community center when it appeared as a ballot question in 2019, and city officials from the beginning wanted to ensure that Sedalia’s first indoor year-round aquatics facility met residents’ needs.

That can be a challenge in any community, according to Doug Whiteaker, a principal at Water Technology Inc., which served as the aquatic design consultant on the Sedalia project.

“Budgets are becoming more challenging, and I think most parks and recreation staffs understand that these new aquatic venues aren’t just for young children and maybe some lap swimmers,” he says. “It’s really a quality-of-life issue for everybody, and it’s important for people who aren’t traditional pool users to understand what’s in the facility for them — that they are multipurpose and multigenerational.”

One of the best ways to convey that type of messaging is via public outreach meetings. Whiteaker and his team presented details to Sedalia residents about the different bodies of water planned for the facility (including such metrics as size, depth and water temperature), as well as their potential uses, and preliminary drawings to convey likely placement of various aquatics elements.

“The best projects involve multiple meetings throughout the feasibility and programming process of the project,” Whiteaker says. “Bringing people who are both proponents of the project and opponents of the project into the same room so they can each understand how this process works and how it can benefit the community is critical to the success of a referendum.”

That, he adds, is how you achieve community buy-in. Once a facility opens, the focus shifts to fostering patron loyalty.

120 20 Copy CmykPhoto of Echo Hollow Pool courtesy of Water Technology Inc.Plan accordingly 

Patron loyalty has not been a problem at Echo Hollow Pool in Eugene, Ore. Voters approved a massive $39.35 million bond ballot measure in 2018 to make improvements to several municipal parks, trails and facilities — including the $11.5 million renovation of Echo Hollow Pool, one of three aquatics facilities operated by the city.

Originally built as an indoor/outdoor aquatic center in 1969, Echo Hollow needed significant improvements, and residents had long expressed their desire for a new play area for young children, increased ADA accessibility and more lanes to provide increased programming and user capacity.

For Carl Sherwood, a principal at Robertson Sherwood Architects — the Eugene-based lead architect on the project — the renovation might have been more personal than others (his office is located about three miles away). But that didn’t stop him from approaching the Echo Hollow project per usual — which is to say differently than any other.

“No projects are the same, but they still primarily consist of serving rec, fitness, competitive, instruction and therapy users, and not always in the same combinations,” Sherwood says. “And that’s where the differences come in. So, from a programming standpoint, making sure we address all five of those categories in our discussions with the client is always a good starting point.”

In the case of Echo Hollow, the outdoor portion of the original pool was demolished and replaced with a new 25-meter-by-25-yard vessel capable of hosting swim meets and water polo matches, as well as accommodating 1- and 3-meter springboard diving. A zero-depth-entry activity pool was added, along with water basketball equipment, a waterslide and two additional 25-yard shallow swim lanes for lessons and water therapy programs. Major sustainability enhancements also were made.

Echo Hollow06Photo of Heckart Community Center courtesy of Aquatic Design Group“The biggest message that came from our community was that they preferred for us to take care of and improve the aging facilities we had before moving on to build new facilities, which is also still a need of ours,” says Rob Guthrie, who manages the Echo Hollow Pool and Fitness Center. “This is the first stage in that process, in which we’re doing renovations to aging and existing facilities, trying to improve their lifespan and improve their capacity.”

Both Guthrie and Sherwood stress the importance of having specific programming goals in mind — developed in part based on community feedback — and then planning accordingly, budget permitting.

“With many projects, everybody thinks a 50-meter pool is where they ought to start,” Sherwood says. “And that would have been one alternative here. But then it would have been hard to get a recreation pool with the budget. So having more practice lanes turned out to be more important than having 50-meter lanes. All of the different user groups came around to understanding why things ended up the way they did.”

“I think you need to have a real good idea of what your goals are with programming when you’re moving into the design process and try to maximize that,” Guthrie adds. “And then, of course, you need to be very mindful of your budget and how you are going to accommodate the potential increase in capacity. You’re adding pools and patrons. That means a lot of additional staff. All of this is going to be an expense down the road, so make sure you’re able to meet that.”

Echo Hollow08Photo of Heckart Community Center courtesy of Aquatic Design GroupScheduling and staffing 

Indeed, once an aquatic center designed for maximum programming flexibility opens, staffing and scheduling will be among the greatest ongoing challenges.

“We offer the general suite of aquatics programming, so it’s a combination of figuring out what are the times of day that [users] prefer and what their particular needs are,” Guthrie says. “For instance, if I’m looking at water fitness, [those patrons] need warmer water, and now that I’ve got multiple pools, I can fine-tune water temperature so my indoor pool is kept warmer than my outdoor pool. That way, competitive [users are] happy with the cooler pool outside, and then swim lessons and water fitness [patrons] are happy with the warmer pool inside. Then it’s about how many of these programs I can fit in at the same time? How many teams can get into the outdoor pool at the same time? It’s just a big puzzle of putting together all the different programs and the spaces needed for them.”

He adds that Echo Hollow has canceled or curtailed programming when there weren’t enough lifeguards available. That’s one reason why Scott is increasingly hiring older lifeguards. Of the facility’s 70 or so lifeguards working this spring, about 10 were college age or older, and three were older than 60. That wider age range allows for greater flexibility in the scheduling of daytime events.

Echo Hollow19Photo of Heckart Community Center courtesy of Aquatic Design GroupScott, in coordination with Amy Epple, director of Sedalia Parks and Recreation, keeps the facility’s maintenance staff apprised of programming schedules and changes, which is critical as they relate to backwashing routines and chemical usage – especially considering that as the community center’s aquatics programming has more than doubled, the size of the maintenance team has remained at two.

That kind of open communication extends to partnerships, too, according to Epple, and the more partnerships a facility has, the greater the need for cooperation and commitment.

“When you have a partnership, make sure you’re open and honest with those partners from the very beginning. Have a good contract or an MOU [memorandum of understanding] so everyone is on the same page,” he says, citing a swim team from a community about 30 minutes away that traveled to Sedalia while its own pool underwent maintenance work. “We do a really good job trying to help everyone. Our community comes first, of course. But if we can help others, we do our best to support them, as well.”

In the end, maximizing and diversifying usage within the confines of the facility’s design and calendar is no small task, but one certainly worth the effort.

Whiteaker paid a visit to the Heckart Community Center not long ago and was “amazed” at how many people were using the pools for a variety of purposes. “Maximizing participation is what everybody wants to accomplish with these facilities,” he says. “They want to build community pride and a sense of ownership.”

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