Category Archives: Programming

Swimming Pool Design and Flexibility of Utilization

The following presentation was presented at the FINA World Aquatics Convention held in Moscow Russia on October 31, 2012

What is the definition of Success for a Swimming Pool?  It may depend on who you ask.

For the Athlete it may be to create an environment that allows them to do their lifetime best.  This may be influenced by awe of arriving on the world stage in a magnificent venue or the mental preparation available in the adjacent space.  In the end the field of play allows them the ability to not only compete against todays competitors but the legacy of past champions.

For the Spectator a great view and comfortable experience is required to generate repeated visits and a memorable games.  This goes beyond the pool envelop and encompasses the arrival and departure way finding, support facilities that may include security, ticket control, concourses, and support spaces.

For the Official they share many of the same needs as the athlete and spectator regarding the venue space, however, they require unique spaces to perform at their best.

Media also has unique requirements for a successful venue.  Different media outlets have different physical requirements to be able to deliver the competition to its audience.  In the end, the audience wants to participate as a valued member of the venue with seamless incorporation to viewing the competition and the visual experience.

The Sponsor / Partner is also a critical component of a successful event and the design solution must incorporate their wants and needs as well.  These needs result in a wow experience with a sense of being special and being able to provide a memorable experience to their guests.

A successful facility goes beyond the competitive event.  The facility manager and operators will also have their own definitions of success.  They are looking for a design solution that provides dependable reliable service during the meet but also during everyday activities.

Lastly meeting the definitions of success for the community or host of the facility is critical to the creation and operation of the aquatic venue.  These stakeholders don’t measure success in a week long meet but over generations of use.  The operations must be fiscally, programmatically, and economically sustainable.  The definition of success might go beyond the facility and look at the economic impact to the local economy or is presence on the world stage.


So How Do You Get All Of These Different Stakeholders With Different Definitions of Success On The Same Page?


The key is accurate and timely information to make knowledgeable decisions on how to move forward.  This starts at the idea phase and continues on even after the facility is open and operating.

Idea Stage:  Visioning, dreaming and goal setting are important to explore every possibility.  As more information becomes available these aspirations will begin to align with reality.  For example, is it your goal to be a world class venue facility or a world class training facility to develop the best athletes in the world to compete at the best venue facilities?

Business Plan:  As reality starts to take shape it is not uncommon to develop multiple scenarios.  The basic information that needs to be gathered during the planning process is who is going to use it, how are they going to use it and when they are going to use it.  For example in the United States when we sit down with a variety of stakeholders that may include with multiple swim teams.  When asked when they want to use the pool –  everyone wants the pool after school.  So from a capacity point of view we would need 4 – 50 meter pools that would be at capacity from 3PM to 6PM but sit practically empty the rest of the day.  So getting the various groups talking together about a common definition of success is helpful in transforming the vision into a reality.

As the vision starts to take shape it is not uncommon to have multiple options.  These might include a Dream concept (which makes everyone happy except the person paying for the facility), reality concept (that most closely meets global requirements of the stakeholders) and a fall back concept (which maybe the least you are willing to support and still move forward with the project).  For each concept a space program is developed with preliminary development costs and operational analysis.  This process answers the how, what and when questions, and then outlines the financial requirements for creating the spaces and the requirements to operate them.  In reality it is often easier getting the development funding than the operating funding as the operations may last a lifetime.

Fiscal sustainability:  Traditionally we have seen three economic models for operating an aquatic facility.  These include the subsidy model, break even model and positive cash flow model.

The subsidy model is where the owner / develop is willing to use government dollars to build the facility and operate the facility.

The break-even model is where the owner / developer is willing to use government dollars to build the facility but the direct operating costs are paid by the operational revenue of the aquatic center.

The last model is the positive cash-flow model.  This is where the operation revenue is not only expected to pay for the operation costs, but also contribute to the capital costs.

There is a mis-understanding with regard to a venue facility and financial performance.  In North America, the revenue from spectator seating often goes to the sponsoring organization.  The facility is essentially renting space for the event.  The positive economic impact of local businesses does not benefit from recognized revenue for the facility however; it may help the local government that may also own the facility.  Clearly understanding how success will be measured is particularly important when evaluating a spectator oriented facility.

Developing a site specific business plan with all of the information necessary to talk knowledgably with political leadership is a requirement to get the support needed for moving forward.  Once a commitment to move forward is made then the process of delivering the experience can begin.

Delivering the Experience

Athlete – Delivering the sense of Wow.  When walking into the venue facility sense of importance and awe.  Having arrived at the world stage.  The athlete needs a fast pool.  These are the results of resistive forces experience by the competitor during a race and the propulsive forces that a swimmer can generate.  The design can affect both of these.  For the resistive forces, water depth, wave action (gutter design and touch pad design), mechanical system returns can all influence the field of play.  I have often said the definition of a fast pool is a lake a sunset, it is just glass.  The design must return the pool to a glass like state as quickly as possible.

