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Making a splash in Walsall

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Hodder Associates' new swimming pool in Darlaston in the West Midlands brings quality and flair to an area better known for deprivation and neglect. Local people helped to select its design The new swimming pool at Darlaston, a suburb of Walsall in the Black Country, is the last of a triumvirate of projects aimed at giving the area a new and higher architectural profile. In general, the area is held in such low regard, and is so poorly maintained, that there is a large and sophisticated website called Ugly Walsall (at uglywalsall.myhome.org.uk), devoted to pointing out its shortcomings. The swimming pool, in addition to the Walsall Art Gallery, designed by Caruso St John, and Allford Hall Monaghan Morris' bus station, will ensure that there are at least some high spots.

Architect Hodder Associates designed the £5.5 million building to complement a nearby multi-purpose centre.Walsall council's leisure services department took an innovative approach to consultation. It used an interactive software package to find out what people thought about the proposals. With a member of staff on hand to help, residents could see three-dimensional computer images of three proposed building and pool styles, and use the computer to vote for their preferred option.

The consultation process was an important factor in the success of the £4.5 million English Sports Council's (now Sport England) Lottery funding bid.

The pool has a dominating hilltop position. There are three main elements: a folded timber roof over the pool area; a curved red brick wall surrounding the changing and fitness areas; and a 30m entrance ramp.

The pool hall is light and bright, and Hodder pulls off the clever trick of being both innovative and imaginative without being over-assertive. The uninterrupted space is achieved by a combination of the semimonocoque roof and the placing of a dual water- and air-recovery system in the pool surround; as a result, there are no downstand beams and no visible air-handling ducts.

The walls and roof are of stressed-skin panels. The 31 roof panels - each spans 21m - are believed to be the longest spanning ever.

They are made of vertical ribs of laminated veneer lumber (LVL) lined top and bottom with a LVL deck. The panels taper from 1m to 400mm deep. The wall is made of similar panels, which are bolted to the roof at the curved eaves, to make the wall/roof/ceiling into one structure. The spruce-veneer kerto deck is left exposed as the ceiling and wall finish - it was sanded and pre-decorated with a protective coating from Sadolin. The wall panels are perforated with slots which perform an acoustic function. A 15mm shadow gap between each panel helped with the alignment as well as serving an aesthetic function. The use of timber does not end there: the glazed wall at one side of the pool has an external Douglas fir truss, supported on concrete posts.

Judges in the RIBA awards described the building as 'an elegant hall surrounded by open fitness and changing facilities areas - themselves also naturally lit by a clerestory running around the perimeter of the building. The confident handling of these elements is carried through consistently in the details throughout the building.'

Not surprisingly, the project is also being considered for a Timber Industry Award 2001.

ARCHITECT Hodder Associates CLIENT Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council CONTRACTOR Willmott Dixon Construction STRUCTURAL & SERVICES ENGINEERS Arup

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