Including Operations & Personnel in the Design Process

Key factors to consider before designing your next aquatic venue.

By Scot Hunsaker

An engineer, an architect and a lawyer set about discussing the origins of the earth one evening, pondering what professional qualifications the Creator might first have applied toward the task. The engineer, speaking first, said “engineering was definitely involved. Just look at how all the different systems–hydraulics, air movement, structural elements of the land–obviously the work of an engineer.”

“Perhaps,” said the architect, “but look at how aesthetically pleasing everything was put together. The trees, the prairies, the great, beautiful oceans. It would have taken the designing eye of the architect to create such beauty out of chaos.”

“Ah, most certainly,” agreed the lawyer. “But who do you think created the chaos?”

There have been many occasions when I’ve walked with facility operators through the mechanical areas of a brand new state-of-the-art aquatics center and gotten the distinct impression that, had they heard that joke, the systems operators would have given the designer enough credit for having created the chaos without any need for the lawyers’ input.

“Why did they use this kind of system?” the operator might sneer. “What were they thinking of when they put this here?” I’ll hear them mutter. “Whose bright idea was this configuration?” they snicker.

Key Issues

  • Strategies for input during design process.
  • Methods of prioritizing design decisions.
  • Today’s role and future expectations of automation in aquatic facility management.
  • How to have input during construction process.
  • Where to spend capital funds for greatest value.
  • Operator issues during design.
  • Common obstacles and solutions to project development.
  • Trends in facility operations. 

I don’t take offense because I understand and appreciate their perspective. Often, the operator is introduced to a brand new state-of-the-art aquatic facility at poolside, with all the modern amenities the industry has to offer, only to discover maintenance and operational systems that are not what he might hope for. If the operator’s response to that is merely adversarial, then no one wins–not the owner and certainly not the operator.

If, on the other hand, the operator takes a higher, professional approach by doing the best with what is available while preparing solid, positive arguments for more sophisticated systems in the future, he or she will reveal the qualities of a true operations professional.

The Design Process–Sizzle Sells!

Getting a contemporary aquatic facility from dream to construction is a long trip during which many alternate routes are considered. The trip usually begins when a group of planners or a private ownership team proposes a concept for the new facility. There is a very rough idea of what they want and some estimates of the money available to finance the project. It is the designer’s job to mold that rough information into a very specific facility design.

Beginning as much as a year or two in advance of construction, the design consultant begins accumulating information that will help form the design. Beginning with what the owners think they want, the designer also investigates the needs of the community or other potential users of the facility.

Through detailed study, information including potential revenue, operating expenses, site selection and construction costs is compiled to give the owners a better understanding of the economic viability of the intended project.

With that information in hand, several schemes are usually presented to the owners, each representing different possible solutions to their requirements. Inevitably, this process leads to a finished product that represents a series of compromises, some affecting the patron-oriented amenities and some affecting the systems operational side.

It is said, though, that the “sizzle sells the steak,” and that is certainly true in the case of aquatics facilities. Though a pie-in-the-sky proposal might include all the latest high-tech pumping and filtering systems one could imagine, when it comes time to shaving dollars off construction costs, the current rivers, spiral slides, wet-playground amenities or the 50 meter pool configuration are going to remain in the plans long after the Super XYZ automation system has been downgraded.

Indeed, the sizzle sells, and that is true, not only in the eyes of the potential users, but in those of the owners and financiers as well. No one is going to decide to build or finance a project because of its elaborate mechanical systems. They will decide based on the services and programs the facility provides the public, and the capital investment budget available to provide those services.

As a result, a design that originally calls for an automated fill funnel for the pool might get downgraded to a manual unit, with retrofit potential built in for later consideration. Similarly, a manual backwash system might be substituted for an automatic system. The world’s premier filter room is of particular interest to you; but when it comes to selling the facility, it’s going to be the fun, not the filtering, that draws the crowd.

Operator Assistance 

Is there no place in the design process, then, for the operator’s input? Absolutely. In fact, designers who fail to explore the past experiences and observations of professional pool operators are not taking advantage of an extremely valuable information source.

There are many critical issues involved in pool design where operators can have valuable knowledge. For example, they might have specific knowledge about the source water chemistry. If it has a lot of mineral content or has an extremely high or low pH level, these are issues that will effect the appropriateness of certain kinds of chemical balancing systems. In many areas, water chemistry dictates that CO2, for example, may not be appropriate.