The design also influences propulsive forces.  The water temperature and quality can have a profound impact on the athlete’s performance.  FINA rules are prescriptive on temperature requirements for competition.  The mechanical systems ability to deliver this temperature is critical to maximize the athlete’s performance.

The design must also provide good water and air.  The sanitation process includes chemical reactions that require air.  Minimizing the disinfection byproducts depend on both the water chemistry and the air systems.  Getting the right solution by incorporating water filtration, sanitation with both primary and supplemental sanitation and the air handling system to support the chemical reaction and evacuating the disinfection byproducts is critical to a life time best performance for the athlete.  This receipe of success just does not happen without careful planning and engineering.

Spectators – may not know the details of a great venue facility, but they know when it does not work right.  Lines of site, acoustics, glare, temperature and humidity levels and comfortable seat all significantly impact the spectator experience.  Getting this right is the result of careful planning and design to deliver an outstanding venue environment

Beyond the venue, support facilities such as food service and restrooms are critical to provide comfort to the patron.  The transportation system and parking add to the overall memories of the competition.

Officials also are sensitive to glare, temperature, humidity, lines of site, but they also require unique spaces.  Deck space, clear traffic patterns, and adjacencies are critical.  Dedicated support facility for toilets, changing and hospitality are critical

Media – The design challenges for the media are a balance of providing what is necessary without building in functional obsolescence.  Both technology and the presentation are changing dramatically and the ability to create something today that will support and foster great presentations for the next 50 to 100 years is critical.  Visual excitement is fostered by staging that can include framing the picture with spectators in the background (gladiator seating), visually appealing (un-attractive spaces in critical camera angles) and the use of color.  Staging also incorporate a little theater with exciting athlete entrances and award stand presentations.  Providing the wow shot for those special moments.  A dedicated interview space that is functional and accessible in a timely fashion is critical to catch the excitement of the moment.

Practical infrastructure design to meet the media needs to support the general requirements.  This could include lighting catwalks for rigging, power, access to outside support spaces.  Technology to internet

Corporate Sponsor – expects all the basics of the normal spectator but with a sense of creating a unique experience.  From a design perspective this could take the form of dedicated space that provides proximity to the action, views, hospitality services, security, and ease of ingress and egress.

The facility managers and operations will be looking for design and engineering solutions that offer adequate functional work and storage space to support their requirements.  These are often the first to go when budgets get tight and can have a lasting effect for the life of the facility.  Their goal is to be able to provide and experience that meets and exceeds expectations on a daily basis.  This requires dependable equipment and controls, ease of maintainability (relamping), practical mechanical solutions (UV Maintenance requirements – Time and money), redundancy in systems( pumps, motors, HVAC 1 big unit versus 3 smaller ones) and effective staffing levels.

Different areas of the world have different expectations with regard to staffing and risk management protocols.  For example in many places it may be cheaper to staff of position than to install and automatic control system.  In some cultures staff security through visual control and access is expected while in others having a individual available for questions is common.  Lifeguarding protocols is an example of different operating expectations and labor impact that the same facility can have in different parts of the world.

In the end, the design must be able to deliver a safe and wholesome experience for the users to generate repeat visits both for competitors and daily users.  In summary, patrons do not come to the pool because of the locker room, but they may not come to the pool because of the locker room if it is not clean and safe.

For a venue facility to be successful, the design solution often goes beyond the competitive field of play and incorporates meeting the general aquatic needs of the community.  Typically this not only includes the athlete but also the recreation, lesson and fitness and therapy users.  Each user group has specific needs for their program.  Often these include around water temperature and water depth.  The competitive swimming is an athlete requiring both deep water (2 meter / 3 meters) and cool water (25 to 28 degrees Celsius).  The recreation user may prefer shallower in the 1.2 meter range and warmer water in the 29 to 30 C range.  The lesson swimmer needs staging area or what I call gutter crawler area with open area to swim.  The therapy and fitness user can have a variety of preferences on water temperature depending on the modality and purpose of the protocol.  For example, an arthritis patient might prefer water in the 33 C range and a MS patient would prefer much cooler water.

The more user groups and constituencies that benefit from the creation of an aquatics facility weather for the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup Grand Prix, the  Juniors or the community swim club, the more likely the vision will become a reality.  By expanding, the benefits beyond the athlete to the local community (life skills) and creating an economic engine that is self-sustaining and positively impacts the economy creates a winning scenario for all involved.


All Stories

Aging, Health and Well Being of United States Master Swimmers

To see if United States Masters Swimmers (USMS) had a more favorable health status than the general population, the Counsilman Center for the Science of Swimming, led by Dr. Joel Stager, conducted research at the 2004 United States Masters Swimming Championships.

