The shape of water

Australia is an urban coastal nation – we love the water and our well-known fascination with the beach and water is part of our cultural DNA. We have uninterrupted stretches of pristine beach the envy the world over, and a nation of more than 22 million people¹ who live within 50km of the coast. Furthermore, nearly 3 million Australians own a pool at home, and there are 2100 aquatic facilities and swim schools across the nation².

But despite the strong culture around water, recent figures reveal that drowning deaths are increasing. The infrastructure of public swimming pools is also fast approaching its use-by-date, meaning we’re falling short in meeting the contemporary and anticipated future needs of our communities. However, we believe design can help.

A worrying trend

Today, swimming lessons are the most common out-of-school activity for Australian children and 34 per cent of kids are enrolled in learn-to-swim programs. Swimming is equally popular among adults, with many people enjoying the health, social and wellbeing benefits. But a closer look reveals that only 40 per cent of 11- and 12-year-old children could achieve a benchmark standard (50m) in freestyle, backstroke, survival backstroke and breaststroke. And only 30 per cent of teenagers can swim a minimum of 50m of any stroke³. This is despite most Learn-to-Swim programs preferring to focus on swimming techniques over water safety and survival skills – another concern.⁴

Perhaps this adds some context around the recent drowning statistics. According to the yearly Royal Life Saving National Drowning Report 2023 ⁵, 281 people drowned in Australian waterways in the previous 12 months, an increase of 1 per cent on a 10-year average. Most of the incidents involved rivers and creeks, but also swimming and recreating, with swimming the leading activity prior to drowning in all age groups and locations. While the ongoing success of water safety messages and legislative changes prove effective, and 1 per cent may be small, poor swimming skills compound drowning risk, and we all have a role to play in reducing these figures and their devastating effects.

Our ageing infrastructure under threat

For many Australians, the local public swimming pool evokes nostalgic summer memories. But the reality is that the average Australian public pool was built in 1968, and they are nearing their use-by-dates. Specifically, 500 public pools - 40 per cent - will reach their end of life by 2030 according to Royal Life Saving Australia, with $8 billion required to replace them and a further $3 billion to replace the aquatic facilities ending their lifespan by 2035 ⁶. With even the cost of replacing a basic outdoor swimming pool estimated at $10 million, these significant investments may be prohibitive for facility owners along with the pressures of rising energy costs and labour shortages.

These issues were exacerbated during COVID-19 when public swimming pools and other aquatic facilities shut down due to health concerns. During closures, children missed out on an estimated 10 million swimming lessons ⁷. As life has slowly resumed, some of the more affordable options offered by state governments, such as South Australia’s VacSwim program and school-based swimming programs, have struggled to maintain funding and keep up with demand. Private Learn-to-Swim programs can have prohibitive costs too, adding to the impact of children accessing lessons.

Above and beyond with regenerative design

As designers, we have a role to play in impacting both these tragic situations – reducing the statistics and rethinking the way we approach our ageing infrastructure. One solution is to apply a regenerative design method. Regenerative design is a way of thinking and approaching built-form environments by reversing the effects of climate change through design choices and that aim for a net-positive ecological impact. This methodology goes beyond sustainability solutions because sustainability is no longer sufficient to deal with the impact of climate change.⁸

Through regenerative design, numerous features can contribute to improved ecological outcomes, including systems approach to site improvement, water treatment, clean energy, reduced carbon footprint – all aiming to have a positive impact on people and planet.

Fundamentally, the thinking goes beyond the physical – it reaffirms the right behaviours towards health and wellbeing.

Design considerations for the mainstream

Let’s apply the thinking to swimming pools. In Australia, 1,306 public pools are owned and operated by the government, and a further publicly accessible 807 pools are provided by the private sector⁹. All facility owners should be encouraged to refurbish and maintain aquatic infrastructure to benefit long-term economic outcomes and community wellbeing. For these facilities, balancing social and environmental outcomes with the economy will be key to ensuring feasibility and accessibility for all.