Operators can also be helpful in evaluating the capabilities and limitations of the maintenance staff, which will also affect the kinds of systems selected for the facility. Are staff members intuitive and knowledgeable about the procedures they conduct? Do they understand how changes in chemistry will affect the water quality? Or do they perform better under conditions that call for clear-cut step-by-step procedures?

Operators need to be honest about their own experience as well. Just as there are different types of cars for different driver demands, so too are there different designing and engineering solutions for various skill levels and performance expectations for aquatic facility operators. A knowledgeable and dedicated pool operator can tweak any system to operate at the most efficient levels possible. He/she can make anything work. If that level of experience and dedication is lacking, however, a different, more autonomous kind of system might be indicated. Conversely, if the operator is extremely control oriented, if he/she prefers hands-on manual control and tends to constantly override automated procedures, then designing a costly high-tech automated system is a waste of money.

Operator availability is another factor that will affect design decisions. How much time will the operations staff have to accommodate the needs of the facility? Will the operator be stopping by once a week to backwash the pool and check the chemistry levels, or will there be on-site personnel, constantly evaluating water quality and systems performance?

Operators will also likely have site-specific knowledge concerning attendance patterns and weather conditions that designers should take into account. What demand levels will be placed on the facility? Will there be a heavy bather load, or light? Will weather changes affect the water quality?

All these issues will determine what level of automation, what level of technology and sophistication will be required to maintain clean, clear water. And all are issues that operators with past experience will have valuable insights and judgments to assist the designer in making the appropriate recommendations.

Personal preference aren’t insignificant issues, either. If an operator has had prior experience with certain systems, and managed them successfully, it is reasonable to suggest continuing with similar systems, if appropriate.

There are all kinds of facility requirements and all kinds of operators maintaining the facilities. The design team’s strategy is to develop the mechanical system most efficiently tailored to the needs of the facility and the qualifications of the operator. And the operator can certainly provide valuable insights to help achieve that goal.

Pick Your Battles

No matter how convincingly you argue your case, though, you aren’t going to win every battle. As stated previously, design is influenced primarily by programming and service features, and the capital investment budget. The owner wants to get the most patron-oriented options for the dollar. Naturally, the operator wants to get a facility that is easy to operate. In the tug of war for dollars between those two, patron-oriented features are going to win more often than not.

So pick your battles. In the compromises that characterize the design process, decisions are usually categorized according to their level of requirement. Some things are absolutely required. Others are of obvious benefit, though not critical to the facility, while still other amenities fall into a “bonus” category: If the money’s still there after fulfilling other needs, these things would be nice to have.

Operators should apply those same critical judgments when determining what is important to them. Is the type of filtration system of tantamount importance? Some people swear by diatomaceous earth because of water quality, others by sand because of ease of operation. What is a priority to you?

Others have strong opinions about pool coatings. Should the tank be surfaced with paint, plaster, colored concrete, or tile? This is an issue that operators frequently second guess, and one for which many issues enter into choosing one over the other. But if you feel strongly about the benefits of one, place it on your critical list and let your opinions be known.

Be heard, not hard

The important thing is to voice your opinions in a meaningful, productive way. The biggest challenge operators face in the design process is simply being heard and getting involved. In many cases–especially with new facilities–operators are not brought into the organization until a month or two prior to opening. Obviously, most of the system design decisions have already been made at this point. The professional operator benefits from the understanding that the priorities do focus on the patron-oriented, revenue-producing amenities, and compromises undoubtedly had to be made in the operating systems. Negative comments and asides at this point are non-productive and will only create an adversarial role between operator and owner.

It has been my experience, however, than when the opportunity exists–and frequently this opportunity occurs in remodeling and updating projects-ownership and design teams have welcomed the opinions of operators with open arms. That is the way it should be. Facility design undoubtedly benefits when it is achieved with the valuable input of operations professionals. After all, you can have the most wonderfully designed and engineered facility in the world; but if the operators don’t or won’t take advantage of the systems in the way in which they were designed to be used, it is a frustration and a failure for everyone involved.

By participating in the design process in a meaningful, constructive way, operators can contribute to a facility design that is truly designed from the pits up, and will consequently make everyone happy: owners, users, and operators.