The subjects, who averaged 4.7 hours moderate and 7.1 hours of vigorous activity per week, exhibited numerous traits that were consistent with optimal aging outcomes such as retention of pulmonary function, muscle mass and strength, and a more favorable blood lipid and blood pressure profile.

The study suggests that the better (higher) scores on the instruments used to assess physical health, mental health, and quality of life obtained from the swimmers is due to a higher level of activity.

The results revealed that the USMS population is participating above and beyond the ACSM and CDC recommendations for physical activity, and that this may be an important factor in the greater overall health status and quality of life that these individuals enjoy.

To review the complete study visit:  Aging Health and Well Being of Master Swimmers   

Angled Wedge-Shaped Footrest For Starting Blocks

About 18 months ago FINA approved starting blocks with an angled wedge-shaped footrest on the back edge.  The idea is that athletes will have the advantage of producing more force from the blocks and therefore faster starts/races.  In addition to the wedge some manufacturers are able to provide side handles on the blocks that athletes can use to generate speed.  Such handles were part of the custom blocks at IUPUI that were installed 30 years ago and have been allowed for many years.  The measure of the amount of advantage of the adjustable footrest is not conclusive but testing indicates that the handles offer significant advantage.  USA Swimming and recently the NCAA voted to allow the wedge style blocks but NFSHSA has not yet approved them.  KDI Paragon, SR Smith and Spectrum, have wedge-style blocks with side handles. Omega has wedge-style blocks.   Anti and Kiefer only offer side handles only.  Older blocks by KDI Paragon and Spectrum can be retrofitted to have a wedge and handles.

There are negative aspects to the wedge.  Different athletes will want different locations so wedges must be easily movable.  Some athletes do not like the wedge and choose not to use it.  Some athletes may not be used to the manufacturer’s method of adjustment.  Delays in meets may be common.  The wedge also may need to be safely removable during relay starts.  Then, where does it go?  Who replaces it?  With rear step starting blocks stepping over the wedge can be a safety concern.  With side step starting blocks stepping over the handles may be a problem.

Minimum Water Depths Under Starting Blocks

On July 20, 2012, the Facility Design and Construction Model for the Model Aquatic Health Code (MAHC) was posted for public comment due October 14, 2012.  In section a single sentence could change the industry standard for minimum depths  under starting blocks to 6 feet and 7 inches for a distance of 20 feet.  This could have a significant impact on swimming pools around the country and industry professionals are encouraged to participate in the public input process.  In order to make an informed decision, the following data is offered for consideration. 

Competitive swimmers execute headfirst dive entries from starting blocks into pools where water depths can vary. If the swimmer’s head strikes the bottom of a pool, this could result in damage to the cervical vertebrae, thus may result in quadriplegia. This was a significant topic of conversation in the industry in the early 1980s when a varsity swimmer at a university was injured in practice. Before 1970 this was unheard of, but in the early 70s, goggles were introduced and different methods of completing racing dives were developed to maximize speed and minimize the potential for losing goggles.  

In prevention of Cervical Spinal Injuries (CSI), a cohesive plan currently does not exist for a minimum uniform water depth, which would lessen the likelihood of catastrophic tragedies. “No Diving” signs are posted when the water is less than five feet deep in some states, and four feet in others. There is still more inconsistency. What is the right depth for balancing safety and function for underneath starting blocks? Moreover, should we build all-deep water pools? What depth? And what about recreation swimmers?  

Here’s the Confusion

Up until the early 2000s the industry standard water depths were in the 3 feet 6 inches to 4 feet range. November 2001, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) changed minimum water depths from 3 feet 6 inches to 4 feet. USA Swimming followed suit with a note that teaching off a starting block shall be limited to 6 feet water depth. 

Policy makers, swimming pool rulebooks, and state swimming pool codes still lack research in regard to water depth requirements under starting blocks. Moreover, water depth requirements under starting blocks in governing bodies’ rulebooks not only conflict with one another but often conflict with state statutes, which may in turn conflict with local county and municipal ordinances.  

The following shows a variance among the four aquatic governing bodies, as well as the YMCA and the American Red Cross, in regard to water depth for headfirst entries. 

Federation Internationale DE Natation (FINA): 4 feet 5 inches.

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA): 4 feet.

National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHS): 4 feet.

USA Swimming and US Masters Swimming: 4 feet for racing, 6 feet for teaching.

YMCA: 5 feet.

American Red Cross: 9 feet.


