Once the gold standard in Olympic swimming and diving, the Fort Lauderdale Aquatic Center is getting a major facelift thanks to precast concrete.
By Matt Werner
Fort Lauderdale is known for its beaches, boating and prominence along the historic highway A1A. Soon, something else will be there to catch the eyes of visitors, tourists and residents.
A new, first-of-its-kind, 27-meter dive tower is being constructed at the Fort Lauderdale Aquatics Center, and precast concrete is at the heart of the project.
‘A special place’
The Fort Lauderdale Aquatics Center has a deep history in the swimming world, with several Olympians passing through its lanes and 10 world records set at the facility. In its heyday, the facility was home to Jack Nelson, who competed in the Olympics and coached the 1976 U.S. Olympic women’s swim team. It also was the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Florida.
“It’s a special place,” Aquatics Center Manager Laura Voet said. “‘Getting to Fort Lauderdale’ is a big thing in the swimming world, and it’s really the pinnacle of a swimmer’s career to swim in this pool.”
Over time, newer, faster pools were built, and Fort Lauderdale began to lose some of its luster. To help reclaim its position in the swimming community, the city of Fort Lauderdale commissioned a $27 million project to update the facilities. With only five acres of land on the site, swimming officials and local leaders worked to figure out a way to set the facility apart again.
The answer came in the form of a 27-meter high dive tower made of precast concrete.
Mario Cartaya, founder of architecture firm Cartaya and Associates, knows the facility well as a Fort Lauderdale resident. Being part of the project is something Cartaya relishes.
“There was a time this facility was considered the ‘it’ facility,” he said. “To make this facility the best facility in the world again – that was the task that was given to our office.”
When designing the tower, Cartaya’s team looked to the wind, sun and waves for inspiration to create a simple, yet elegant, structure.
“We wanted it to be simple, so the focus was on the divers and the functionality of it,” said Teen Woon, who helped design the tower. “But the whole thing is very elegant so that when the divers step away, you are looking at a beautiful piece of art.”
The final tower features concave curves, angles and other design elements to give it a striking look. Gate Precast helped bring the vision to life, producing 60 precast concrete panels used within the structure.
“If a facility is going to be the best facility in the world, this building had to be the best building the world,” Cartaya said. “The only way to make the curves be perfect and the building to look perfect was to use precast.”
Marrying architectural, structural
Hensel Phelps, who serves as general contractor for the project, also pushed for concrete. Manufacturing a tower was nothing new to Gate Precast’s Kissimmee, Fla., facility, which has produced pieces for several air traffic control towers.
“When we thought about what this was going to look like, we always wanted to do concrete,” Hensel Phelps Project Manager Greg Jennings said. “We do a lot of airport work and thought it looked a lot like a spruced-up air traffic control tower. We engaged with Gate early, and they were able to show us how to do it with precast.”
Getting the precaster’s buy-in early and seeing what was possible was instrumental in moving the project forward.
“Any time someone had an idea, our team could give input and provide our recommendations,” Gate Sales Manager Michael Trosset said. “We had weekly meetings with BIM modeling so we could talk them through everything in real time, show them what we were thinking and address any concerns they threw at us. It gave everyone a lot of confidence.”
Gate got to work with different samples, colors and designs to create the precast elements that will define the look of the tower. The entire structure is made of precast – from beams to wall panels to stairs – and will have glass-fiber-reinforced concrete elements applied to the outside of it as well.
While the design is similar to an air traffic control tower, it is anything but a standard product.
“We’ve done a lot of tower work, but often times these towers have such an emphasis on functionality and structural integrity that the architectural design and aesthetics are secondary,” Trosset said. “This was clearly not the case with the dive tower and therefore one of the biggest challenges about this project was marrying such a structural product with higher-end architectural elements and finishes.”
Gate used a white cement with specked aggregate and a sandblasted finish to give the tower a different look. Each piece for the exterior is custom as the tower curves and skews as it gets taller. Fortunately, Gate has plenty of experience in creating custom pieces.
“Gate takes a lot of pride in being involved with challenging projects, especially projects with such customization and complexity. Most importantly our facilities have the craftsmanship and flexibility, which allows us to build customized wooden forms to meet the design intent from project to project,” Trosset said. “This is critical, as all of the components on this project are custom, integral-colored and factory-finished. There is no covering up of the panels in the field by others. Once it flies, it’s done. Everything exposed to view is an architectural-level finish.”
Strength, durability shine
Cartaya noted several benefits in using precast for the tower. With salt, sand and humidity a constant part of South Florida weather, being able to stand up to harsh elements is crucial. Since the tower is essentially a 90-foot-tall cantilever, strength and weight are top of mind as well.
“Precast concrete was the perfect selection in order to allow our dream design to happen,” he said. “I don’t think anything else would have allowed us to be successful in our expression of this tower.
“We have concave curves, moving in two directions, and only with precast can we get that.”
Woon pointed out the quality-controlled environment as another benefit.
“You don’t have to worry about the rain or the elements, and there’s so much quality control,” he said. “If a piece is not beautifully made, it’s not brought to the site.”
Voet was able to tour the Gate facility to see the inner workings of manufacturing precast concrete and came away impressed.
“It’s really fascinating to see the level of detail and professionalism and passion they have for what they do,” she said. “I’m fascinated by construction and what they do from the amount of labor that goes into it to how much careful detail.”
Jennings didn’t have much experience with precast and also enjoyed the site visit to see the emphasis on safety, quality control and efficiency.
“It’s been interesting just to see it all come together from the concept meetings to now seeing it in real life,” he said. “Seeing the plant was all new to me, and it was really great to see that commitment.”
Back to prominence
All in all, the project has been a success. It is scheduled to complete this spring.
“When you have the type of collaboration we had on this, that is really helpful,” Trosset said. “The entire team was engaged and took a lot of pride in doing something that was the first of its kind.”
Voet looks forward to seeing the events and competitions Fort Lauderdale will be able to host once the project is complete.
“Having this tower will allow us to reclaim our position within the aquatics industry as a leader and pioneer of the sport,” she said. “This will also be something iconic for Fort Lauderdale as we establish our position within the global swimming community.”
Matt Werner is the managing editor of Precast Solutions magazine and is NPCA’s communication manager.
Design images courtesy of Cartaya and Associates
Photo courtesy of Gate Precast