Adaptive use of older structures suited to small natatoriums

Originally published in Recreation Management and written by David Petta and Diana Hayton.

You might not be familiar with the connection between and swimming pools, but one exists. Not too many years ago, retail stores became retail superstores—places where a shopper could not only find everything, but a lot of everything. Big-box retailers bulked up their onsite storage so that a run on a certain product could go on until the local need for it was satisfied.

That was before shed its bookish beginnings, and well before Jeff Bezos began talking about using drones to deliver groceries. Remote storage facilities, one of the by-products of the acceptance and spread of online commerce, gradually left most shopping malls with immense empty former storage spaces within their walls.

Enter the entrepreneurs of the fitness, wellness and recreation industry. Just to cite one example of a use for such space, we’re currently involved in the planning process for the conversion of shell space inside a 1.4-million-square-foot mall in San Jose, Calif., into a 24 Hour Fitness health club. The plan includes the insertion of narrow lap pools between support columns in a below-grade former storage area. While column-free, long-span space is needed to accommodate many potential recreation tenants (from basketball gyms to gymnastics studios), others, such as karate studios and bowling alleys—and even health clubs with a swimming component—are less choosy.

The trend in municipal recreation has been to put all the district’s indoor offerings under one roof, but as public money becomes scarcer, it is easy to imagine cities looking in another direction. Here, again, entrepreneurs are pointing the way. Private climbing gyms and pools are among the single-purpose activities that are increasingly turning up in buildings constructed for other purposes.

Adaptive reuse is viewed by urban planners as a key factor in the rejuvenation of historic (or merely older) structures, and the neighborhoods in which they’re located. Reuse of older buildings, the ultimate act of sustainability, also conserves urban neighborhoods’ commercial or mixed-use heritage. But there’s another “green” aspect of the process that makes adaptive reuse even more resonant for program administrators: It can save money.

A case in point is Splash Swim School in Walnut Creek, Calif. Its operators, who run a similar facility in a commercial setting in nearby San Ramon, targeted several older buildings as they sought to expand, including two defunct auto garages. The building selected, a 1920s-era garage, sits at the edge of an industrial area close to the I-680 corridor that gradually gives way to a residential neighborhood. The rapidly gentrifying area has been targeted by the city for improvement, and all renovations and new construction (including senior housing breaking ground across the street) face new, more stringent city requirements for sidewalks, parking and landscaping.

Our work with the City of Walnut Creek, planning improvements to a large swim complex in need of updating, has given us a window into the dilemma faced by so many municipalities in an uncertain economy. Cash-strapped, the city has to find the money to maintain and operate its older facilities, as well as try to meet increased demand for recreation services. Those that can’t afford both leave a gap to be filled by entrepreneurs like the owner and director of Splash.

A garage would fit inside the footprint of most municipal rec pool basins, which have grown exponentially larger as their focus has shifted from lap swimming to leisure. Splash, on the other hand, is used only for teaching kids how to swim. The business is so successful that its operators have yet to accommodate senior exercise programs, which would be a natural in a warm-water teaching pool, during off-peak times. There simply are no off-peak times.

Old auto garages make a surprisingly good medium for building a teaching pool. They’re one-story tall, meaning that support columns can be moved without too much difficulty. They start as generally open space, limiting demolition work. The building shell typically is raw space that can more readily accept the materials needed to create the super-insulative and durable building envelope required for pools. They’re on grade, on flat ground.

Accommodating a pool within such a structure means removing the slab, since pools require decks with exacting tolerances of one-quarter inch of slope and, if the concrete will be the finished surface, a brushed surface to mitigate the risk of slip falls. (Auto garages, by contrast, feature flat, smooth concrete.) Even this is a simple operation, since the slab itself isn’t structural. Earthworks, laying pool piping, creation of a pool shell—these follow the normal procedures for any other pool.

Ancillary spaces can be a bit trickier to accommodate within an existing building shell just because the quality of the space will vary and space will sometimes be limited. Splash’s pool is a 60-by-36-foot rectangle notched by seven water benches and an entry stair, surrounded by a narrow deck. Behind glass at one end, parent viewing (three rows of chairs) gives way to girls’ and boys’ toilet rooms; a family changing room with seven private cubicles; a unisex toilet and a pool deck shower; and the entry lobby, check-in desk and one small administrators’ office. Storage and pool equipment occupy small rooms added to the west exterior, a demonstration of the 6,500-square-foot building’s tight plan.

Much of an adaptive reuse involves deciding what to keep—and embellish. Splash kept one operable garage door in place next to the pool entry (it helps hold the garage aesthetic and allows large objects to be brought in or out), filled the lobby bay with a glass entry door and storefront glass, and filled the rest with concrete block. The previous use was strictly utilitarian, so certain accoutrements, such as operable sun shades, needed to be added for the comfort of kids and their parents and caretakers.

The most difficult aspect of natatorium construction, here and elsewhere, is the design of mechanical systems. The pool area is kept at 91 degrees for the comfort of swimmers, while the glassed-in dry portion is conditioned to around 70. The air-circulation system ensures that there are no dead zones within either space and must be aimed to prevent condensation from rusting fixtures and from forming on the glass between the cool and warm zones.

The final price tag on the Splash adaptive reuse was $1 million, with the building’s landlord picking up the cost of a new roof and roof insulation. At a time when municipal natatoriums have become more like waterparks and cost their cities hundreds of thousands of dollars to operate, a building project of this scope—with a business plan that is solidly in the black—offers another path toward meeting demand for recreation services. And for the city of Walnut Creek, the refurbishment of an older structure helps meet its longer-term goals for a neighborhood transitioning from light industrial to mixed-use.