If I had to assign a theme to this year’s slate of Dream Designs, it would be The Deep Dive.

Aquatics puns aside, this represents the more intensive and sophisticated approaches designers are taking to trends that we’ve seen in the works for a number of years.

For instance, our 2019 package includes the most renovations I’ve seen in my years participating in this program — fully half. Owners and operators have only increased their dedication to upgrading existing facilities to broaden their appeal and versatility.

What I’ve appreciated most is how these aquatics centers — both new and renovated — illustrate that it’s no longer enough to simply throw features at a design. Instead, these design teams have devised more creative and subtle strategies to achieve common objectives such as reaching a diverse audience and fostering healthier ROI.

I asked some honorees what trends are taking shape in aquatics, and their responses are reflected in this package. Some examples:

Expect light to be used for more than the obvious. For the first project in this year’s gallery, The Center of Recreational Excellence, the team designed and installed an extensive lighting system that allows operators to change the mood and create dramatic light and sound shows. This points to a new trend, says Craig Bouck, CEO of Denver-based Barker Rinker Seacat Architecture. He expects designers to become more creative in their use of lighting to engage visitors and even help define spaces.

Evolution of the competition pool. The lap pool in its pure state has been falling out of style. But more than one of the showcased designers said the trend continues to evolve in depth and breadth. Even facilities devoted to specific swimming and diving teams need the ability to transform into spaces for programming and fun. And they’re using more than bulkheads and larger shallow-water areas to do this. They’re also adding play and lounging features.

Intimate spaces. So many times, design trends trickle down from commercial pools to residential. But in describing the objectives of their projects, more than one honoree mentioned a common goal of backyard design — the desire to honor human scale, whether by breaking large, open spaces into a number of intimate spots, or making large structures more approachable to humans.

The importance of story-telling and theming. Designers are no longer satisfied just by the sheer number of attractions at the facilities and waterparks they create. "We aren't just adding waterslides or kids play areas -- we are helping craft a creative story explaining the why," says Kerry Martin of Aquatic Design & Engineering. "So many times in the past, it was okay just to add a slide. Now we are working on the theme, color and the reason why it was added."

Major waterparks and theme parks have long valued these aspects of design, she added, but now that influence is spreading to include other spheres such as resorts and municipal projects.

Neighborhood gathering place. Along with providing fun water attractions, designers and their clients are placing greater emphasis on the comfort and engagement of those who aren't in the water at a given moment. Where will parents sit while they watch their little ones play on a splashpad? Can a restaurant lease a space so people can have a nice sit-down experience? "We think the city center or neighborhood village approach is coming to the aquatic venue," Martin says.

As a long-time reporter, observer and fan of aquatics design, I’m ecstatic about this evolution. Please drop me a line to let me know about other trends that are occurring -- or that you wish were taking place -- at [email protected].