Sustainable Hot Springs Facility Design Brings New Life to Colorado Tourism

ouray hot springs
Ouray’s thermal pools


The vast majority of thermal hot springs in our country flow abundant in the western half. These “healing waters” have provided rejuvenation and relaxation to people through the ages. Today, innovative design and planning at these facilities help them evolve to bring joy to new generations.

jen dicuollo

Jen Dicuollo
Senior Associate, DHM

Hot springs are an economic driver for a number of mountain towns in Colorado, and each boasts a unique and complex range of natural and built systems that are in various stages of their life cycle. Some are at a point where they need to update their filtration and water treatment systems in order to comply with current codes. Others are looking for mechanical updates that take advantage of newer, more energy-efficient technologies that weren’t available 50 to 100 years ago, as well as more advanced pool layouts, and upgraded materials. These new updates and amenities cater to modern day hot spring visitors and improve the guest experience.

In November, the first-ever national conference for hot springs was held in Glenwood Springs, coordinated by the tourism marketing firm Resort Trends Inc. The Hot Springs Connection, which is planning its second conference for this fall, brought together owners, operators, managers and design professionals. The conference agenda included a tour the Glenwood Hot Springs facility to learn about the upcoming improvements from staff and the design team.

Conference coordinator Vicky Nash said, “This event was the first step in creating a unified approach to collaboration with hot springs industry partners throughout the United States. Working together is sure to produce beneficial results across the entire spectrum, from health and wellness practices to technical operations.”

Trends in the industry point toward modern efficiencies and expanded programming, shifting from single large pools to facilities that offer a range of water experiences with space for quiet coves as well as more active and engaging areas for family fun.

When the city of Ouray recently decided to update its public thermal pool, little did the city know that it would be able to increase its capacity, improve ease of maintenance, and start utilizing its geothermal resources in new, sustainable ways – all in just one season.

Ouray’s tourist influx is double the size of the town’s population in summer months, but since its hot springs facility is public, local community input was a particularly important step in the design process. Citizens did not want the pool to become a high-end resort that would price them out of a place they have soaked for generations.

By adapting the original, century-old pool into multiple curvilinear pools, each with a different temperature and purpose, the design team was able to eliminate wasted space, create more privacy, and build a more inviting and safer environment for people of all ages. The pools aren’t just for adults to soak in – now there’s ADA access, parents can see their kids at the splash pad or on the slide, or you can swim laps. And even though Ouray’s thermal pools accommodate more people now than ever before, the spaces are carefully articulated to make people feel less crowded or exposed.

“We design spaces for people and how they use them,” said Walker Christensen, principal at DHM. “To do that at hot springs, we call on the same design skills from other types of projects, like parks or traditional recreation centers. That leads us to solutions that work best in each facility to make people comfortable and improve their interaction with the surroundings.” With dozens of hot springs in Colorado, ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to larger, resort-style facilities, each water source has its own unique minerals, temperatures and flows. Material selection is critical because minerals in geothermal springs have different properties that can react to natural or manmade objects in their own ways. If the water is coming into contact with tile, decking or plants, the materials must be extremely durable and be able to withstand the particular chemical properties of the water’s makeup.

At the historic Glenwood Hot Springs, for instance, where new aquatic recreation features are being added, the thermal mineral water is being used to heat treated municipal water, instead of being pumped straight to the new adventure river. Additionally, facilities are finding new technologies and mechanisms to use more of the geothermal heat from the springs before it leaves the facility, giving hot water a second life to heat bath houses, decks, showers and laundry water, and snow melt systems on the walkways and parking lots. Water is now leaving the facility at 40 degrees instead of 95, which allows the facility full use of the resource.

Our ability to recover heat for other uses without reducing the heat available to the pool is a modern breakthrough. Automated system operations such as those that Cloward H2O designed for Ouray’s and Glenwood Springs’ pools adjust temperatures in a more precise and consistent manner with minimal operator intervention. Splitting up the large, historic single pools into smaller, more customized ones creates additional efficiencies. Facilities are able to keep some pools open and maintain revenue flow while doing maintenance or construction on others. Additionally, during winter months, they can close some of the pools to save energy, rather than shutting the whole facility down.

The experience of visiting a hot spring is elevated by a creative and purposeful design, inclusive in all aspects, and of particular economic significance to its owners and the citizens of the community. Coordination between community, designers, and builders provide facilities that place the visitor experience at the forefront of the design. Today, as throughout history, visitors of these healing landscapes can feel the power of this remarkable natural resource.

*Other consultants and contractors that DHM has worked with on Colorado hot springs projects:

Ouray Hot Springs: Cloward H20, Dowl, Russell Planning, 360 Engineering, AE Design, Goff Engineering, FCI Constructors

Glenwood Hot Springs: Cloward H20, SGM Engineering, CEM Aquatics (Contractor) 

Published in the March 2019 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue