Echo Park is one of those places that has come to be defined by an all-too-familiar litany of urban woes: gangs, crime, violence, graffiti and drugs set amid aging buildings and a crumbling infrastructure. Fortunately, the community also has leadership that’s working hard to change things for the better.
One of the recent and most significant efforts to improve the lives of its citizenry involved renovating Echo Park Deep Pool, the area’s only public swimming facility. The $6-million program involved enclosing the big pool with a new
roof structure as well as rebuilding the pool’s equipment pad and support facilities and attending to a host of mostly cosmetic details.
Before we dive into some of the project specifics, it must be noted that the key to the project’s success was cooperation on the part of the City of Los Angeles (in which Echo Park is a district), the County of Los Angeles and Frank Webb Architects (Los Angeles) – the best such collaboration we’ve ever encountered on a project of this type. From start to finish, everyone was fully and tirelessly committed mainly because we all saw that giving the youths of this community a place to swim offered a healthy alternative to the temptations that exist on the streets surrounding the refurbished pool.
It’s the kind of job where everyone involved knows there’s much more at stake than simply creating a quality aquatic facility. Here at Rowley International, a design/engineering firm based in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., we view this type of project as the highest possible calling to service in the name of watershaping.
FROM THE DEPTHS
The project itself was not terribly complex: The facility has just the one pool and no other recreational elements.
Originally, the city had tried to tackle the pool-renovation part of the project in-house, but realized largely because of a tight schedule that they needed some outside consulting help, especially to interface between the city and the county Health Department. By the time Mike Clouse (who manages aquatics programs for the city’s recreational facilities) called us, construction of the facility’s new roof was already under way and the project team had been brought up short by what needed to be done with the pool and its equipment.
We came on site as consultants at first, just going in to have a look and tell the project team what we thought.
We drove to the site and found a facility that faced significant challenges. The pool had been derelict for a number of years, and the 12-foot block wall that surrounded it had obviously done nothing to keep out vandals and the homeless. In fact, because the space was surrounded by walls and hidden from view, it’s likely the place had become a preferred haven for a variety of ruinous activities.
|When we first encountered the pool, its depths were filled with indescribable muck and its walls and exposed floors marred by graffiti and stains. The roof structure and its twisted, deteriorated beams had already been removed by that time – a step that actually accelerated the decline of the pool and decks.|
At that point, the pool held a couple of feet of standing water and a nasty accumulation of debris. The walls were fully intact, but they were covered with graffiti. Indeed, everywhere we stepped, there was evidence of not only years of neglect but also of abuse of the most pernicious sort. What we couldn’t see at the time, however, was that the bones of the pool were in surprisingly sound condition – a blessing that extended from sturdy initial construction.
The pool itself measures 75 by 120 feet with a surface area of 9,000 square feet – about three-quarters of the size of an Olympic-scale pool. It had depths of three feet at both ends sloping down to a central depth of 12 feet and included a poured-in-place concrete shell, reliable plumbing and a formed gutter system. The pool sits amid a concrete deck that reaches back about two dozen feet in all directions, and there’s a concrete bleacher section made to accommodate about 200 spectators.
Once the city cut through the considerable layers of grime, we found that the pool shell and deck were in surprisingly good shape and would require only cosmetic attention. Of course, the plaster was completely shot, the lighting niches in the pool were beyond repair and the equipment pad’s components had been cannibalized for use on other city pools. Beyond the watershape, the office facilities, locker rooms and bathroom facilities all needed complete renovation.
We weren’t quite certain what we were getting ourselves into, but we agreed to move forward and eventually signed a contract with the architect. Our main tasks included engineering a new equipment set; finding and making use of existing deck equipment long held in storage; and generally acting as the liaison between various city departments and anyone having anything to do with refurbishing the pool.
