The water’s great, come on in! The latest trends in pool design

Beth Bales

At first glance, it may look like the pool of five years ago. But look again. Sure, there’s still the zero-depth entry, but the pool may have less space devoted to the sloping entry and more devoted to water between l 1/2 to 5 feet deep. Patrons may be able to walk out of the deep water. There might be diving boards or a separate wading pool. Take another look, and you might notice spray grounds and interactive water features, too.

When park districts first began to move away from the rectangular, competition swimming pool of days gone by, zero-depth pools were all the rage. Certainly, the zero-depth design provides a gentle introduction into the water, and is kind to toddlers and older or physically challenged individuals. But, as many park districts and pool operators are discovering, it’s possible to have too much of a good thing.

“You definitely want a zero-depth entry. But expansive zero-depth entry areas are wasted space,” maintains Rich Klarck, aquatics engineer for PHN Architects, of Wheaton, Ill. For those who doubt him, Klarck suggests simply looking where pool patrons congregate. “People are gathered in the area of water that’s 1 1/2 to 6 feet deep,” he says. “That’s where you need the most water. A huge area of zero-depth looks nice, but it’s not functional.”

So when PHN designed three new outdoor pools for the Arlington Heights (Ill.) Park District, it did so with limited zero-depth areas. “Parents wanted a lot of 3 1/2- to 5-foot water,” says Brian Huckstadt, the district’s director of parks and planning. “So with our new pools, we limited our zero-depth areas as much as we could, and gave as much space to the 1 1/2- to 5-foot area as we could. That decision was a direct result of neighborhood meetings and surveys.”

Diving Boards on the Rebound

Over the past few decades, many pool operators removed diving boards. For example, all of Arlington Heights’ 3-meter boards were removed in the late 1980s, primarily because water depths didn’t conform to newer standards for diving.

Now, “diving boards are coming back,” says Douglas Holzrichter, principal at PHN Architects. “People were without, and now they realize they don’t want to be. Diving boards provide the excitement that teenagers are looking for.” Park districts, of course, are always trying to find features to attract this fickle demographic group.

In the past few years, PHN has designed several facilities boasting new boards. Libertyville (Ill.) added two 1-meter boards and a drop slide, part of a deep-water expansion project in 2001. All three of the Arlington Heights Park District’s newly completed pools have 1-meter diving boards. Two also have 3-meter boards–the “high dives” many adults remember from their childhood–while the third also has a drop slide.

When the 42-year-old Pioneer Park Pool was reconstructed in the late 1990s, the district, at the behest of residents, installed two 1-meter boards and a drop slide. That was the plan for redoing the three just-finished pools as well, says Huckstadt. “But residents said, `We want the 3-meter boards. They’re more exciting than drop slides.'” Arlington Heights obliged the residents, and the boards were a big attraction this summer.

The Mount Prospect Park District’s reconstructed Meadows Pool, which opened in August, also features a return to diving. Residents polled about what amenities they wanted at the pool dubbed a diving board as a “gotta have it” item, says Aquatics Manager Sarah Thompson.

The Bolingbrook Park District had a similar experience. When it opened a new facility in 1996, there were no boards. “The first comments were, `Where’s the deep water? Where are the diving boards?'” Ochromowicz says. For the 2001 expansion project, Bolingbrook added a 1-meter board. “It’s very well used,” Director Ray Ochromowicz says. “In fact, we could use a second board.”

Spraygrounds Spread the Fun

Spraygrounds combine water with a playground structure. The result is new fun at the pool. “Many of our clients are adding these to existing facilities, to extend the fun factor,” said PHN’s Klarck. “They can keep kids entertained for hours.”

The sprayground area typically holds no standing water, or perhaps just a few inches. Instead, water may shoot from fountains, jets, falls, hoses, pull spouts, water guns or through water curtains, then drain away. “Children can interact with each other or manipulate the equipment themselves. There are lots of possibilities,” Klarck says.

The Glendale Heights Aquatic Center has two sprayground attractions. One, only for children 7 and younger, holds 50 children and features water spouts and small buckets that overflow. The second is in the main pool and features tumble buckets, machines that spout and spray water, and a whale water slide for younger children. Both the Bolingbrook and Vernon Hills districts added sprayground facilities with interactive water machines when the pools were expanded in 2001. Arlington Heights’ three new pools all have spraygrounds as well. Personnel from all four districts say the attraction are highly popular.

