Taking the Plunge: Interior Design Strategies for Indoor Pool Areas

several photos of indoor pools Outdoor pools are associated with warm weather fun, relaxation and low impact exercise. Indoor pools can offer these same benefits year-round in every climate. However, indoor pools require careful considerations by the design team to provide a comfortable and appealing space that will endure for many years.  We’ve asked a couple of our designers for their thoughts and ideas to create a successful indoor pool space, also known as natatoriums or aquatics centers, whether for a retirement community, school or college campus, community center, hotel or other hospitality venue.

a pool at Wesley Enhanced – Main Line (formerly Martins’ Run), in Media, PA with an access ramp
This example from Wesley Enhanced – Main Line (formerly Martins’ Run), in Media, PA illustrates how a ramp can be seamlessly blended into the design to provide easier accessibility for people of varying capabilities.

What are some of the special considerations when making interior design decisions for indoor pool spaces? 

Kelly Wood:  In my experience, it’s imperative that the technical portion of the space is at the forefront. The space can look stunning, but without careful planning when it comes to mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, the aesthetic features can be meaningless.  Proper ductwork, ventilation, and safety are paramount to effectively addressing the humidity and moisture that come with an aquatics center of any size. When the technical and creative sides work simultaneously, the possibilities are endless.

Specialty equipment like electric lifts, ladders and ramps, need to be considered and properly located. Appropriate lighting is critical not only for comfort and appeal, but also when it comes to safety whether the pool is being used only during the daytime or nighttime hours are also a factor.

indoor pool at Kirkland Village in Bethlehem, PA with ceiling panels to help dampen noise
Acoustics is another important considerations for natatoriums. The ceiling panels in this example from Kirkland Village in Bethlehem, PA, help to maintain a comfortable, acoustically-friendly space.

Michael Harrison:  You have to choose fixtures, finishes, and materials that are suited to the humidity and corrosiveness found in aquatic environments. There are colored pool finishes (enhanced plaster) that can be used, but they should be coordinated with the pool deck finishes and ceramic tile accent bands in the pool.

Sound attenuation is also an important design consideration because a natatorium generally has all hard surfaces. Ceiling clouds and acoustical wall panels can aid in sound attenuation.

Kelly Wood:  Another important consideration is the function of the space in general. Who will be using it? When will they be using it? What kind of activities will be happening? By establishing an understanding of the use of the space, a designer is better equipped to create a more successful design.

a competition-size swimming pool - designed to accommodate competitive events for the Twin Valley Aquatic Club and swimming teams representing Twin Valley High School
This pool is shared by Tel Hai Retirement Community and the Twin Valley Aquatic Club. The competition-size swimming pool was designed to accommodate competitive events for the Twin Valley Aquatic Club and swimming teams representing Twin Valley High School, as well as swimming lessons for all ages, exercise classes and general recreation.

Michael Harrison:  A high school or college competition pool is typically very different from an exercise or therapy pool for a retirement community. Consider your clientele for specific needs such as accessibility, water depth, and lighting levels. A good example is accessibility into the pool.  In senior living communities, a ramp is often recommended, because it is an easier and typically more comfortable and dignified way to help a person with a disability access the pool rather than having to resort to a pool lift.

an indoor pool with bi-fold doors to the outside at Meadowood Retirement Community in Worcester, PA
The bi-fold doors really bring the outside in for the new wellness pool at Meadowood Retirement Community in Worcester, PA. The finishes are understated to allow the outdoor views and natural light to be the focus in this aquatics center.

Many indoor pools have natural light, are there any special considerations for those spaces?

Kelly Wood:  Introducing natural daylight and ventilation through windows, skylights or French doors can serve functionally and aesthetically. However, when placing glass windows, skylights and/or doors, it’s essential to consider the client’s privacy needs.

Michael Harrison:  It’s also important to consider glare on the pool surface. We pay particular attention to where windows are located and from what direction they are letting light into the space.

an indoor pool with ceramic tile floor at Woodcrest Villa in Lancaster, PA
A ceramic tile floor like the one featured in this example from Woodcrest Villa in Lancaster, PA can help to provide traction and reduce the risk of falls.

Are there certain finish materials that are recommended or conversely, that should be avoided?

Kelly:  Once the technical/mechanical and functional sides of the pool design are resolved, it’s easier to plan the space artistically. Certain materials can trap moisture or cause unsafe conditions, so it’s important to introduce and select finishes that prevent these things from occurring.

We research and speak to pool design specialists before introducing new materials or finishes. We often specify floor products and finishes that provide traction to help prevent slipping while also not creating a tripping hazard.  For example, we use a lot of ceramic and glass tile for the perimeter walls of the building and the pool itself. These materials can be wiped down/cleaned when necessary and hold up well under wet conditions.

Michael:  Always use 316L stainless steel in aquatic environments, which is marine grade stainless steel. I would add that slip resistance is an important consideration for all ages, but especially for seniors.  Ceramic tile floor finishes must meet the coefficient of friction for wet environments. Smaller tiles provide more grout joints, which also aids in slip resistance.

indoor pool at Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon.
Natural materials and the outdoor views support the neutral color theme, punctuated by the pop of red selected for the slide, in the aquatics center at Rose Villa in Portland, Oregon.

