Great Expectations

How to meet expections of both owner and users when designing an aquatic venue.

By Joe Hunsaker | 1998
Aquatics International 

When planning a community aquatic facility, meeting the expectations of both owners and users is a challenge. But if you do your research and understand everybody’s wants and needs, you can build a facility the whole community will support.

Once upon a time, building a new community swimming pool was somewhat like buying a Model T. Just as the car could be any color as long as it was black, the pool could be any shape — as long as it was rectangular.

Today, however, diverse expectations of users are putting greater demands on aquatic facilities. Local swimming and diving clubs still want 50-meter indoor pools with 10-meter towers. But now, senior citizens are clamoring for dedicated warm-water pools for therapy and fitness classes, and families with young children want zero-depth leisure pools with slides, current channels and play equipment.

A number of factors will determine whether you unveil a competition, leisure or hybrid facility.

Public officials also have greater expectations. While many communities can generate enough funds to pay for construction, more and more officials want users to help cover ongoing operations.As the aquatic professional, your job is to make sure your new facility accommodates all these needs.

Do your homework

Before you can make any solid decisions on the type or size of facility to build, you first need a firm grasp of all the financial issues involved. This means knowing what pool features are available as well as the cost to construct and operate. Also affecting your budget are engineering, architectural, consulting, geotechnical and other service costs.

In some cases, this research phase may include issues of site acquisition and development. In other cases, if the new aquatic facility is replacing an existing pool, there is the cost of demolishing old structures and, frequently, improving utility supplies, sewer and drainage provisions, road access and the like.

While it’s difficult to establish an estimate of all the costs involved in a construction project — expenses vary greatly depending on the local economy, availability of materials and other issues — there are three common ways to prepare an initial budget.

1. Obtain information from similar operations in other parts of your community or even in other areas of your state — the experience of others can be helpful in establishing a ballpark estimate. Be aware, however, that their costs can sometimes be misleading. An access road, for example, may have been absorbed by the street department’s budget, or utilities may have been provided by public works.

2. Use industry averages, which are available in a variety of publications that cover construction costs, building standards and other industry data. These resources can provide square-foot cost estimates, and some may even take into account local variances.

3. Perform a site-specific analysis by developing a preliminary design and applying it to the types of materials and labor costs in your area. This is the most accurate and effective way of estimating costs, but most likely will require the help of a consultant.

Show me the money

Another financial issue to consider is the expected funding source for the project.

Wealthy donors can ease your budgetary concerns, but remember that they will usually request a matching commitment from the community or owner. Additionally, you’ll be challenged with meeting the donor’s expectations along with those of your users and owners.

Other financing options available include general obligation bonds, revenue bonds and sales tax initiatives. If the aquatic center is to be financed, don’t forget to include debt service in your budget of ongoing expenses. Also at issue is whether that debt will be the responsibility of the local government or will be covered by operating revenue.

In other words, you’ll need to establish your aquatic center’s financial goals early in the planning stages. Will your department subsidize maintenance and operations, or is the facility expected to generate a neutral, or even positive, cash flow? These expectations may determine what type of aquatic center is feasible.

For example, should you build an indoor or an outdoor pool? Typically, outdoor leisure pools generate positive cash flow, while indoor leisure pools fall more in the break-even category. Indoor competition pools — particularly those designed with seating and other amenities for large competitions — generally require greater levels of subsidy.

One reason for this variance is the increased operational costs of indoor aquatic facilities. Natatoriums require heating and ventilation, resulting not only in increased construction costs, but in significant operational expenses. In fact, as much as one-third of an indoor aquatic center’s operational budget can go toward utilities.

Indoor and outdoor facilities also have different usage patterns. In the summer, people naturally prefer outdoor aquatic facilities. Even indoor family aquatic centers with retractable roof and wall panels won’t generate the same summer attendance levels as a similar outdoor facility. And though it seems reasonable that an indoor facility will recoup any difference in summer attendance by being open year-round, the reality is that most summer recreational pool users don’t frequent these facilities as much during the winter months — school is in session and other after-school activities occupy their time.

This is not to say that all indoor, year-round aquatic centers are money pits. Creative and aggressive marketing can sometimes buck this trend. Groups that you can target during school days include seniors, childcare providers, and school districts that offer physical education and special education classes.

As the primary users of indoor competitive facilities, swim teams are increasingly being asked to provide a greater portion of a facility’s revenue. In the past, swim teams typically received pool time free or at nominal cost; now, they are often charged market-level rentals of $5 to $12 per lane per hour, and even more at some universities. Of course, if you charge higher fees, you have to meet the teams’ higher expectations — showers, lockers, plenty of lanes, starting blocks, and so on.

Know your community

When preparing your initial budget, you’ll need to know about the people in your community. And although as a park and recreation professional you probably have a pretty good handle on the demographics of your constituents, it’s helpful to quantify that information.

*Population density. When analyzing a population, it’s important not only to know the overall totals, but to understand where population densities occur. According to a World Waterpark Association and William L. Haralson & Associates survey, most leisure facilities derive the bulk of their attendance from within 10 miles of their location (1996 Waterpark Survey, Splash, May/June 1997, pp. 40-43). Industry experience has shown that distance is generally less of an issue for competitive and fitness swimmers.