There are a wide range of components available for spraygrounds, ranging from smaller grounds with perhaps one to three features, to a very large sprayground that’s a full-blown attraction. “A larger water park may put in a treehouse that’s 20 feet high, with three or four different levels, with slides, tunnels and other attractions,” says Klarck. “Most park districts, though, add smaller spraygrounds with multiple activities for younger children.” The various modules allow children to manipulate the water in many ways “Water shoots from jets, there are water falls, kids pull a rope to release water, they squirt water through guns, they ride a tire swing and water can come out,” he says.

Spraygrounds are also valued because they’re vastly less expensive than a pool. In addition, spraygrounds might not count as increasing bather load, so adding them doesn’t trigger changes to bathhouses or parking lots, Klarck says. “Spraygrounds deliver a lot of punch for the cost,” he adds. “These attractions are definitely a wave of the future.”

Stairs in Deep Water: A Step Ahead

Who says going into deep water has to be one giant first step? The newly rebuilt Camelot Pool in Arlington Heights, Ill., which opened in June, has stairs in its dive pool. The steps gradually take swimmers into water 3 1/2 feet deep; the water then drops off to its full depth of 13 feet. The Mount Prospect Park District’s new pool also features steps in the diving well.

Stairs provide a very gentle introduction to deep water and also make it easier to get in and out of deep water, said PHN’s Klarck. “Children can be swimming or participating in a class, swim a few strokes and then they’re right back on the steps,” he says. The stairs also provide a place for class participants to sit and listen, while taking instruction. “For scuba classes, for example, the stairs make it much easier for participants to put on their equipment and enter the water,” Klarck says. In addition, instead of having to hoist themselves up, users can walk out of deep water, he adds, a feature that’s of special significance for seniors or people with physical limitations.

Stairs also provide an additional attraction. Arlington Heights authorities expect middle–and high-school youths to congregate at least part of the time at the deep-water stairs. They can sit partially in the water, and cheer on or watch friends enjoying the diving board and drop slide.

A note of caution: Some states may require variances before allowing stairs to be installed.

Evolution of the Wading Pool

In the move to zero-depth for all, many districts eliminated the so-called baby pool, which frequently was a small, isolated concrete pool with a half-foot of water. Today, many park districts and country clubs are returning to separate–and equal-facilities for the younger set. The newer baby pools frequently feature a zero-depth entry, a cushioned surface, perhaps interactive water features for curious, hands-on tots and deck space for watchful parents.

“Parents are much more comfortable with separate pools for small children,” says Klarck. “Parent don’t have to worry as much about children venturing out of their depth or being knocked over by older children. Sometimes there’s even an adjacent playground for smaller kids.”

“First-time parents, especially, love separate wading pools, because they like the safety the seclusion provides their young child” says Arlington Heights’ Huckstadt. “Parents were concerned about little children being knocked over.” The district’s three new pools all have separate wading pools, all with water features.

The wading pools provide an important transition for small children. “One year the children are in the wading pool, where it’s very restricted and very safe,” Huckstadt adds. “The next year they’re ready for the bigger pool. Having both gives parents the chance to find the depth and style of pool they’re comfortable with.”

Klarck says that separate facilities for the smaller set also carry another advantage. “With little kids, the tendency to have accidents in the pool is higher,” he notes. “If there is an incident, park districts don’t have to shut down the main pool. In fact, if they have to, operators can even empty out the small pool and start over, because there’s not that much water.”

Other Family-Friendly Facilities

Despite the emergence of adults-only areas at some pools (see p. 48), park districts know that they must offer something for everyone. To make everyone comfortable, districts are adding more shade, more deck furniture, even family changing rooms, which both the Mount Prospect and Arlington Heights districts added to their just-opened facilities. “We put in more deck furniture than we ever have before,” says Huckstadt of Arlington Heights. “Our new pools have more of a resort feel.”

Given concerns over skin care, shade also is increasingly important, says PHN’s Holzrichter. When Arlington Heights’ rebuilt Pioneer Pool opened in 1999 with seven new funbrellas, users at the four other outdoor pools in town said, “Hey, what about us?” notes Huckstadt. “The next year we installed a total of 14 new Funbrellas and two Sunshade structures at those pools.” Twelve of those new Funbrellas were reinstalled at the just-opened pools as part of the redesign; the remaining structures are in use at the district’s fifth pool.

Ochromowicz of Bolingbrook says that having plenty of shade “is one of those things that might not be apparent in the beginning. Patrons say, `I’ve had enough sun. Find me some shade.'” To oblige those seeking refuge from the rays, the district has added six funbrellas to Pelican Harbor–which already had six–as well as awnings and other shade in concession areas.

