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Exercises in design

22 Dec 21 Are municipal leisure centres designed with the needs of all users in mind? One architect thinks not. So, to judge for himself, David Taylor cycled into his local town where a brand-new leisure centre is currently under construction

If you’re interested in keeping fit and healthy, you’ve probably spent some time in your local leisure centre. But have you ever come away frustrated and thinking the experience could have been improved by more enlightened design?

If you’re a parent or carer in charge of small children, the chances are you have, according to GT3 Architects, a design practice that specialises in sports and leisure facilities.

Earlier this year, GT3 published the results of a survey it had conducted among adult caregivers which found that 85% “find it incredibly difficult to deal with the challenges of a leisure centre – such as where to put a child while you get changed or how to get into the pool safely if your child cannot stand by themselves”.

This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Please sign up online 

Project architect Judith Atkinson, who led on the survey, explained: “Understanding the caregivers’ experiences – such as knowing that 50% consider a waiting area within the reception important or that 96% would prefer a family-friendly cubicle…we can make leisure centres more inclusive.”

Discussing that survey on the Re:Construction podcast (June 9th, 2021) Construction Index online editor Phil Bishop said what many of us were thinking: “It’s kind of obvious – especially given the fact that this is a firm of architects that specialise in this. What took them so long?”

The likely answer is that GT3 already knew what the users of these facilities want and that its research serves to back up its current design philosophy. Whether any other architects still remain ignorant of the inadequacy of existing designs is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that GT3 is not the only architectural practice specialising in sports and leisure facilities. Listening to Re:Construction back in June was Rima Yousif, project architect with Loughborough-based Watson Batty.

Not only does Yousif design leisure centres, she also designed the new £14m leisure centre currently under construction next to the River Taw in Barnstaple, North Devon – my local leisure centre, in other words.

And having heard me express the hope that the new Tarka Leisure Centre (named, like nearly everything in North Devon, after local author Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter) would not commit the design faux pas described by GT3, Yousif invited me along to see for myself the half-completed project. So off I went.

The new Tarka Leisure Centre is being built by main contractor Speller Metcalfe on top of an old landfill site on the west bank of the River Taw, just upstream of the existing North Devon Leisure Centre, which was built in 1975.

As a parent (of now grown-up children), I am familiar with the design shortcomings of this ageing facility: labyrinthine stairwells and corridors leading to cramped changing cubicles with permanently wet floors opening onto the 25m main pool and training pool – both located, bizarrely, on the first floor.

“Why would a designer do that?” wonders Andy Gibbs, Speller Metcalfe’s site manager for the new facility. Yousif’s pools – also a 25m main pool plus training pool – are sensibly located at ground level. And both have moveable floors that extend the usability of the pools and allow for the requirements of different users.

The new facility sits adjacent to the Tarka Tennis Centre, built about 20 years ago and operated by Parkwood Leisure, which will also run the new leisure centre. Parkwood is Speller Metcalfe’s client and is employed by North Devon District Council to design, build, operate and maintain the new leisure centre.

The entrance to the new centre opens out onto the existing Tarka Tennis car-park. Access is therefore very easy. Visitors enter straight into the main reception area which, although relatively small, has views into all ground floor areas – the pools, sports hall and an ‘endless’ dry ski-slope – and leads into the café area which also has an outside terrace.

Stairs and lifts (including a disabled lift) lead to the first floor where the 120-station gym and two exercise studios are located.

“Wayfinding is very clear,” says Yousif. “You understand the internal layout as soon as you step inside.”

There’s just one turnstile providing access beyond the reception and café area and this leads straight onto a central corridor running the entire length of the building.

While GT3’s research suggests that users would appreciate a waiting area inside the main reception, Yousif’s design avoids wide open public spaces and the reception area does not encourage people to loiter. (They can of course wait – with a cup of coffee, if desired – in the café leading off to the left of the reception desk).

“A lot of design can be wasted on circulation areas and large circulation areas are difficult to manage,” says Yousif. Her design has a total floor area of around 4,500m2 but she says that a leisure centre boasting similar facilities to this design would traditionally cover as much as 6,000m2.

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 One of the main sources of frustration for users, according to GT3’s research, are the changing facilities – especially those serving the pool area. Watson Batty clearly understands this, because Yousif has included carefully thought-out features to accommodate every user.

The most fundamental provision is the complete separation of wet and dry areas – so there’s no risk of dropping clothes or towels onto dirty wet floors. But there are also dedicated facilities for families, for school parties and for the disabled, including special changing and shower facilities for the severely disabled.

Both main and training pools have moveable floors, allowing the depth to be adjusted. And both also have special lifts for wheelchair users. “We can raise the floor so it’s level with the poolside,” says Yousif. “Users can just wheel themselves on and then lower themselves into the pool. It’s more dignified than being craned in,” she explains.

The access arrangements throughout the complex are not, of course, just the brainchild of the architect: there’s Part M of the Building Regulations, not to mention the requirements of Sport England (which is part-funding the project) to cater for all users.

Ensuring a clear separation between wet and dry areas also helps simplify design of the drainage system – it’s all concentrated on one side of the building.

At the time of my visit to the site, in July, rebar for the main pool had been fixed in preparation for the concrete pour. Building swimming pools is a very niche activity and the supplier here is specialist subcontractor Buckingham Pools.

Speller Metcalfe site manager Andy Gibbs explains that there is a very clear cut-off between his responsibilities and those of Buckingham Pools. “We dig the hole and then Buckingham installs the shuttering, fixes the steel and pours the concrete,” he says.

The main pool is built to competition specification, which means tolerances are extremely tight. “When the concrete’s cured, the pool is exactly 25m in length – plus 30mm for the tiling,” adds Gibbs. “Buckingham is responsible for everything inside the pool up to the scum channel around the perimeter; we’re responsible for the dish tiling and everything above that.”

 Not locating your swimming pool on the first floor has obvious benefits. It’s a lot cheaper, requires less material, involves less risk and saves on a lot of engineering design. That’s not to say, however, that constructing the new Tarka Leisure Centre pools has been without its own challenges.

As previously mentioned, the new facility sits on top of an old landfill site; ground conditions are very poor as well as contaminated. The lamentable loadbearing capacity of the ground is obvious to anybody who has parked outside the existing North Devon Leisure Centre: it has subsided into a bizarre landscape of undulations that would look more at home in a skate-park than a car-park.

Consequently, the business of creating the deep excavations for the pool has proved challenging for Speller Metcalfe and its groundworks contractor, Churngold. And of course the whole structure depends on robust foundations in the form of driven precast concrete piles provided by specialist contractor Roger Bullivant.

An added concern for the construction team is the site’s environmentally sensitive location on the banks of the River Taw, one of the west country’s best-known salmon rivers.

The basic concreting work for both pools was completed over the summer. But before any further work, such as tiling, could commence they had to be water-tested to ensure there were no leaks and no settlement. Mains water was piped from the adjacent Tarka Tennis centre to fill the pools and, when tests were completed, it was discharged under special licence from South West Water into the foul sewer.

The complexity of pool construction is not confined to the precise concreting and hydraulic movable floors: there’s also the filtration. This is all located at the back of the building in a special plant room. The pool filters have been supplied by Certikin, one of the industry’s leading manufacturers of pool equipment, and comprise three SLC 2350-30MX bobbin-wound GRP lateral filters with gravel/sand media for the main pool, plus two SLX 1600-30MX filters for the training pool.

The filters, each weighing more than three tonnes, have a 15-year lifecycle after which they must be replaced. This is a major undertaking and to facilitate their removal and replacement, two large sections of cladding, plus their central pillar, are designed for easy removal.

By the beginning of October, all external cladding panels had been installed and Speller Metcalfe was installing the rainscreen cassettes and Cedral timber-effect cladding sections.

Meanwhile, external windows, doors, internal partitions and M&E services were progressing in line with the programme and preparations made for the arrival of the indoor ski-machine in November.

Completion is still on track for April 2022, despite the unexpected disruption of Covid-19. “We were supposed to start on site in July 2020 but that didn’t happen until September,” says Gibbs. Like so many projects, the construction team had to get used to video conferencing – which worked surprisingly well – and didn’t have a single face-to-face meeting until July this year.

Whether or not Yousif’s design for the Tarka Leisure Centre corrects all of the shortcomings identified by GT3 Architects’ recent research I wouldn’t like to say. But having avoided the uninviting, chlorine-scented interior of North Devon’s old leisure centre since the day the Taylor children were old enough to fend for themselves, I might be tempted to slip on a pair of old Nikes and check out its new replacement – if only to see what the finished project looks like.

This article was first published in the November 2021 issue of The Construction Index Magazine. Please sign up online 

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