The lion’s share of our work involved squeezing a modern, code-compliant equipment package into a pad area that measured 75 by 18 feet – plenty long but quite narrow by today’s standards. Everything had to be replaced, so working closely with Clouse – a master at keeping a number of the city’s pools operational despite budgetary challenges and aging facilities – we brought in four Stark high-rate sand filters (Paragon Aquatics, LaGrangeville, N.Y.), a manual backwash system and a Chemtrol ORP/pH-control system from Santa Barbara Controls (Santa Barbara, Calif.) that automatically feeds sodium hypochlorite and muriatic acid as needed.
We did what we had to do to match up the new equipment with the ten-inch PVC plumbing lines that existed on the pad, and perhaps the toughest issue we faced had to do with configuring connections and making everything fit. Given the linear orientation of the pad and the existing pipe locations, we devised an unusual plumbing scheme that flows down and back starting from the surge tank located at one end of the equipment area.
|Once we cleared away all the debris, it turned out that the pool and decks were actually in pretty good shape and needed mostly cosmetic attention. The roof, of course, had to be completely redone – this time with an ingenious system in which large sections of glass were mounted on garage-door rollers at opposite ends of the structure to provide generous cross-ventilation.|
Through every step of the project, we worked with the city to use previously procured equipment to keep costs down and expedite the acquisition process to maintain their schedule. For the most part that was easily done, but one pump we were given was unusual: a 30-horsepower, self-priming, belt-driven pump. It hadn’t been intended for this sort of application, but we hooked it up and ran some tests and found that it had what it took to drive the system.
The suction side of the system flows through main drains and the gutter system, which is plumbed into the concrete surge tank mentioned above. The gutter is large, with 1.375 cubic feet of capture area per linear foot, and does such a great job of accepting surge over its edge that we were confident that this would qualify as a “fast pool” by virtue of having minimal wave action during recreational or competitive swimming.
The return side features a series of existing wall-mounted inlets. We didn’t renovate the pool’s plumbing system, as we didn’t want to incur the expense of ripping up the decks. In our investigations, we determined that the hidden plumbing is probably ferrous (despite the PVC fittings we found at the pad) and found as well that it didn’t leak. Ultimately, we achieved a five-hour turnover rate for the pool’s 385,000 gallons – well within local health-department standards.
All in all, this went much more smoothly than any of us had hoped when we first walked on site and saw what we were tackling.
SCRAMBLING ON DECK
Following along with the city’s desire to use equipment that was on hand or in storage, the city pulled out a mix of new and old lifeguard stands and starting blocks, a diving board, water polo goals, lane markers and whatever we needed by way of rail goods.
Along the way, of course, we ran into a few situations that called for some improvisation. The ladders, for example, had to be fitted with special plastic panels to keep anyone from getting stuck between the rails and the gutter.
On a grander scale, the city decided to patch and paint the pool shell using materials supplied by Nelsonite (Los Angeles) rather than completely replaster the shell. (This also involved painting over the original tile lane lines with a sky-blue epoxy paint.) The thought was that the pool could be affordably resurfaced with paint every couple of years and that pool operators wouldn’t have to worry about damage to the plaster when the pool needed to be drained.
As mentioned previously, the light niches were no longer usable. Rather than tear up the decks to run new conduits and refurbish them, we decided to seal them up and abandon them. Again, it was a practical decision: The new roof design features large window treatments all the way around the pool as well as modern lighting fixtures that illuminate the space about as well as any scheme I’ve ever seen in a natatorium. As a result, foregoing a bit of in-pool lighting wasn’t a problem.
|At the city’s request, we collected most of the equipment and pool accessories from various warehouses and storage rooms. This included pumps and other materials for the equipment room as well as rail goods, lane markers, guard towers and more. With the ladders, however, we had to modify them with plastic panels to make them safe for use with the old gutter system.|
Indeed, the facility performs quite well at all times of day. It’s now being used for a variety of purposes, including public swimming and swimming lessons as well as water polo and swimming competitions. Since reopening in May 2008, it has been in use from 7 am to 9 pm seven days a week and often accommodates capacity crowds of 450 guests. Anticipating that sort of usage, we worked with the city to make the systems as flexible as possible.
