Analyzing the Aging Aquatics Facility

Communities and schools around the country are facing a generation of aging aquatic facilities. Is renovation the best answer?

In the last year we’ve seen more proposals for aquatic centers than any other sports facilities. Many of them were originally built in the 1970s and ’80s and, for many institutions, the time has come to decide between squeezing a little more life out of the existing facility or starting from scratch.

On paper, it’s easy to quantify the cost of refurbishing the old facility versus building a new one. But that analysis only looks at cost alone, without examining the core issue—is the 30- to 60-year old facility still programmatically meeting the needs of the community?

When we started analyzing the aquatic facilities for Cordova Recreation and Parks District in Rancho Cordova, California, we found they had three existing pools, but all that service area of water didn’t meet the contemporary demands. They needed water deep enough for synchronized swimming or water polo, but the existing pools were too shallow. None of the three pools had enough lanes for competitive swim meets and there wasn’t enough “water park” features to entice kids to play at the rec center on a Saturday. And none of the pools had enough shallow water for family programs.

The lesson: just because you have a lot of water, it doesn’t mean it does what you need it to do. The renovation project was scrapped, and instead, we replaced the three pools with two, configured much differently to better suit the community’s current needs.

Analyzing Aging Aquatics 1 Analyzing Aging Aquatics 2

The key is to forget all preconceptions and engage the community. Through that community and stakeholder outreach, we can develop priorities and actual programmatic needs. We let the program dictate the bodies of water, and their forms and shapes.

To make the programming work, it’s important to challenge the financial assumptions. In Cordova, we brought in Ballard King to do a market research study to look at the broader community issues. We were interested in knowing how many facilities were available to the population, how they were used, and what they charged for access. We used that information to determine whether we needed to complement or compete with the existing facilities.

As part of the analysis, we added up the initial capital budget with the cost of ongoing operations over the predicted useful life of the facility to get a handle on real world numbers. Then we looked at cost recovery—how much the facility could charge, plus how much the park system could contribute. Modernized facilities that attract a larger user base can improve the cost recovery significantly. Creating partnerships can also help. Cordova began exclusively as a parks district project, but through the community outreach process, the city concluded that partnering with the parks district would result in a facility that met the needs of the people.

To be clear, building a new facility is not always better than refurbishing an old one. The takeaway here is that you need to understand program demands, initial costs, ongoing operational costs (including downtime for maintenance), and cost recovery, to determine the best path.

Analyzing Aging Aquatics 3

In some cases, it’s not the pool shell that needs improvement. We’re on a project now where it was determined that the existing pool configuration served their program purposes. But we’re replacing the deck area and adding a building that will house missing elements such as team rooms and community rooms. And for the sake of efficiency, we’re replacing all the equipment, including modern filters and chemical feeders. We were able to put the dollars into the building and the necessary mechanical pieces to improve operational efficiency, rather than spending them on the shell replacement.

Over the years, we’ve learned many lessons. One is that when renovating, most agencies underestimate the unknowns and haven’t allocated enough money for contingencies like utilities, pool structural issues, code issues, and sustainability. And they don’t spend enough time looking at operational efficiency and energy costs—all these old facilities leak. We’ve got facilities where they’re dumping thousands and thousands of gallons of water into these pools weekly just to keep them filled. Higher water consumption, environmental issues, energy efficiency and noise and traffic problems all should be considered in the planning stages.

On the replacement side, administrators often want a 50-meter pool, thinking the size will allow for multiple uses. But the reality is, in most cases, it actually works better to have multiple bodies of water.

Different pools can be kept at different temperatures for training and recreational users. During the off-season, one pool can be shut down to save operating costs. The bigger pool may seem like a better idea, but it eliminates flexibility and may add costs in the long term.

The process starts by setting aside the pre-conceived notions, with an eye on the budget and long term operations. When you go through the outreach and the programming exercises with an open mind and a clear focus on the needs of the community, you might arrive at some surprising and cost-saving alternatives. You may need new facilities, or you may need to refurbish what you have. Either way, trust the process and you’ll end up where you need to be.

This story originally appeared in Catalyst Issue 2 2019. Subscribe today to receive Catalyst, a quarterly publication that takes a deep dive into design ideas, industry leaders and initiatives.