What could have been

A lean, green, visionary, underground pool

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By Garret Eakin

Architecture

On Aug. 1, the OPRF High School board approved a plan to build a 40 meter x 25 yard pool and a higher parking garage on the current garage site, along with internal performing arts upgrades, at a cost not to exceed $45 million. The plan will go to referendum in November. There is much to recommend the plan, but OPRF had a chance for a better one. Here is the story and the schematic design drawings:

In early May, Katharine Christmas, a knowledgeable aquatics mom, and Steve Gevinson, a District 200 board member, asked me to draw an accurate plan of the school campus to explore where there might be alternative sites for a new swimming pool building. Katharine and Steve were not satisfied with any of the four options that had been produced to date and strongly felt there must be a better solution. 

I asked local architect Frank Heitzman to join our "lean and green pool team." Together we completed two viable alternative options — one located on the west fields and a second scheme locating the pool building under the baseball field.

Driven by the lack of available land on campus and siting challenges with the existing schemes, we decided to explore an underground concept. This developed into an extremely efficient plan, immediately adjacent to the East Avenue mall, directly west of the school, providing uninterrupted access for the fire lane, and eliminating construction disruption within the high school building itself. 

The mall separation also would provide relief from noise and dust inside the school during construction. As a bonus, the existing parking garage would live out its 25 more years of serviceable life. In addition, the constant temperature of the earth surrounding the underground pool building would serve as a heat sink providing it with low-cost heating and cooling 24/7/365. It would have been a marvelous example of how to make this energy-hungry building type become an energy saver, consistent with our community sustainability initiatives.

Some critics of this plan expressed concern that because the pool would be located below grade, it could leak. But underground buildings are common. For example, the vast majority of buildings in the Chicago area have functioning basements. Fenwick High School's 12-lane pool is located almost completely below grade, accommodating swimming, diving and water polo. The Adler Planetarium's west addition (Frank Heitzman was on the architects team.) was built totally underground, just steps from the Lake Michigan shoreline. The recent addition to the University of Chicago's Regenstein Library is six stories below grade, close to the lake and a high water table. All the schemes proposed by Legat, OPRF's Architect of Record, contain basements. There are countless other examples in Chicago and elsewhere. Waterproofing subterranean structures is not technically difficult — it has been done frequently with success for over a century.

Our design team questioned the excessive building area specified for the discarded design for a 50-meter pool that would have been located on the parking garage site. We challenged the redundant pairs of locker rooms, oversized coaches' offices, superfluous classrooms, colossal concession areas and excessive mechanical space. At an estimated cost of $710+ per square foot, one could easily see how every wasted square foot adds up and unnecessarily drives up the cost.

The challenge was to provide an efficient, high-quality pool that would meet the high school's aquatics standards. We believe that the underground scheme shown in the accompanying design drawings would have met those standards at a cost of $35 million or less, versus Legat's Plan C pool at $53.5 million, saving nearly $20 million. We regret that the Green Team's design did not get a full vetting or consideration from the citizens of Oak Park. It is irresponsible not to consider and innovative green design that saves substantially.

Architecturally, it is an exciting design. The above ground entry structure is minimal but compelling, visually marking the entrance and exits with three bold glass pavilions immediately adjacent to the baseball playing fields. The curved turf roof recalls the aquatic fluidity of the sport as it is "peeled" from the baseball field's flat playing surface. This metaphorical symbol expresses its use. At night the dramatic glass lobby and stair halls would be illuminated like lanterns guiding students, parents and visitors to the competitions from the north or south edges of the mall. 

The symmetrical plan focuses on an architectural stair, centered on an unanticipated three-story architectural space wrapping around the elevator shaft, leading down to the spectators' bleachers (450 seats) lit from above. Sunlight filters through this level, diffusing the light to ensure no glare is admitted to inhibit the athlete's performance. The floor plan is nearly square, the most compact shape for building and the least amount of volume to build, heat and cool.

The tiled 25yard x 40 meter pool would have been submerged 35 feet below natural grade, making it highly insulated by the earth, including 12 inches on the green roof. The bold curving shape of the lobby recalls the form of the classic breaststroke or the monumental catenary arch at Dulles Airport by master architect Eero Saarinen. When we studied various options, this dynamic shape became an exciting counterpoint to an otherwise static plan. Alternatively, one could read the design as the movement of swimmers in competition. 

Maybe the theme of both story and design is "expect the unexpected," and maybe someday somehow an underground option will emerge again.  

Garret Eakin is an architect, journalist, and adjunct professor at the School of the Art Institute.

 

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