For all the work we did with the pool, I must concede that the most prominent feature of the renovation is the roof. I’ve always believed that real architecture (in the applied sense) starts when the designer is pressed to the wall in terms of budget but has to make a structure function regardless. In this case, Frank Webb Architects did a masterful job of creating a dazzling roof structure that rises from the facility’s original block walls – and managed to do so with scant resources.
The original roof structure had suffered through the years because it had not been built properly in the first place and was declared unsalvageable when the city started looking into restoring the facility. Ironically, pulling it down to the tops of the block walls was what exposed the facility to intruders and their abuse in the time it took the city to find funding to start its restoration work in earnest.
POINTS OF PRIDE
The architect’s project manager, Ken Stein, oversaw both design and construction of the roof, and it is truly a thing of beauty. Spanning 185 feet and built with tapered steel girders, it’s a spectacle of exposed structural elements, lighting arrays and HVAC runs with a post-modern style all its own.
The windows run around the entire perimeter, set just above the original walls and running all the way up to the roof. At each end are specialty window panels that retract into the roof’s support system via systems of garage-door rollers. This allows the staff to open the space to outside air and creates a natural circulation pattern that augments the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system – a wonderful design solution because chlorine off-gassing could have been an issue given the size of the pool and its level of use.
As it has turned out, the windows stay open much of the time, providing wonderful levels of natural light and air that is always fresh as a result of cross-ventilation. And unlike other enclosed pools that rely strictly on forced-air ventilation, the air inside this facility doesn’t get uncomfortably warm.
|The Echo Park Deep Pool was once both an eyesore and a neighborhood hazard, but now it’s a beautiful example of what happens when community needs intersect with civic determination. The result in this case is a facility that has been adopted by local citizens who take to the water in amazing numbers, day and night.|
As a side benefit, the open windows have reduced the need for shock treatments or other chemical-maintenance measures aimed at maintaining safe, acceptable levels of indoor air quality – an absolutely brilliant design solution other facilities should employ, especially in areas with warm climates.
For all its fine qualities and details, however, the real beauty of this project resides in its purpose. From our perspective, this is the best we can do as watershapers – that is, delivering a recreational facility to a community that desperately needs just this sort of resource.
Best of all, the community seems to have adopted the pool and have taken a distinct, proprietary interest in keeping it in top form. So far, its walls are remarkably free of the graffiti that stains most other surfaces in the neighborhood, and the facility already seems to have woven itself into the fabric of Echo Park’s daily life.
As designers, engineers and builders, we might do grander work in other settings, but for those of us who worked on this modest facility, it’s unlikely anything will ever be more gratifying.
We gratefully acknowledge the help of Ken Stein, project manager for Frank Webb Architects of Los Angeles, for his assistance in preparing this article.
William N. Rowley, PhD, is founder of Rowley International, an aquatic consulting, design and engineering firm based in Palos Verdes Estates, Calif. One of the world’s leading designers of large commercial and competition pools, his most notable projects include partial designs for the competition pools used in the Olympic Games in Munich (1968) and Montreal (1972), and he acted as aquatic consultant for the design of the Olympic Pool Complex in Los Angeles (1984). His projects also have included a wide range of non-competition pools, including the White House pool in Washington, the Navy Basic Underwater Demolition Training Tank in Coronado, Calif., and the resort pool at the Hyatt Regency at Kaanapali Beach on Maui. Rowley is involved in a range of local, state and federal entities, consulting on construction and safety-code requirements. He is also a fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers as well as the recipient of The Joseph McCloskey Prize for Outstanding Achievement in the Art & Craft of Watershaping. Greg Cannon is a project manager for Rowley International. He has a degree in business management, numerous technical certifications and 20 years’ experience in project management he brings to many of Rowley International’s complex commercial watershaping projects in the United States. and abroad.