Other newly popular family-friendly features include:

* Family changing areas, which make it convenient for any parent to take children of either sex to the pool.

* An additional paint stripe at the 2-or 3-feet-deep mark to note a depth change. “It’s such a minimal cost and it’s a real benefit,” says PHN’s Klarck. “Moms can tell their kids, `You can go to the blue stripe and no further.'”

* Self-serve concession stands, which can shorten waits for food.

* Membership cards that can be swiped through a machine and thereby speed entering the facility.

* And, of course, many districts already have added such attractions as lazy rivers and flume, body and drop slides.

What’s Next?

“People want better facilities. That’s ongoing,” says Arlington Heights’ Huckstadt. “And pools have to offer more to a wider group of people.”

Parents no longer simply drop their kids off for the day, as they did 15 or 20 years ago, he says. “Times have changed. Parents now tend to stay at the pool and keep watch.” Thus, park districts must offer facilities to keep kids of all ages entertained, from small children who need wading pools to finicky teens who crave excitement. Older adults may bring grandchildren to the pool, so there needs to be something for the grandchildren, and probably shade and furniture for the grandparents.

Park officials know that what was new and exciting one year may be an essential component just a few years later. Bolingbrook’s Pelican Harbor center, for example, opened two 35-foot high slides–known as “dark slides,” because they’re enclosed–in 2001. Between the height (10 feet taller than the norm for municipal pools), the enclosure and the twists and turns, the slides are “the most popular attractions in the park,” says Ochromowicz. But he knows that today’s novelty is tomorrow’s standard feature. “Slides are now an essential component,” he says.

So when residents ask, he and other district officials remain quiet about what’s next for Bolingbrook. “We don’t want to lock in expectations,” Ochromowicz says. “”Down the road, there could be something all new and exciting out there that doesn’t even exist now.”


Though pools are definitely family-friendly places, a number of park districts recognize that not all big people come to the pool with tikes in tow. For example, the Arlington Heights Park District put in adults-only areas, with plenty of shade, at its rebuilt pools.

The Wood Dale Park District’s 12-year-old pool has a unique adults-only deck area that has proved popular over the years, says Executive Director Mike Brottman. “It’s separate and hidden,” he says of the spa. “Adults can lay out and tan, without worrying about kids bugging them.” Forty people can use the deck, which has an attendant, a whirlpool, deck chairs, music and signs that read, “Absolutely no children.” An after-work spa club has even formed, composed largely of residents who “get right off the train and come right to the pool,” Brottman says. “It’s a nice feature.”

RELATED ARTICLE: Help Your Community be Sun Safe.

NRPA and the University of Hawaii are launching a new phase of the award-winning Pool Cool program, a national skin cancer awareness, education and prevention program. NRPA is recruiting more than 400 outdoor swimming pools from 28 metropolitan regions across the country to participate in a three-year research study. Participating swimming pools will receive free lifeguard training, valuable educational materials (instructional books, lessons, teaching aids, posters, signs, etc.), as well as other incentives for participating in the program. This is an excellent opportunity to add significant value to your community’s recreational programming at no cost to participating pools.

NRPA also needs 100 field coordinators from the same metropolitan regions to help administer the program. Applicants should be experienced aquatics or recreation professionals who don’t have plans to relocate within the next two years. Participating field coordinators will receive a stipend plus expenses, and will also be eligible to receive a free NRPA board-certified training program on skin cancer prevention and the Pool Cool program to be taught by NRPA national training faculty.

Study recruitment areas include Albuquerque, N.M.; Austin, Texas; Baltimore, Md.; Boston, Mass.; Charlotte, N.C.; Chicago, III.; Columbus, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; Des Moines, Iowa; Honolulu, Hawaii; Indianapolis, Ind.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Kansas City, Mo.; Lexington, Ky.; Los Angeles, Calif.; New York, N.Y.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Minneapolis, Minn.; Nashville, Tenn.; Omaha, Neb.; Philadelphia, Pa.; Phoenix, Ariz.; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio, Texas; San Diego, Calif; Seattle, Wash.; Virginia Beach, Va.; and Wichita, Kan. A limited portion of the Pool Cool program will be made available outside these study areas.

For more information about the program, contact Tom Elliott, project director, at the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii at 866-769-2665 or poolcool@crch.hawaii. edu. For additional information and an online application, go to

Beth Bales is a writer based in Geneva, Ill. In addition to media relations work, she writes a weekly community column for a suburban Chicago newspaper.

COPYRIGHT 2002 National Recreation and Park Association

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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