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The 100-year pool

Michael Hall



Mike leads our work in the sport and leisure sector, both nationally and internationally. He is passionate about the importance of active infrastructure in our towns and cities and he has led the development of our practice sustainability strategy, particularly for sport and leisure projects.

Mike is also a member of IAKS – the International Association for Sports & Leisure Facilities, based in Cologne – and sits on the IAKS International Expert Aquatics Circle.

Ravelin Sports Centre University Of Portsmouth 25M Swimming Pool Lh

The sport and leisure sector has some unique challenges in tackling carbon. Swimming pools are typically high energy consumers, difficult to repurpose and often short lived compared to other building typologies. They are in fact the very opposite of the apposite mantra: Long Life, Loose Fit, Low Energy. If a 100-year or 150-year pool is possible, is it the solution?

At FaulknerBrowns, we have undertaken life-cycle carbon assessment studies on a range of leisure buildings. We are also armed with a year’s worth of energy data and post-occupancy evaluation feedback from the ultra-low energy Ravelin Sports Centre, designed for the University of Portsmouth, and there are some interesting findings emerging...

Ravelin Sports Centre, a BREEAM Outstanding leisure facility

It’s clear that applying strict energy targets such as DEC A, Passivhaus or BREEAM Outstanding to the design process can provide huge energy savings compared to an equivalent existing sports building. Investing in low energy strategies to achieve these accolades can deliver a payback, in terms of operational costs for the client, in less than four years.

In fact, when these energy savings are translated into carbon metrics, the data suggests that the combined operational and upfront embodied carbon impacts of building a new leisure facility can be recovered in less than fifteen years of operation, when compared to an equivalent existing leisure facility.

Carbon Analysis Graph Of Swimming Pools And Wet Leisure Facilities L

The balance of effort and research, for most typologies, is largely swinging towards reducing upfront embodied carbon, as we approach diminishing returns on operational energy and see the benefits of a decarbonising grid. However, for notoriously high energy sports and leisure buildings, operational performance remains paramount.

The great challenge we have as an industry is the huge stock of existing facilities that are performing poorly in terms of energy, carbon and indeed their heritage value. A rough estimate suggests that there are twenty million tonnes of embodied carbon ‘banked’ in existing Local Authority leisure buildings. Many of these are of poor quality and, until there are further developments in the circular economy, much of this material will remain hard to ‘mine’ effectively for the foreseeable future.

Unlike some commercial or residential buildings, only a deep retrofit with a comprehensive upgrade to their envelopes, in tandem with remodelling of the internal environments, will get close to the long-term lifecycle carbon benefits of a new building based on current carbon coefficients.

There are however lessons we can take from history - a number of wonderful 19th century pools that have been lovingly restored. These include Warrender Baths in Edinburgh, Kentish Town Baths in London and Victoria Baths in Manchester. The cultural value of these is not to be underestimated to the communities they serve and indeed this aspect should play a key role in the carbon/cost/culture evaluation of any refurbishment or new-build project.

The mid to late twentieth century has perhaps been less kind to the pool typology, with many facilities failing to reach their 40th anniversary. Architectural quality (or perhaps lack of it) appears to be a significant factor in determining a building’s fate. At FaulknerBrowns, we have been designing award-winning sports and leisure buildings for over sixty years and indeed the Twentieth Century Society’s campaign to protect the finest historical pools cites five FaulknerBrowns buildings in its top ten.

Perth Leisure Centre Scotland And Bletchley Leisure Centre L
Perth Leisure Centre and the original Bletchley Leisure Centre, featured in the Twentieth Century Society’s 2022 leisure centres campaign

We believe quality is therefore a key metric in carbon reduction, particularly in the long term. If sport and leisure facilities are to survive debates balancing carbon, cost and culture, they need the kind of design quality that creates places people want to save and adapt, over and over.

Reviewing dozens of our own projects has revealed the critical carbon impact of refurbishment/component replacement cycles in use. When projecting the lifecycle carbon of a leisure facility over a 100-year period, these cycles can literally outweigh the upfront carbon of the initial build.

For example, building frames, whilst ideally lasting the life of a building, may need to be repurposed to respond to the ever-changing layout demands of the leisure industry. Pools, in particular, are aggressive environments with a high degree of finishes which might be replaced a number of times during the life of a building.

Ravelin Sports Centre University Of Portsmouth Swimming Pool Views Looking Outside L

The quality of building envelope design is another important factor to ensure longevity, not just because of its role as an insulator and airtight layer, but in terms of form factor and controlling beneficial natural light and natural ventilation. Because of the capital and operational implications of replacing a building envelope, its failure is also likely to trigger a conversation about demolition.

Therefore, paradoxically, whether we are designing new, ultra-low energy facilities, or performing deep retrofits on much-loved pools, we may need to focus on spending more carbon up front: investing more carbon to create the kind of loose-fit, robust and well-loved buildings that stand a fighting chance of lasting 100 years or more.