Big Projects, big challenges

Climate crisis and rising utility costs have created a range of new challenges for the design, development and management of leisure facilities, particularly for energy-intensive uses such as swimming pools. David McHendry offers KKP’s perspective on how the sector has been, and going forward be able to, respond.

The climate crisis and rising energy costs have come to dominate headlines and are creating a new set of challenges for the sports sector. While leisure centres and swimming pools in their traditional guises can be viewed as expensive, energy-hungry buildings, central government funding grants of some £63 million to assist leisure operators to cope with rising energy costs and to introduce more energy-efficient technology suggest that, even in Whitehall, there is recognition of the role that leisure facilities still have to play in addressing ongoing, long-term targets for health, physical activity and community development. While old challenges remain and new ones emerge, leisure facilities and the opportunities they provide still matter.

Even prior to the recent escalation of utility bills, Sport England and UK Active had predicted a difficult future for UK swimming pools. The exponential rise in energy costs has only added to this, with many local authorities and leisure operators expressing genuine concerns with regard to potential facility closures. Welcome as the announcement of government financial support for leisure facilities may have been, it is going to take time for the funding to filter through and for energy-efficiencies to be implemented. For many operators, time is of the essence and the support available cannot come soon enough.

Climate and energy issues are not new challenges for the sector, but the scale and speed of change are. Recent KKP projects include reviews of the performance of Wigan’s sports facilities, swimming pools on the Isle of Man of behalf of the government, the National Aquatic Centre in Dublin (a 50m pool, diving and leisure pool facility) and the replacement for the Cascades Leisure Centre in Gravesend, Kent. In Gravesham, KKP has been involved from the initial built facility strategy providing and developing the centre specification with the Council, and design team. For these and many other projects, energy efficiency, wider operating costs and revenue generation are crucial to venue feasibility and sustainability. Going forward, such issues will top the agenda and be closely scrutinised from the earliest stages of the development of any leisure facility new build or refurbishment project.

With stories emerging from leisure operators that new utility contracts have added up to £500,000 to their annual overheads for a single local authority contract, the impact on those with multiple contracts can be eye watering. Some councils have braced themselves for facility closures while others are struggling to justify price increases during a cost of living crisis.

For swimming pools, there is a certain irony when it comes to balancing energy use and income generation. Heating water for a pool and showers is a major expense and, while some operators have challenged their users with lower water temperatures, where there is a focus on income generation, it is generally activities that need warmer water, particularly learn to swim programmes, which are looked to. Thus, while operators wait for government support funding to be distributed and retail utility prices to reflect the declining wholesale costs of energy, they have what might be viewed as conflicting imperatives in terms of their overall strategy for survival.

There have not been, nor are there likely to be, any quick and simple solutions but there are grounds for optimism amidst the gloom.

Perhaps the starting point in the search for an upside should be recognition of the fact that the quest for energy-efficient buildings in the sport and leisure sector is not new. Architects and engineers have been tasked with the reduction of energy costs as a key part of design briefs for a long time and, as technology has developed and experience is gained, the facilities being constructed have improved.

S&P Architects, with whom KKP works extensively on many projects, recently unveiled the UK’s first ‘Passivhaus’ leisure centre at St Sidwell’s point in Exeter. Working with engineering experts Arup, S&P applied Passivhaus principles, including triple-glazed windows, premium-grade insulation and air-tight internal environments to create what is claimed to be the most energy-efficient leisure facility in the UK and one of only three Passivhaus leisure centres in the world. St Sidwell’s Point is said to use 70% less energy than comparable traditional buildings, figures that will command attention from anyone involved in new facility discussions.

It will come as no surprise to discover that meeting the facility construction requirements of Passivhaus design is an expensive business but in the context of climate emergency declarations and climbing energy prices, a 70% reduction in energy use is a powerful argument for up-front investment.

Ultimately, it is unlikely that the Passivhaus concept will immediately become the default for all leisure buildings but even if it offers a starting point for discussion its guiding principles will inform design debates and begin to have a positive impact on reducing energy use.

Efficiency versus affordability is an ongoing debate and ultimately such investments and outcomes are a political decision but KKP’s experience, gained over many years working on a great many facility projects, suggests that taking the best possible option as the starting point is the best approach. The balance between cost and outcome – often referred to as ‘value engineering’ – almost inevitably brings compromises as the project progresses towards completion. However, beginning with and maintaining a clear understanding of the key principles of the scheme provides a better chance of retaining the best elements of the project intact for when it is time to cut the ribbon and open the doors.

It is probably fair to say that Passivhaus principles are currently the clearest guide on how to get the best in terms of energy-efficient facilities and while clients may not be able to afford to commit to delivery of the full Passivhaus specification, they can benefit from consideration of the available options and the energy efficiencies available within the overall Passivhaus concept.

KKP was recently taken to task during a presentation to elected members as to ‘why we had presented a ‘Rolls Royce’ version” of the project under discussion as the first option. Our answer was – and always is – that it is better for the commissioning client to fully understand the optimum solution and then to work back from it so that the impacts of any compromises are clear from the outset. This enables all involved to make informed decisions and ultimately to achieve the best possible outcome for the available investment.

As technology evolves and the skills and experience available within local authorities advance, the issue of what is possible and what constitutes the best possible outcome will evolve too. If growing climate consciousness and differing political perspectives are added to the debate, the definition of ‘best possible outcome’ will almost certainly change. If climate emergency and energy efficiency are at the top of the list of desirables, the direction of value engineering will also look a lot different, as will the buildings that result.


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