A Business-Focused Approach to Aquatic Design

Defining success on complex aquatic facilities starts with an analysis of projected revenues and expenditures. On a string of recent projects, LPA’s integrated design teams helped focus the process on managing project costs and balancing the wants and needs of the community.

Aquatic centers, big or small, are complex projects. They demand a comprehensive approach across all phases, from design and budgeting to maintenance and marketing. Whatever a community’s wants may be, external variables like labor markets, inflation and supply chains find a way to disrupt grand visions.

To achieve success, communities need to take a business-like approach to the design process to better understand the expected costs, including realistic evaluations of the center’s projected revenue and expenditures. At its core, the process should establish the difference between the community’s wants and needs to determine what success really means for the project.

“If the community neglects to balance their wants with their needs, the facility can essentially become a stressed asset,” says LPA Director of Sport + Recreation Arash Izadi. “A community may want two 50-meter pools, but they also need to consider operating and maintenance costs.”

On several recent projects, LPA designers worked with communities to develop options that maximized the aquatic center’s potential. In each case, the design process started with a forecast model to define a center’s long-term value, which helped set a realistic budget and guide the development.

“There is no crystal ball,” Izadi says. “But we can manage the vision through community outreach and provide leaders with the tools and strategies to adopt a business-minded approach.”

This approach includes a design analysis that goes far beyond the site and construction budget to include usage predictions, marketing and an analysis of long-term operational costs. The “If you build it, they will come” mentality often amounts to wishful thinking, which leads to poor decision making. When budgets are considered arbitrary and construction costs aren’t aligned with operation costs, the project runs the serious risk of “scope creep,” with expenses growing beyond the budget.

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The El Rancho High School aquatic complex is designed to align with larger campus goals.

“Every stage of these facilities must be managed, from beginning to end,” says LPA Managing Director John Courtney. “Visioning, design, bidding, construction and operations — you can’t afford to miss a beat.”

A forecast model can be tailored to each community and their aquatic program, using a range of variables. This often starts with a market study that highlights everything from population and passive income to nearby competing and complementary facilities. What to build comes from a curated community-outreach plan enabling design teams and local leadership to understand wants versus needs and manage people’s expectations. During the process, the design team can take steps to ensure the model is adjusted to the best available information. Hiring a third-party, independent construction cost estimator is key to developing a cost breakdown that accounts for escalation, markups and contingencies.

All factors need to be evaluated. Establishing a longer project schedule may account for supply chain issues and additional escalation costs. Developing a marketing campaign can build public anticipation and ensure steady revenue once the center is operational. On each of the recent projects, LPA was able to help the communities work through their specific challenges and opportunities to develop facilities that fit their needs and make sound economic sense.

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The aquatic facility for the Redding Rancheria tribe is part of a larger health and wellness complex.

Redefining Success
In many cases, the idea of success evolves as the project progresses through the process.

In 2020, the City of Carlsbad, California, began exploring options to renovate its popular Monroe Street Pool. The decades-old facility needed maintenance repairs and program upgrades to stay compliant with health and building codes and to meet growing community needs. The allotted budget, however, was based on old assessments, with projected hard and soft costs that didn’t reflect today’s unprecedented inflation rates.

LPA worked with the city to develop three design solutions that covered a broad range of improvements and associated construction costs. The first option was limited to general maintenance and renovations, with the second option featuring more extensive program enhancements, including renovated locker rooms, replacing the existing solar system and adding exterior deck showers and capacity for new classes. The third option outlined a comprehensive fortification and expansion of pool activities, equipment, facilities, mechanics and operations.

By design, the third and more costly of the proposed measures would extend the life of the aquatic center and reduce net annual operating costs, but it required more money up front, in service of a long-term investment. It also addressed several program needs that had grown since the facility was built. After gathering public input and putting the project to a formal vote, the community elected to move forward with option three, creating a new measure of success for a project that started with a modest scope.

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Avoiding ‘Scope Creep’
In some cases, preventing “scope creep” is considered early in design development. For a new aquatic center in the city of Pico Rivera, in southeastern Los Angeles County, the El Rancho Unified School District (ERUSD) wanted a competitive pool that met Olympics standards, as part of a larger renovation of the athletic facilities for the local high school. However, site and budget constraints precluded ERUSD from ever realizing a 50-by-25-meter pool.

LPA’s integrated design team started from square one to address specific program needs from “the inside out,” Izadi says. It was clear the community was struggling to separate its wants from its needs. The LPA design team worked with stakeholders to step away from their preconceptions and analyze a wide range of factors, including the different programs, the number of local teams and athletes, and the local league requirements. Through cost modeling and careful analysis of the site, budget and operational needs, the process ultimately determined that a 33-meter-long by 25-yard-wide pool would satisfy competitive swimming, water polo, training and PE requirements, as well as the Pico Rivera community’s recreation need and learn-to-swim programs in the summer.

This design solution also fit the district’s budget constraints and methods to reconcile costs and value.

Sharing Resources
In some cases, finding the right partnership can help a facility short on financing. In Rancho Cordova, the Recreation and Park District joined forces with the City of Rancho Cordova to expand the budgetary and programming scope of a new community pool early on and planned accordingly. Early in the process, the district realized their overall budget wouldn’t allow for the minimum program requirements envisioned for the center. LPA worked closely with the local leaders to solicit community input and explore strategic partnerships that would help them realize the larger goals, while remaining cost conscious.

The scope of the project grew, but it didn’t surprise the client. That growth became part of the strategic design vision, reflecting the wants and needs expressed by the community. It became a right-sized facility. - Arash Izadi, Director of Sport + Recreation

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The indoor pool for Redding Rancheria merges with the recreation and fitness center.

What originally had been a simple pool replacement project grew into the varied and multipurpose community aquatic center that exists today. The recently completed Cordova Community Pool features a 10-lane lap pool, a separate recreation pool with beach entry, and a 3,500-square-foot building with locker rooms, restrooms, equipment storage and staff offices, serving diverse user groups.

“The scope of the project grew, but it didn’t surprise the client,” Izadi says. “That growth became part of the strategic design vision, reflecting the wants and needs expressed by the community. It became a right-sized facility.”

Managing Expectations

Measuring success is often a matter of managing expectations. The community will get what it needs and wants, within the budget constraints.

To achieve acceptance and long-term satisfaction, it’s important to ensure community members have their voices heard and are empowered to express what they want for themselves and their neighbors.

“An understanding of the constraints and budget issues can help people appreciate the challenges,” Izadi says.

Openness and a willingness to listen provide a sense of agency; people feel like the final result is theirs, even if they didn’t get everything they want. Likewise, community and civic leaders should be free to dream big, knowing the process will be based on sound business and programming strategies.