Riding The Wave: Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, British Columbia

When Vancouver firm HCMA Architecture + Design started designing the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre in 2011, the site was practically rural, with acreage-lot homes dotting pasture lands in every direction. Today, the surrounding landscape is rich with housing subdivisions under construction, racing to meet growing demands.

“Surrey is an incredibly interesting context to design public buildings. The scale and diversity of the city—and the fact that it is growing at a very rapid pace—presents a unique challenge to create public buildings that provide stability and civic focus,” says HCMA principal Darryl Condon, FRAIC.

The sweeping profile of the new aquatic centre creates a strong presence along 24 Avenue in Surrey, B.C. Photo by Nic Lehoux
The sweeping profile of the new aquatic centre creates a strong presence along 24 Avenue in Surrey, B.C. Photo by Nic Lehoux

Responding to the City’s ambitious brief, HCMA created a landmark—an aquatic centre with a roofline reminiscent of a wave in motion—designed to anchor a much larger collection of future civic buildings and amenities on the site. The sculptural form of the roof is counterbalanced by strong concrete buttresses, creating an effect that is both elegant and playful.

Programmatically, the centre is equally robust, deftly balancing the requirements of both recreational and competition-level users. A large-scale leisure pool—featuring a waterslide, lazy river and extensive water-play areas—appeals to families, while a 10-lane, 50-metre Olympic-sized lap pool and dive platforms meet the needs of athletes and club swimmers. This second pool is built to stringent FINA standards, so that the community can host diving, swimming and water polo events at all competitive levels, with seating for up to 900 spectators.

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
The roof assembly uses a catenary structure, but with wood members in place of metal cables. Concrete columns provide vertical support at the two ends of the building and at its midpoint. Photo by Nic Lehoux

“The leisure pool and the lap pool are set end to end, making this a long facility,” says project architect and HCMA principal Melissa Higgs. “Often these pools would be put side by side, but since there’s such a focus on training and hosting here, we wanted to separate the two areas to give a bit more quiet, especially to the diving platforms. Also, when they hold a competitive event, there’s an ability to divide the space and put cameras and lights into action, while still allowing the community component to function undisturbed.”

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
Within the centre, central columns create an informal division between the leisure and competitive pool areas. Photo by Nic Lehoux.

While the building’s strong street presence might be daunting to some potential users, a glass curtain wall provides an inviting transparency that demystifies the world within. On warm days, large glass doors retract so that activity can spill out from the leisure pool onto a paved deck. The natural grade of the landscape is used to create a semi-private feel. At street level and above, translucent polycarbonate cladding screens views while allowing for an abundance of natural light that’s diffuse enough to avoid glare during competitions.

The most daring move at Grandview Heights is, of course, its roof structure. As in all Olympic-sized swimming pools, one of the greatest challenges is achieving the necessary structural span. Designers often opt for solutions that cross the short span of the pool. Instead, HCMA and its long-time collaborator, structural engineer Fast + Epp, worked to find a solution that would underscore the elongated form of the centre by spanning in the same direction as the long side of the Olympic pool.

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
Photo by Nic Lehoux

Inspired by the City of Surrey’s “wood first” policy, the team designed a two-part cable hung roof structure—but made with timber members instead of metal cables. A first catenary roof spans the leisure pool area, while a second spans the length of the 50-metre pool and sweeps high above the dive platforms. At 65 metres in length, this second section is the longest spanning timber catenary roof ever constructed.

To create each “cable,” prefabricated, regionally sourced 5×10 inch Douglas fir laminated beams were coupled into pairs using a steel knife plate and wooden fasteners. These were then crane-lifted into position. The roof structure was completed in an extraordinary eight days.

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
Above the change rooms, a fitness room looks our towards a leafy residential area. Photo by Nic Lehoux

It may have been technically possible to use these timber “cables” to span the entire length of the building. But anyone who’s been on a suspension bridge knows how cables flex and bounce, and the same is true of the timber version: the roof is a dynamic structure that moves with wind and snow-loads. An intermediate structure—the concrete spine that effectively separates the leisure and lap pools—was introduced to reduce deflection to a maximum of six to eight inches. The curtain wall is supported independently of the roof, and the top of wall connection that accommodates the deflection and maintains the integrity of the envelope is a silicone gasket. The anodized aluminum seen on the exterior moves independently with the roof itself.

The wooden roof brings warmth to the interior and provides an intrigue that is rarely present in stark modern pool complexes. Its uninterrupted spans and gentle curves are memorable. The big move of the roof is also supported by detail at a finer-grained level. From the restrained colour palette in the leisure pool tiling to the self-contained changing cubicles that give universal access to all-comers, there’s plenty to satisfy the sensory needs of pool goers. “Pools are really challenging because the chlorinated environment is tough,” says Higgs. “ If it’s a popular place, it gets so much use that things need to be bulletproof, but you also want it to be fun, playful, light and bright. We wanted this to be like a public spa, with a Scandinavian feel.”

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
The leisure swim zone includes a waterslide, lazy ricer, spray feature, and tots’ area, making it a hub for local families. Photo by Nic Lehoux

Belying the sleek interiors, the centre has a wide range of high-tech features that increase its functionality. Most notable is an adjustable floor section in the lap pool that moves vertically, allowing the pool depth to be configured for different users. This feature works in conjunction with two moveable floating bulkheads that can be used to divide the pool to accommodate diverse programming. A complex air extraction system draws air from the pool’s surface, helping to quickly remove the chlorinated air that can cause respiratory issues for people who swim often.

Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre, Surrey, HCMA Architecture + Design
Coloured balustrades animate the diving platforms at the end of the Olympic-sized competition pool. Photo by Nic Lehoux

If a building’s success can be judged by its usage, Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre is a runaway hit. Since opening in March 2016, the facility has received upwards of 2,500 visits per day. “We are thrilled with the result,” says Condon. “We believe that it reflects upon our commitment to continuous evolution and challenging the boundaries of conventional practice.” Higgs agrees. “Knowing that we’ve met the sports need, but also met the needs of the community—drawing in everyone from seniors to athletes—that’s really very satisfying.”