Are inter-municipal pool projects a solution to the modernisation backlog?

published in sb 3/2017

Success factors: potential, demand, focus and attendance levels

Author:   Dr. Christian Kuhn, DSBG Sportstättenbetriebs- und Planungsgesellschaft (Sport Facility Operation and Planning Company); Head of the Pools Unit as Deputy Chairman of IAKS Germany


Swimming pools are the most costly municipal sports facilities – in terms of not only investment, but also operation. About a quarter of the life-cycle costs are the consequence of the original investment (interest, loan repayment, depreciation), while three quarters arise during pool operation. In the above-mentioned study, over half of the surveyed pools expressed their intention to reduce the modernisation backlog or even eliminate it all together.


High modernisation backlog

Swimming pool density in Germany is among the highest in the world. Many competition pools go back to the days of the Golden Plan development programme for sports facilities. Most of the outdoor pools are older, so the need for pool modernisation continues to be high. In one of the most comprehensive surveys in the pool sector, performed by the German Pools Association (DGfdB), it has been found that the modernisation backlog in German pools amounts to roughly EUR 5 billion, while other sources quote a sum of EUR 10 billion or more. Remarkably, the modernisation backlog is particularly high in municipalities with either a very high or very low population.

If one combines the necessity to eliminate the modernisation backlog with the age-related need for change in response to changing demand for pools, totally new demand arises.


This demand comes from three main areas:

  1. Newly built pools and upgraded existing pools with new focuses should be coordinated regionally, or better still, supra-regionally, in terms of distribution.
  2. The focus of pools must reflect actual demand and tasks.
  3. Pool operation must dictate the planning and architectural focus and note vice-versa.


In his article “Stable demand – challenges and opportunities of the pool market”, in “sb” 3/2015, Dr Stefan Kannewischer showed that pool distribution must adopt a phased procedure. Some national funding programmes only fund new projects if this funding does not cause economic harm to projects already funded. A national master plan for the distribution of pools does not exist. It makes sense to issue guidelines on distribution, which are also necessary because of federal competence. This is one of the central appeals of the “Bäderallianz Deutschland” (German Pool Alliance).

Inter-municipal approach

For the time being, the affected municipalities can only pragmatically act on the principle of assessing demand as inter-municipally as possible and cooperating inter-municipally with a sober and far-sighted attitude. The goal is not parochialism, but the best-possible distribution with the best-possible use of financial resources. As an obligatory task, school sport must usually be served comprehensively on a decentralised basis. The appropriate type of pool must be functional and inexpensive. The greater the demand for leisure and health (the same also applies to water sports with high space needs and special requirements), the more it is a question of coordinating distribution inter-municipally to meet actual demand. Synergetic and professional operation in centralised units will thus save money in terms of both investment and operation.


Focus on the pool user

The focus must be on the behaviour of users and their motivation. The size of the local population in regions with the same travel time is to be ascertained. Socio­demographic data and purchasing power are, for example, to be set against user behaviour, frequency of pool use and the proportion of users. This pool user potential is affected, firstly, by competition (among pools or from non-pool activities) and by the pool’s own space allocation programme and attractiveness. An experienced analyst with extensive knowledge of the sector should do the groundwork here, as the number of users with their motivations (e.g. competition, health, leisure) is the basis for the focus in the allocation of space and operating philosophy and hence the basis for all economic effects.

Our pools often suffer from an inappropriate focus and the associated inability to meet actual demand, which results in low usage. At modern pools, over half of users are motivated by a desire for leisure. Growing here is the group of health-oriented users who seek courses, bathing in thermal waters or brine, or simply exercise in the water. The more competitive users are divided roughly evenly into club swimmers and individual users. Demand is rising from the latter group, because swimming can be practised alone or in a group, at agreed times or when one feels like it.


The assessment of demand dictates the pool’s focus

This matches the trend towards socially oriented individual sports groups. Even in this distribution, it becomes obvious that, for reasons of public added value, swimming pools as costly facilities must no longer be made primarily available to the competitive swimmers of a municipality alone. What is required is a scientific survey of demand, on which the focus of operation is based. This gives rise to the space allocation programme implemented by planners. The architect only becomes involved in the process when the focus of operation and the space allocation have been justified by actual demand and agreed on with civic leaders. This saves costly and time-consuming changes at the planning stage and rules out difficulty in explaining political decisions.


Professional pool master planning

The revised DIN 18205 (assessment of demand in building construction) illustrates that demand has to be assessed at the beginning of the planning and construction process. What is usual for any supermarket or cinema is still a rarity in the pool industry. Why is so little importance attached to the focus of pool operation, which generates three quarters of costs? Shouldn’t the downstream costs and the best-possible use of public resources be reason enough to give pools a professional focus?

For professional pool master planning, inspections of the structural and technical state of the building and of operational and economic matters are first necessary. From this it becomes evident what can be done with and starting from the present structure. Demand must also be surveyed locally, regionally and beyond the region to yield the potential. This should be updated demographically, as pools are facilities with long operation cycles and have to be designed far-sightedly for long-term demand.


Round table

The feasible options and demand are introduced as input at a goals workshop. This is where political decision-makers as well as multipliers of the main user groups come to a recommendation for the pool’s focus, which is approved by local government. These operational (service quality, opening times, prices, offers, courses, events, theming, user groups, occupancy) and planning focuses (space allocation, equipment, quality) are interlinked and mutually dependent. The workshop should be moderated and structured by an experience team of planners and operators. The effects of possible decisions as well as market requirements and best practices will inform the discussion and recommendations for action.


If the process is organised in the manner described, decision-makers and users will back the agreements. The matters that need to be discussed thoroughly are discussed thoroughly not at the planning stage but in advance. Decisions are based on factual information and not solely on political lobbying. Pools today are properly managed rather than administered facilities, so they deserve to be professionally focused, designed, built and operated. The tasks, goals and framework conditions must be settled at the beginning of the process so that the pool project is a success.