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What Building Engineers Can Learn From Net Zero Pool Design

The march toward more sustainable development has made a lot of progress over the last several years. These days, it seems almost certain that a project will have some kind of sustainable feature, whether that means something relatively small like energy-efficient lighting, or a high achievement like meeting the Passive House standard. Getting those sustainable features in though, especially given the costs, isn’t always easy. But a recent project near Austin, Texas, is a good example of how a development team can take something that seems impossible—in this case a nearly fully carbon net zero competitive swimming pool facility—and make it a reality. 

In 2018, the Round Rock School District passed a bond proposal that included funding for a competitive swimming pool facility. Located in a northern suburb of Austin, Texas, the project would serve a large school district that for many years has been one of the fastest-growing districts in Texas. Michael La Nasa is Associate Vice President, director of K-12 Projects at the Central Texas office of Kirksey Architecture, the firm that was hired by Round Rock ISD to design its new pool facility. His firm has previously designed several pool centers for school districts in Texas and was contacted by leaders from Round Rock ISD to design their new facility. “People routinely complain to me that there’s not enough competitive water to swim in,” La Nasa told me. Water is also a big issue in Central Texas, an area that has struggled with droughts. Like other nearby regions, the Austin area’s water source comes from underground aquifers that are supplied by rainwater. 

The Round Rock facility became the fourth of this type of pool that La Nasa’s firm has designed. When the design team began meeting with district leaders, La Nasa was surprised to discover the school district had a head of sustainability. Typically, school districts in Texas have a head of construction overseeing projects like this one, but a head of sustainability was something relatively new. From the first meeting with Round Rock, it became clear that there was a reason why. “Our first meeting we had with them they said ‘Round Rock will be known for sustainability,’” La Nasa said. But it was the next thing they said that got the biggest reaction from the architecture firm. The district’s head of sustainability told them the pool facility will be a net zero project. “We all laughed and said ‘seriously though,’” La Nasa recalled about the net zero ask, something that has been widely thought of as impossible. “And he said no, it will be.” 

The Round Rock ISD Aquatic Center, completed in June 2022. (Photo credit: Kirksey Architecture/Slyworks Photography)

On its face, creating a net zero pool presented enormous challenges. Swimming pools typically cycle through thousands of gallons of water and require constant running through filters and adding numerous chemicals. In some cases, a pool can end up being as costly to run as whole campuses. “Historically, pools are one of the most costly and polluting projects you can maintain and run,” said La Nasa. At the start of the project, Round Rock’s sustainability chief ticked off a long list of features he wanted in the pool’s design in order to get to net zero, including solar on the roof, contributing back to the water source, and passive ventilation. La Nasa and the team told the district they would tackle everything on the list and decide whether or not it would be efficient enough for the district to consider. 

The site that was chosen for the indoor facility was deemed to be the best location because it had the best air flow, which would come in handy when the facility’s large bay doors were opened on warmer days during the year. Kirksey figured out how to passively ventilate the facility. He noted that the district couldn’t afford the solar but that they designed the facility to be ready to receive it once they could afford it. The third major sustainable component to the design was the Combined Heat Power (CHP) system. CHP systems provide electric power, heating, and cooling from the same fuel source. The system worked well for this project because it uses a natural gas-fed generator, which is a clean way to run a generator and power the facility. The motors also produce tremendous amounts of heat that is used to heat the pool. Competitive pools require a temperature of around 80 to 82 degrees, and despite the punishing Texas heat, they still need to be heated. “CHP is not done just about anywhere else,” La Nasa said. “I don’t know of any other K-12 aquatics facility with it.”

Round Rock ISD Aquatic Center is thought to be the first K-12 aquatics facility to use a CHP system. (Photo credit: Kirksey Architecture/Slyworks Photography)

The project was completed in June of last year, just in time for the beginning of swim season. Getting to the finish line took a lot of problem solving, including convincing the local community to get on board with the project. When it was first proposed, the community was very vocal about not wanting the pool. Questions were raised about equity, and whether it would have space for all students of the district. There were also questions about the site where the facility would be built, how accessible it would be, and whether the air flow would work for the structure. Kirksey was part of public hearings and meetings with the community to voice their concerns. “We said ‘come at us,’ and they did, they came at us hard,” La Nasa said. Eventually, they were able to come to an agreement over the location and accessibility, and the 5A school district was able to show how much the facility was needed for its swimming, diving, and water polo teams. But maybe the biggest factor in successfully completing the project was a willing partner. “What it ultimately takes is a client who wants to do it,” La Nasa said. “We have a lot of the science ready and available.” 

Since the project was delivered last year, La Nasa has seen a lot more interest in building near net zero pool facilities. He thinks that it’s something that could easily translate to commercial development areas like high-end residential and hotels. But partners should be prepared for the responsibility this kind of project entails, because the work doesn’t stop once it’s complete. Maintaining the systems used to achieve near net zero status can be a learning curve for staff. “We had to tell them ‘here’s how to operate and maintain it, and the numbers to call where they know the system and can assist you,’” La Nasa said. “There’s a lot of teaching in what we do.”

Advanced projects like Round Rock’s pool facility show that it’s possible to achieve carbon emissions goals in even the most difficult of settings. The technology used may take some time for users to get the hang of in terms of maintenance and upkeep, but that should end up just being a temporary hurdle. Given President Biden’s ambitious goals around cutting greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030 and the expanding programs and options for financing sustainable development and energy-efficient upgrades, we can expect to see developers and designers continue to push the envelope in terms of sustainable development. And that’s not just good news for the environment–it’s good news for property owners’ and developers’ bottom line.

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