*Age demographics. Knowing the age demographics within your population can help you determine which type of aquatic facility is most appropriate for your community. Recreation and competition facilities are ideal if you have a predominance of youths younger than 18, while a large senior population would suggest a need for an indoor, warm-water pool for fitness and therapy. Baby boomers are avid users of fitness lap-swimming facilities, but might also support a leisure concept for their families.

*Income statistics. Per capita and median household incomes will reflect the amount of discretionary income available for recreational activities. Additionally, this can be an indication of potential attendance, which can help you design the appropriate size of your facility. Median incomes can also affect your department’s subsidization policy and help establish fee schedules appropriate for the community.

* Demographic shifts. The U.S. Census Bureau office can supply current population, age and income demographics for your community. When analyzing your community’s demographics, however, remember that you’re building a facility that will last for 30 years or more — not only do you need to study the existing population, but you also need to make projections for the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

Planning for future demographic changes means you may need to reserve space for additional amenities. For example, larger thrill-oriented slides can be added for future teen populations; a therapy pool might be added at a later date for a growing senior demographic; or space can be reserved for future expansion to accommodate a booming population. You can accomplish these additions much easier and more cost-effectively when you forecast them in the original design.

Fast, fun or fitness?

Because form must follow function, you’ll need to know the exact user groups who will most likely frequent your facility. Users generally fall into one of three categories — competition, recreation and fitness/therapy — and all three have different needs and expectations.

Competition swimmers are always first off the blocks — competitive swimming is probably stronger and more organized in the United States than anywhere else in the world. The roots of its strength can be found in the commitment to athletics in the U.S. educational system, beginning in elementary school and extending through collegiate sports.

Because they are organized, competitive swimmers will always be a vocal and influential force in public debate regarding new aquatic facilities. They are also faithful users of training and competition facilities and are typically willing to pay higher fees for that use. But, as previously mentioned, natatoriums — particularly those designed with spectator seating and support spaces for major competitions — are costly to maintain. Competition facilities also typically include a lot of deep water, which is difficult to program for activities other than fitness lap swimming and competition.

For these reasons, it’s important to get a feel for the level of need and commitment of your competitive swimmers. You must decide whether your community can and will support a full-fledged competition venue or whether a facility supplying a number of training lanes will satisfy the competitive swimmers in your area.

Although they represent the majority of potential users in a community, leisure users have traditionally been left out of the debate over aquatic center design. While not as frequent or as faithful as the competition contingent, their large numbers are the reason most new leisure aquatic centers — with lots of shallow water, play amenities and expansive deck areas — experience break-even or surplus revenue.

Whereas a typical rectangular pool might warrant an admission fee of 50 cents to $1, new family aquatic centers are charging daily fees of $3 to $6 or more to support operations. Additionally, leisure facilities can earn revenues from private parties, tube rentals and food service. Some larger facilities can even support gift shops.

In recent years, increased exposure to leisure aquatics has raised the expectations and visibility of leisure users. Still, it’s usually left to you and your staff to represent their voices in the decision-making process. This duty falls under the category of the community’s expectations of you as an aquatic director.

These days, competition for the public’s leisure dollars can be fierce, and you need to take into account the existence or absence of other aquatic providers in your area. Many communities have a fleet of 50-meter outdoor pools, but no indoor options for year-round aquatics. There might be plenty of pools available for swim training, but no appropriate venue for large competitions.

Other communities may be experiencing declining recreation attendance at their old community rectangular pools, pointing toward a possible leisure-pool solution. If large, commercial waterparks are nearby, however, you might want to scale down your plans and provide a low-cost alternative.


When considering your aquatic competitors, you may be faced with the sensitive issue of competing as a public entity against private enterprises, and the appropriateness of doing so. Rather than trying to re-create what already exists in your community, instead strive to provide a new element to the area’s recreation or competition components.Carefully studying existing facilities in your area will help you define your niche. You also need to make a dedicated effort to listen to your community’s aquatic user groups to determine their needs — and their expectations. By involving the community, you’ll create a wide base of support and ownership in the project, enhancing your chances for success.
— J. H.



Fitness and therapy users are typically a small percentage of your population. Don’t forget, however, that seniors are the fastest-growing population segment across the country and are increasingly expecting to be a part of the public programming mix. Thankfully, the requirements for fitness and therapy programming are modest, and you can frequently accommodate this group within facilities largely designed for leisure or competition use.

A new breed

Trying to accommodate different types of users — let alone the people financing your facility — will likely result in what could be considered nontraditional designs.

More and more new aquatic centers feature leisure elements and lap lanes combined in unexpected shapes. Leisure pools, for example, can satisfy fitness advocates with current channels and bubble couches. Competition pools can expand their programming flexibility with movable bulkheads and removable slides and play elements. And larger aquatic centers can combine lane lines with beach entries and slides in unlimited configurations.

For established facilities whose budgets won’t allow expensive additions or remodels, removable or inflatable play features are a means of attracting leisure users. Relatively low-cost, inflatable climbing structures and slides can be quickly installed for family use and easily removed when the swim team comes in.

These multiple or temporary uses sometimes require compromises, most notably in optimal water temperatures. Most users, however, are willing to accept some compromises in exchange for added opportunities.

Joseph Hunsaker of Counsilman Hunsaker, an aquatic design, planning and engineering firm based in St. Louis.