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With vast experience in both the residential and commercial markets, Kevin Ruddy is one of the watershaping industry’s foremost experts on the design and construction of indoor swimming pools and their surrounding environments. Here, in this first of two features covering a complicated residential project, he discusses the painstaking process of designing a pool and the systems that integrate it with the surrounding structure.
With vast experience in both the residential and commercial markets, Kevin Ruddy is one of the watershaping industry’s foremost experts on the design and construction of indoor swimming pools and their surrounding environments.  Here, in this first of two features covering a complicated residential project, he discusses the painstaking process of designing a pool and the systems that integrate it with the surrounding structure.
By Kevin Ruddy

With vast experience in both the residential and commercial markets, Kevin Ruddy is one of the watershaping industry’s foremost experts on the design and construction of indoor swimming pools and their surrounding environments.  Here, in this first of two features covering a complicated residential project, he discusses the painstaking process of designing a pool and the systems that integrate it with the surrounding structure.

It seems counterintuitive, but indoor swimming pool environments are wholly and entirely distinct from their outdoor cousins.  

The differences are mostly contained in the fact that, indoors, the designer needs to consider not only the pool and its hydraulic performance, but also the enclosure and the air-handling and dehumidification systems that makes these spaces comfortable and enjoyable for clients and their guests.   

Through years of designing and installing indoor pools, we at Omega Pool Structures (Toms River, N.J.) have learned – sometimes the hard way – what works and what doesn’t.  Now, supported by more than two decades’ experience, we’ve

expanded our business and have started designing projects for others to build.  

This has been an education in itself and has taught us what we need to do to simplify the process for those who don’t have the track record we do.

EVOLVING APPROACHES

One of the first things we learned was where and when to exercise some restraint.  

When writing specifications, for example, we no longer call out particular products; instead, we provide performance specifications that contractors can meet while making their own product selections.  We’re certainly willing to make recommendations if asked, but by and large we’ve found value in stepping back here and giving contractors options to consider.  And we’ll also listen to evaluate whether they have good reason to request a variance.

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Developing plans for indoor pools is a complicated matter because, in addition to the usual structural and hydraulic issues related to shells and moving water, we also tackle air-conditioning/dehumidification systems and place everything within completely encapsulating shelters.  It’s complicated enough that we provide builders with performance specifications rather than component lists, giving them the ability to work with their preferred vendors – and some creative options when it comes to getting the job done.  (For easier reference, the images at middle left and right are insets of the text in the construction documents.)
By contrast, one area where we stick to our own programs is with energy efficiency.  We’ve gone green in important ways, but what we run into with relative frequency is a contrary attitude among some manufacturers (and others who serve our market segment) that anyone who can afford an indoor swimming pool can also afford the elevated energy costs associated with ongoing operation of these systems.

We’ve never believed in this philosophy, knowing well that even wealthy clients are sensitive when it comes to outlays for operating expenses.  This is why we avoid designing systems in which the pool water is heated using the dehumidification system but instead rely on fossil-fuel heaters that we supplement when possible with solar or geothermal heating systems.  We do, however, recycle the heat generated by the dehumidification system, sending it back to the room to supplement the air-heating system.

We’ve explored just about every conceivable green option in recent years and have watched as renewable energy sources (solar and geothermal among them) have become more and more commonplace in our work.  To date, however, the greatest energy-saver we’ve found comes in the form of an automatic cover.

Indeed, we’ve found that solid covers reduce energy consumption of indoor pools by 60 to 70 percent, on the one hand by cutting costs associated with heating the water, and on the other by minimizing evaporation and slashing the work the dehumidification system must do to maintain low levels of indoor humidity.

If the water is maintained without a cover at the typically desired level of 82 degrees Fahrenheit, massive evaporation occurs and what happens is that the air-handling system actually works against the heating system, essentially wasting energy on both sides of the equation.  Covers virtually eliminate that problem while also dramatically reducing the odors associated with indoor pools – a significant concern for many clients.   

With automatic pool covers – which we install with about 90 percent of our projects – we recognize that they tend to place limits on design possibilities, basically because it’s easiest to work with covers on rectangular pools.  Although we’ll occasionally run into clients who have their hearts set on freeform pools of one type or another, most of the interior spaces we work in are themselves rectangular or at least rectilinear, so rectangular pools look right at home and our clients are satisfied with simple designs.  

We know, of course, that covers can be made to work with pools of just about any shape, but even our most affluent clients will balk at the costs of such creativity and tend to settle easily on basic rectangular shapes.

LUXURY RESTORED

In a typical project, we’re called in by an architect who has come up with a general design that meets the clients’ needs and desires and is looking to us to define structural and functional details that will make the entire environment comfortable, serviceable and, ultimately, as enjoyable as possible.

In this role, we deal primarily with air-handling, dehumidification and swimming pool operation, but experience has also led us to contribute in other areas (sound absorption, lighting and vapor barriers, for example) – so much so that we now see these as typical inclusions in our design work on indoor pool environments.

All of these factors (and more) come into play in the project covered on these pages.  We were tapped to participate in the mass-scale remodeling of an upscale home in a rural Connecticut neighborhood for clients who knew what they wanted and had the wherewithal to get it all.  Larson and Paul Architects (New York, N.Y.) ran the project, and we worked directly with them as well as the clients in developing the plans and specifications for the pool and the pool area’s systems.  In our office, Jeff Bova led the architectural and design department in performing all tasks involved in seamlessly integrating our design solutions into the overall plan.  

Once our plans were complete, we were then to hand a contract to a local pool construction firm, after which we were to function in project management and oversight.  Fortunately, we knew the builder who won the bid quite well:  William Drakeley of Drakeley Pools (Woodbury, Conn.), who will be writing the second of the pair of articles WaterShapes will publish about this project.   

Tough Ground

When our firm gets involved in design tasks for any indoor pool – whether commercial or residential – we require a complete, comprehensive set of plans from the architect or general contractor.  We want to know all there is to know about the foundation and, perhaps most important of all, the condition of the soil in which we are to work so our engineer will be fully informed in creating structural details.

It’s important that we see the construction documents early on, because we’re also designing air-handling and dehumidification systems and need to place equipment, ductwork, building penetrations and more in addition to our basic work on the pool – which is also helped by early access to the plans.

Likewise with the soils and geology reports:  We need to know what the site requires so we can exceed the minimums and eliminate any prospect of the pool failing and taking the surrounding structure down with it.  We are among those firms that believe no pool should ever be designed without information about soil conditions in hand.  As we see it, moving forward without such reports is both unprofessional and ridiculously and unnecessarily risky.

In the project described in the accompanying text, the soil was rock-solid shale, meaning we had no concerns and would be building atop fully competent, load-bearing material.  We also knew that explosives would be needed to clear the site and get the contractor ready to build the pool with free-standing forms.

All of this information was, of course, provided to all bidders so they knew exactly what they faced.

-- K.R.
Back to the design:  The home itself displays a subtle mixture of both contemporary and country architecture and was being completely rebuilt while maintaining some of the original structure.  The swimming pool was to be included in a new wing that extended well beyond the home’s original footprint.  Once all the spaces were finished, the house was to be 10,000 square feet larger than it had originally been.

The remodeled home was to be outfitted with a new driveway, garage, kitchen, slate roof and floor plan; completely new interior finishes, fixtures and appliances; and a brand-new heating, ventilating and air-conditioning system.  Materials for the floors, fireplaces, doors and other architectural features came from China and other exotic locales – and as the project progressed, the clients requested numerous changes and revisions that most definitely expanded the original budget.

The pool addition also includes a bar area, a maid-service facility, men’s and women’s dressing rooms, a spacious veranda overlooking the property and a host of other amenities.  The pool space features beautiful limestone floors with a crisply contemporary grid pattern, skylights, elegantly appointed ceilings, floor-to-ceiling windows and doors that pivot to open, thereby creating a refreshing indoor/outdoor ambiance.  

As a rule, surfaces in indoor pool spaces may be made to appear as regular interiors, but they have much more in common with exterior finishes.  In this case, for example, the ceiling appears to be ordinary plaster, but it’s actually backed by a vapor barrier to prevent moisture from migrating into the structure.  

In addition – and considering the abundance of glass – we had to design the air-handling system with both floor and ceiling supply and return grills – which brings up a major point about these environments:  One of the most important design details is making certain the air-handling system delivers proper air flow to all glass surfaces to keep them from fogging!

A COMFORTABLE RETREAT

Backing up once again, it’s important to point out that this design was the result of a wonderful team effort.  In some cases, architects are reluctant to allow anyone else to have direct client access – and that’s especially true with clients of great affluence.  In this project, however, we were able to work with the clients ourselves, and it proved extremely helpful to us in understanding exactly what they wanted and why.

For starters, we learned in our conversations with the clients that this was to be a second home and to be occupied on occasions throughout the year.  For this reason, they wanted the pool system to be relatively inexpensive to operate and maintain while they were away – but to be ready to go upon their arrival.

Just being aware of this was a help, because it gave us design parameters for the requested water and air temperatures – and that we had to achieve them without creating a muggy indoor room.

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It’s a bit out of most contractors’ comfort zones, but experience has taught us how to deal with issues such as keeping even skylight windows defogged above indoor pools and developing spaces where our clients’ desires for comfort are met with efficiency and style.  Partly, what we do is treat these indoor spaces as though they were exteriors, using materials and applying finishes that can withstand the unique challenges posed by indoor-pool environments.
The pool cover truly was the key here:  With the pool covered during their absences, the water temperature could be affordably maintained.  Also, the lack of evaporation resulting from the cover minimized the need for rapid turnover in the air-handling/dehumidification system.
    
The pool itself is a simple, easy-to-cover, 20-by-50-foot rectangle ranging in depth from three-and-a-half to six feet.  They requested no railings or ladders and wanted  nothing more than a slightly cantilevered coping treatment.

It was all straightforward, except for one complication:  The clients did not want to see the lead rail or tubing at the front of the cover when it was stored in its vault.  That issue was among those solved not in the design phase, but in the construction phase when Drakeley and his staff figured out a clever detail in which they extended the L brackets over the vault so that the bar would be concealed.

The clients were also concerned about water quality, expressing a desire for the clearest, cleanest water possible whenever they might want to use the pool.  This is one of those cases where their resources made it possible to reach beyond the ordinary to something truly special.

What we settled on was a saltwater chlorination system combined with an ozone system – not an unusual conclusion, but one with some twists to it relative to a low-use, covered pool:  Even at minimal operating levels, it was almost impossible to keep chlorine levels within the one-to-two-parts-per-million range because there was really nothing there by way of organic compounds or microorganisms to deplete the supply.

This situation was also of some concern because a salt system makes the water slightly corrosive.  This left Drakeley and his crew to make some adjustments he’ll discuss the second article on this project.

AIR PLAY

The importance of good air-handling systems can’t be overstated with indoor pool environments – and the project at hand is a classic case in point.  

The Warm Blanket

Managing temperature and relative humidity in any indoor pool environment is arguably the most important aspect of the facility’s design.  Within that task, one of the most important elements of the system’s operation is to keep a warm blanket of air flowing across any glass surface.

As an example, if you have water that’s 82 degrees and an indoor air temperature of 84 degrees, it’s critical to keep air flowing over the glass because the outdoor temperature will determine the dew point from which condensation will occur.  By supplying a warm dry air blanket over the glass you prevent the risk of condensation.

For the project described in the accompanying feature, the space included floor-to-ceiling window and door treatments as well as nine skylights.  This meant that we had to specify both a ceiling system to blanket the skylights and a floor system to take care of the doors and windows.  

The doors and windows required placement of a continuous grate around the perimeter of the building.  For its part, the skylight system featured a loop in which  each of the vents delivered an equal amount of air flow and pressure (in much the way you balance flow with spa jets by using a plumbing loop).

In this case, we also had to design the system to suit four separate scenarios: unoccupied in winter, occupied in the winter, unoccupied in summer and occupied in summer.  As mentioned elsewhere, the presence of a cover made a huge difference – a key design element in both the occupied and unoccupied modes.

-- K.R.
In this instance, both the pool and the air were heated using a heat exchanger tied into the home’s propane-powered heating system.  The calculations required to size both the air-handling and dehumidification systems are fairly complex to the uninitiated, but it basically breaks down to balancing the total volume of the space with the desired turnover rate (measured in cubic feet per minute) – all relative to the surface area of the refrigerant coils in the heat exchanger.

The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration, and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) sets standards for these systems, and as is the case with the pool industry, what they offer is bare minimums that must generally be surpassed to achieve quality results.  As a consequence, we always design our systems to exceed those standards by a good measure:  Where, for example, ASHRAE recommends designing systems to maintain 55-to-60-percent relative humidity, in our work we typically aim for and hit 50 percent – a much more comfortable level in an indoor-pool area.  

(The sheer inadequacy of minimum standards in settings as challenging as indoor-pool rooms become even clearer when you consider the large numbers of remodeling jobs we’ve had to tackle in which nobody seemed to appreciate the special needs of indoor pools.  It probably doesn’t help that ASHRAE starts with recommendations against including windows, skylights and bodies of water in conditioned spaces:  This has left us to develop and adhere to our own best-practice approaches for these environments.)

As mentioned previously, once we completed the plan, we participated under contract in the process of putting the pool out for bid and stayed on board as supervising consultant.  This involved us in interviewing both pool and HVAC contractors and providing them with the technical specifics they needed to develop their estimates.  

Three contractors placed bids on the pool and had full confidence they could do the job.  All seemed pleased that we offered performance specifications instead of calling out specific products:  This gave them some room to maneuver, and we were always there to let them know if variances they wanted to propose would be allowed.

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At a key point in this process, we turned our plans over to a pool company that prepared the watershape (seen here in finished form) for our clients.  An upcoming article in this magazine will walk through this construction process step by step, defining in detail what it takes to install a high-end indoor pool.
In the case, the bids were all relatively close, which we like to see but often don’t.  Usually, there will be at least one bidder whose proposal will come in at a dramatically lower level than others, leaving us to worry about what they left out or what corner they might be trying to cut.

With all the bids in, we met with each contractor again to discuss specific issues.  We want to make certain they know what’s entailed by indoor work, including the necessity of working with and around other trades (carpenters, electricians, finish carpenters, plumbers and more).  We also talk about scheduling and how their work must fit within the project’s overall work flow.

MAKING THE CHOICE

Once this process is complete, we make a recommendation to the architect and homeowner, based not only on price but also in the context of answers to specific questions we ask each bidding party.  We also point out that we will be on hand as project consultants and that we know what it takes to achieve excellence with projects of this sort – and that we know the sorts of things builders will do to increase their margins.

This position of knowledge and insight helps inject a great deal of confidence into the decision-making process:  We let clients and the project’s general manager know that we are familiar, wall to wall, with all of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of indoor pools and assure them that we will leave no room for compromise.  With that much on the line, we assure them, our only aim is to work with firms that are dedicated to excellence.

As you’ll see in the next installment of this series, that’s exactly what happened.

  

Kevin Ruddy is president of Omega Pool Structures, a Toms River, N.J.-based firm that specializes in the design, engineering and construction of indoor swimming pools.  Ruddy’s career in watershaping began more than 25 years ago, after he spent some time in the home-building industry and decided to apply what he’d learned to building entire backyard spaces that included pools, spas, landscaping and associated structures.  Before long, he saw the need in his area for a company focused on the indoor-pool market and established Omega Pool Structures in 1987.  The company now works on indoor pools nationwide and established a pool-construction division in 1993 so it could build many of the pools it designs.   Ruddy is both a Gold and Platinum member of Genesis 3 and a member of the Society of Watershape Designers.

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