They could consider new ways of funding swimming pool infrastructure such as public-private partnerships¹⁰ to share costs and benefits. This would combat expenses incurred by upgrading aged facilities to meet current safety and design standards and ongoing maintenance costs. For example, public and private schools could build and share their aquatic facilities, providing swimming pools for students in schools and schools to lease their aquatic facilities to privately operated swim schools. The operation’s profitability could justify the significant capital and operational expenditure required for the upkeep of a swimming pool.

Purruna Spencer Newton Centre

An example of regenerative design is Purruna Spencer Newton Wellbeing and Sports Centre at Scotch College Adelaide, the largest building project in the college’s history. At its heart, this new facility provides a holistic framework that celebrates the connection between students, families and the broader community on a platform of wellbeing.

Purruna Spencer Newton Centre, Scotch College, Adelaide

The project is built on the site of the college’s existing swimming pool and gym complex, which were no longer fit for purpose. It comprises a 25m pool, indoor courts, flexible classroom facilities, collaborative workspaces, consultation rooms, and a high-performance gym and exercise rooms, with a strong vision that this isn’t simply a set of buildings, but an opportunity to ‘replace old with bold’.

Given that aquatic centres require large amounts of water and energy to operate, consuming up to seven times more energy per floor area compared to an average commercial office building, its energy initiatives are crucial. They include:

  • Renewable energy: Roof-top solar power PV panels, solar-powered heating and cooling systems, and passive solar design
  • Water waste minimisation: Aimed at 50 per cent reduction through a pool filtration system, air-based mechanical cooling systems, and rainwater collection for reuse.

Alongside the student facilities include accessible spaces for the community as well, broadening the scope of the traditional school pool with on-site health professionals and swim school operated by the YMCA, providing much-needed education and access for everybody in the community.

Scotch College Wellbeing and Sports Centre

A safer future for all

While this project is far from the average local swimming pool and its facilities aren’t commonplace, it serves as an example of not only the power of regenerative design but also its potential applications for the mainstream, including other schools. We acknowledge that access remains a challenge around swimming abilities, and not everyone will have access to a facility like Scotch College, but its completion is encouraging for the many other facilities sharing the same issues. It aligns the philosophy of water with wellbeing and how we can create well-designed and sustainable spaces that continue to serve the community long after they were designed and constructed.

In a country that places high importance on its aquatic lifestyle, we need to develop the next generation of aquatic facilities and demonstrate to clients the long-term economic, environmental, and health benefits.

By designing modern, multi-functional and ecologically sustainable facilities, we can provide better opportunities for future expansion and diversification to meet future trends in sports, recreation, and wellness.

By designing environments conducive to improved and safer water-based behaviours, and removing barriers like access to public pools, swimming classes and an improved cultural response to water safety, we may be able to turn the tide on truly avoidable drowning statistics.


¹ Cresswell ID, Janke T & Johnston EL (2021). Australia state of the environment 2021: overview, independent report to the Australian Government Minister for the Environment, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra. DOI: 10.26194/f1rh-7r05.

² Sherry, E., Karg, A. J., Storr, R., Yeomans, C., Houston, R.J. (2021). Social Impact of the National Aquatic Industry. Swinburne Sport Innovation Research Group and Royal Life Saving Society - Australia.

³ Australian Sports Commission’s AusPlay Report (2022)

⁴ Summers, J., Larsen, P., Houston, R. & Pickles, K. (2023). National Swimming and Water Safety Framework and Benchmarks Implementation Report. Royal Life Saving Society - Australia, Sydney.

.⁵ Royal Life Saving Society – Australia (2023) National Drowning Report 2023, Sydney Australia.

⁶, ⁹, ¹⁰ Summers, J, and R Houston. 2022. “The State of Aquatic Facility Infrastructure in Australia – Rebuilding Our Aging Public Swimming Pools.” Royal Life Saving Australia. Sydney: Royal Life Saving Society.

⁷ Ward, Mary. 2023. “Drowning Risk at Generational High after Children Miss 10 Million Swimming Lessons.” The Sydney Morning Herald. January 7, 2023.

⁸ Plaves, Yaara, Paris Jacobs, and Emil Jonescu. 2022. “Defining Regenerative Design: The Foundation to Systemic Understanding, Adoption, and Practice.” X-Potential.

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