Are there any special color considerations for a pool area?

Kelly: It all depends on the client’s functional design goals and the type of environment they ultimately want to create. Generally, I suggest keeping the overall color palette on the “warmer” side, selecting colors that complement the “cooler” color of the water and generate feelings of tranquility and relaxation.  I try to steer away from any colors that could potentially cause glare or discomfort within the space.  A go-to for me when choosing a ceramic tile for the walls or the pool decking is using neutral, cooler greys that create a nice balance with the color of the water, and then using a warmer paint color above the ceramic tile.

Michael:  I would recommend care when using yellows and greens in natatoriums because certain shades can create a yellow/cloudy cast on the water.

indoor pool at Brandermill Woods in Midlothian, Virginia with several poolside seating areas.
The furniture for this pool at Brandermill Woods in Midlothian, Virginia is durable for this environments and can be easily rearranged for different functions.

What are your recommendations related to furniture for these spaces?

Michael: There is never enough storage space allocated for natatoriums. During a tour of a recent wellness center, our group had to navigate around the lane line reel which was sitting out on the pool deck.  It was difficult to walk around it, creating both a safety and aesthetic issue. Finding an appropriate solution for towel pick-up and drop-off or for the various accessories utilized by different user groups can also be a challenge.  Easy accessible and adequate storage helps to alleviate these types of issues.

The seemingly easy, but often challenging answer is that storage rooms need to be appropriately sized. Recognizing that budgets and space constraints can make this difficult, another solution could be cabinets or benches with seats that lift up to provide some storage for pool equipment and miscellaneous items, like noodles, that are often tossed into a corner or stacked along walls. Adding these to the pool deck may mean that the decks should be a little bit wider.

Kelly:  To a certain extent this depends on the end-user with much of our experience focused on senior living.  However, furniture that is safe and durable in wet and humid conditions is a good idea for any aquatics center, which often must meet the need of a range of user groups. We look for furniture that can be wiped down, easily moved and stacked, adaptive and flexible for a variety of functions and activities.  However, we also focus on pieces that speak to the entire design composition as a whole. We never want to completely sacrifice aesthetics for function; finding that perfect balance is what makes our job fun.

indoor pools at Cross Keys Village in New Oxford, PA and Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg, PA.
When it comes to interior design for pools, form must always follow function. After that, the design aesthetic is unique to each client as illustrated by these examples from Cross Keys Village in New Oxford, PA and Blue Mountain Middle School in Orwigsburg, PA.

Do you have any other tips for clients considering the addition of an indoor pool? 

Kelly: I like to start by hearing each client’s vision for the space. Even if they don’t have one, we’ll show concept images to help them articulate their likes and dislikes that ultimately define the space. Every comment is valuable to the designer, because it helps determine the final product.

Different designs and layouts have different focal points. Some clients want the end-users to feel like they are at a tranquil retreat. Others want to merge the exterior and interior through the use of glass. Others want to highlight the volume of the space or accent the ceiling height. I would never discourage a client from a particular feature or highlight unless it created a safety issue or compromised the desired programming for the space. Once again, helping clients navigate those types of challenges is where we come in, working with a team of architects and engineers to create a successful solution.

Michael:  One of the most important things to think about is the health of the occupants, and this becomes even more critical when dealing with a senior population. There are new and emerging trends in pool filtration/sanitation and chloramine evacuation that all owners should consider. These technologies provide a cleaner and safer environment by removing the chloramine laden air that sits right over the pool surface and is unhealthy to be breathing in, and also will eliminate the powerful chlorine smell that is frequently experienced in natatoriums.

indoor pool at Beaumont at Bryn Mawr in PA, with enhanced lighting and acoustical features
Renovations to the pool area for Beaumont at Bryn Mawr in PA, addressed the need for enhanced lighting and acoustical features to create a more comfortable, user-friendly natatorium.

A lot of careful thought goes into the design of a successful indoor pool space. Our firm has a pool prototype review document and checklist items to help our clients address the specialized needs for this unique indoor space.  If you are thinking about adding a new pool or want to breathe new life into an existing natatorium space, our designers can help you with reviewing the essentials and exploring the realm of possibilities for your space.

Kelly Wood is an interior designer with five years of experience focusing on commercial environments.  Kelly earned a Bachelor of Arts, Art History, from Wake Forest University and a Master of Science, Interior Architecture & Design, from Drexel University. Her attention to detail helps our clients provide appealing, comfortable and safe environments that are unique to their brand and values.

Michael Harrison is an architectural associate with four years of experience who earned a Bachelor of Architecture from Penn State University.  He began his career focusing exclusively on natatoriums and continues to apply his background knowledge and design experience to the design and review of aquatic centers to meet the needs of various user groups.

Jodi Kreider, LEED AP, Blog Editor

Additional Information:

Pool temperature is an important decision that should be made as early as possible so that the supporting building systems and environment can be optimized for that parameter.  Here are water temperature guidelines from the United States Water Fitness Association:

We have focused on the interior design environment to be integrated with a properly engineered space.  However, this article, Avoiding Problems in Aquatics Facilities: Atypical design for atypical buildings, provides tips for this unique space type that puts structural and enclosure systems to the test, especially in cold or even mixed climates.