The Research

The Counsilman Center for The Science of Swimming completed a study in 2011 on racing start safety published in the International Journal of Aquatic Research and Education.  Joel Stager, Director reports the water depth needed to prevent contact with the bottom of the pool that could result in injury is well beyond 6 feet 7 inches and the critical link to safe starting block starts is education.  In summary this research indicates:

  1. Swimmers go deeper in deeper water
  2. Older swimmers go deeper than younger swimmers
  3. All ages ( and experience levels) of swimmers go shallower when asked to do so
  4. There are differences in head depth as a function of block height
  5. Virtually all starts are fast enough to cause injury if an impact should occur
  6. Very few swimmers go deeper than five feet even in seven feet of water. 

We are at a crossroads between safety versus programming when they should be compatible.  The key to safety in this matter is instruction and how participates learn how to dive.  The reality is no water depth is safe without proper instruction.  When making an informed decision, one must balance the threats and benefits from an activity.  There has been plenty of research on the health advantages of recreation, lesson, fitness, and competitive swimming and how it impacts safety and lifestyle. Here’s a nice shout out to water safety programs and ongoing swim lessons nationwide. Even though more and more people are exposed to a growing number of swimming pools at new aquatic facilities across the nation, drowning death rates in the United States have declined in the last decade according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  


Should We Build All-Deep Water Pools?

Is the answer that we build all-deep water pools? And if so, how deep? Twenty years ago swimmers swam nearly their entire race at the surface. Today most elite swimmers swim a large percentage of their races 3 to 4 feet below the surface, utilizing a butterfly (dolphin) kicking technique.  

Championship pool depth may impede many instructional, fitness, and recreational opportunities and consequently, revenue potential. And since people frequent pools for a variety of reasons—fitness, relaxation, instruction, competition, and therapy—today’s swimming facilities do not just accommodate competitive swimmers but are multidimensional centers encompassing all types of swimmers.  

To provide a fiscally sustainable facility, multiple users must be able to use the same space for different purposes at different times. Building an all deep-water competitive pool would significantly limit other uses such as recreation, lesson, fitness and therapy.  The following shows preferred water depths for various types of swimmers. 

0 – 3.5 Feet



        Wellness / Therapy 

3.5 – 5 Feet


        Lap Swimming

        Wellness / Therapy 

5 – 10 Feet

        Competitive Swimming

        Water Polo

        Synchronized Swimming 

11.5 Feet +


Unintended Consequences

Some may suggest that the Facility Design and Construction Module is limited to new construction and would not apply to existing facilities.  I would suggest that given the United States legal system this is naive.  I cannot envision an outcome that defines separate solutions water depth solutions for new and older pools.  In 2001 when the NFSH changed the minimum depth standard from 3 feet six inches to 4 feet, many high school pools moved the starting blocks from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end.  For pools without diving wells, this proposed change would likely require structural modifications to the pool shell.  To renovate a six lane 25 yard pool from a maximum water depth of 4 feet to 6 feet 7 inches for a distance of 20 feet in front of the pool edge is estimated to be in the $200,000 range.  Not only will the pool depth be effected but the mechanical equipment will need to be upgraded to services the increased water volume.  For new construction the differential cost is not as great with an estimated increased cost in the $20,000 range.  


The State of Michigan is the only state that requires water depths under starting blocks to be 6 feet 7 inches.  If the MAHC codifies this unique standard it will change the national standard as defined by the governing bodies of sport.  In this writer’s opinion, the unintended consequences maybe the dramatic decline of competitive swimming activities in the United States similar to the effects of removing high dives across the country in the 1980’s and 1990’s.  If this happens what are the negative health effects on childhood obesity and an increased sedentary lifestyle? 


Birmingham CrossPlex To Host NCAA Division II Swimming Championships

The NCAA has announced that they will be hosting the Men’s & Women’s NCAA Division II Championships at the Brimingham CrossPlex.  The Birmingham CrossPlex is a world-class facility designed for three primary sports: indoor track and field, volleyball, and competitive swimming and diving. Located just two miles from theBirmingham-SouthernCollegecampus, the Birmingham CrossPlex is proud to begin hosting events that will attract athletes, coaches, and spectators from all over the world.

The team of Counsilman-Hunsaker and Davis Architects designed the state-of-the-art natatorium with the ability to hold 1100 spectators in the stands and 500 athletes/coaches on the deck. The facility features a 50-meter competition pool with bulkhead, which not only accommodates multiple racing and training configurations, but also features a flow-through design which minimizes waves rebounding on turns. The extra deep concrete/tile gutter system creates a calmer pool, thus reducing the amount of turbulence swimmers must face.

12,600 sq. ft. Competition Pool

  • Ten 50-meter lanes
  • Twenty 25-yard lanes
  • Depth ranges from 7 ft. to 13 ft.
  • Fiberglass movable bulkhead to accommodate multiple racing and training configurations
  • Two 1-meter and two 3-meter springboards
  • Generous decks all around the pool
  • Regenerative media water filtration
  • Ultraviolet water treatment system
  • Extra-deep concrete/tile gutter system
  • Water polo