Why YMCAs are Turning to Retractable Structures to Enhance Their Aquatics Facilities

Andy Berg Headshot
Blue Sky(4)
Photos courtesy of YMCA of Greenville (S.C.)

Pools are important community gathering places. They’re also expensive to build, maintain and operate, which is why YMCA operators are always looking for ways to maximize the use of their aquatics spaces.

Unfortunately, unpredictable weather — cold spells, rain or snow storms — can shut down an outdoor pool for days, regardless of whether that space is booked solid with programming. For that reason, a number of YMCAs across the country have adopted a unique solution designed to increase the flexibility of existing outdoor pools, or outright avoid the cost of building a standalone natatorium. Here’s a look at how one solution has fit the bill for Y’s in Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.

Rain or shine

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YMCA of the Suncoast was looking to build a new facility in Citrus County, Fla., which lies in the northern part of the state where it can get down into the 30s and 40s a couple times a year. When mulling options for the facility’s aquatics offering, the team had considered everything from a brick-and-mortar natatorium to an outdoor pool covered by an inflatable dome.

“We had looked at constructing a natatorium, but the numbers came back rather expensive,” says Tim Ackerman, vice president of properties for YMCA of the Suncoast, adding that he eventually settled on what has been the perfect fit for the facility — a retractable structure from DynaDome that is installed over an outdoor pool and can be opened and closed in a matter of seconds.

“The pricing came in at well over $750,000 less than the natatorium, so there were instantly some cost savings that are recognized,” says Ackerman. “The other intriguing part of this solution is that it gave us the opportunity to offer what most of our members prefer — outdoor swimming. It’s 53 degrees today and the dome is closed, but this afternoon it’s 72 and we will open the dome, which takes about 45 seconds. We push a button and it opens, and we will have an outdoor swimming pool until the temperature drops down to about 65, and then we’ll close the dome again and have an indoor swimming pool.”

Ackerman says that the DynaDome structure has also helped the Y skirt programming interruptions due to Florida’s frequent but brief rainstorms during the summer. Notably, that functionality has actually improved safety at the Citrus County facility.

Says Ackerman, “In the past when it rained, the water falling on the water surface would disrupt the lifeguard’s ability to see the bottom of the swimming pool, which is a requirement for us — you have to clearly be able to see the bottom of the pool — so we would have to close the pool during heavy rainstorms.”

Light and shade


The Taylor YMCA in Cary, N.C., had for years covered its outdoor pool during the winter months with an inflatable dome. That structure lasted 27 years, which exceeded the manufacturer’s 25-year expected product lifespan. Like the location in Citrus County, Taylor had planned to begin work on a natatorium in March 2020, but COVID disrupted those plans, and the project had to be abandoned. A portion of the money for the natatorium had already been donated, however, and Taylor pivoted, putting that money instead toward a DynaDome.

Eric Bjorkquist, aquatics director for Taylor YMCA, had researched other options, but eventually landed on the DynaDome, which he says “offered a significant number of advantages,” specifically emphasizing how easily the facility can be converted from an outdoor to an indoor pool relative to other solutions on the market. “It’s just offered us operational flexibility that you don’t have with the others.”

Regardless of the weather, the DynaDome also has the added advantage of letting in plenty of light, as the roof and sides are made of transparent polycarbonate panels. “There’s a lot of natural light,” says Bjorkquist. “And the quality of the air, the ability to control the temperature inside the dome, and the amount of light that we have, both day and night, have been terrific.”

While Bjorkquist concedes that the DynaDome solution was more expensive than other options, he says the benefits have outweighed the costs, stating, “In terms of user experience, in terms of ease of operation, it’s been great.”

Aside from allowing abundant natural light in the facility, Bjorkquist appreciates a tangential benefit he hadn’t anticipated. “One thing we did not anticipate was the amount of shade that the ends provide when it’s open,” he says. “In fact, that was one of the concerns that one of our vice presidents had, was whether people would want to swim in a pool that has shade on it in the summertime. I do think one thing people need to be aware of when designing their structure is the path of the sun throughout the day at different times of the year. And then they can design their seating accordingly.” 

Y’s take notice


The flexibility of the DynaDome hasn’t gone unnoticed by the greater community of YMCAs, as more and more are looking toward success stories at facilities that have already implemented retractable solutions.

John Schlansker, director of facilities and risk management at the YMCA of Greenville (S.C.), says that he’d talked to other YMCAs that had installed a DynaDome and word is out. 

“I spoke with DynaDome at a YMCA conference back in 2018 or 2019, and I think they had maybe one Y at that point. It’s not an inexpensive solution, so it took a little time, and we had to build the case internally about why this makes sense and everything else,” says Schlansker. “But chatter is definitely out there. People, particularly in climates like ours — yes, we’re in the South, but we still get a real winter — we need something like this, something that at least gives our pools a chance to still be operating in December, January, February. But it’s still not an indoor pool. Because the majority of the year we want to be outside.”

From a maintenance standpoint, Schlansker says things have been pretty simple. “As long as you stay on top of it with a pressure washer, and just some soap and water, it really hasn’t been too difficult,” he says. “The good part is the rain that comes will help wash it off, which helps from an exterior standpoint. And then on the interior, we just try to stay on top of it and don’t use chemicals. That’s what we were told, and don’t use rags that have any kind of friction.” 

When building any facility, large or small, organizations have to balance the equation between cost and an optimal-use case. For many YMCAs, DynaDome’s feature set of the retractable structure — along with its mid-range pricing, durability and relatively easy maintenance — appears to be the right fit. “I think we are immensely excited,” Schlansker says. “From an image perspective, this just really puts us in a different ballpark.”

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