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Oak Brook Park District Community Center Playground & Splash Pad--The Shipwreck on an Island

By Robert Collins, landscape architect, Recreation Concepts, Inc.






The latest playground addition to the Oak Brook Park District (just west of Chicago) is a view from the "ship's" stern to the "ocean" and splash pad. The initial design of the shipwreck was modified slightly to assure age appropriateness.


The Project

In the fall of 2003, Garry Graham, owner of Recreation Concepts, Tom Suhs, director of the Oak Brook Park District, and I met to discuss an expansion of the playground at the Family Recreation Center and Aquatic Center in Central Park. As we discussed the project scope, it became clear that this was going to be a special project.






The landscape architect created a custom-designed modular play unit to imitate a ship smashed upon a rocky shore by using a climber (grey plastic structure at right) on one side of the unit, then locating the ship's bow and steering and observation decks around the "rocky" formation. "I specifically designed this unit to be approved for ages two to five so that it could work functionally in conjunction with a larger unit for ages five to twelve that would mimic the island's trees and land formations," says Robert Collins, RLA.


The Oak Brook Park District, serving the thriving community of Oak Brook west of Chicago in Illinois, wanted to create a world-class play environment that included play equipment and a splash pad as an extension of its indoor pool facility. It was to be exciting for children and comfortable for adults, while incorporating a nautical or nature-related theme and enhancing accessibility. At this stage, the part district was open to design ideas and had the resources to execute a large-scale project as part of the overall expansion and enhancement of the community center facility.

The Community

The Oak Brook Park District, created in 1962, owns and maintains six parks in the Village of Oak Brook. Park districts are a common separate government district in Illinois, with the specialized purpose of running public park and recreation land and operations. The village of Oak Brook and Oak Brook Park District have separate budgets and taxing authorities and operate autonomously, while in close cooperation.

Central Park is the largest park and is home to the district’s administrative office, Racquet Club, gazebo, the Shelter (a multipurpose building) and the Family Recreation Center and Aquatic Center. This is the location where the Shipwreck on an Island playground is now located.

Oak Brook is a premier community, with spacious, prestigious residential areas and a beautiful commercial district. Oak Brook also serves as the headquarters for many national and international companies and organizations, including McDonald’s Corp., Ace Hardware, Federal Signal Corp., Blistex and Lions Clubs International. In fact, the corporate and commercial base is so strong in Oak Brook that nearly all the village services outside of the park district are funded by sales taxes, and the residents do not pay property tax.






Eight-foot high decks lead to large double slides in various formations, offering fun from a limited access space. The doublewide spiral slide allows multiple-user access from one entry. Overhead rings underneath the bridge deck are good for monkeying around. Engineered wood fiber comprises the surfacing.


The Existing Site

The existing site consisted of a playground typical of a neighborhood park, a small concrete sun deck outside of the indoor pool and a service road. While the service road was not heavily used, it bisected the site and crossing in between the playground and the building, creating a sense of separation. The remainder of the site was lawn, trees and shrubs.

The site faces south, basking in the sun all day long. The area can be very hot in the summer, but is otherwise fairly well sheltered from the elements.

The existing playground, to be retained, was accessible from the building by crossing the service road. The playground had engineered wood fiber surfacing, a concrete curb, and a concrete block retaining wall with some small shrubs. There was no shade provided for the playground. The existing GameTime modular playground unit contains slides, climbers, and links typical for a park playground. It did not have any specific theme or exceptional design characteristics.






The existing playground (which was kept) has engineered wood fiber surfacing, a concrete curb, a concrete block retaining wall, some small shrubs, but no shade. The modular playground unit contains slides, climbers and links typical of a park playground, although without any specific theme or exceptional design characteristics.


The Design Concept

The desire to create a themed, fun and fully-accessible play environment while incorporating water play drove the design naturally toward a nautical-related design. However, I did not want to simply create an "off the shelf" ship or boat design.

To start, I created play areas separated into a 2-5 age appropriate shipwreck site, an area with swings and a 5-12 age appropriate island area. The splash pad was to be constructed adjacent to the playground area just south of the existing concrete sun deck.

I created a custom-designed modular play unit to imitate a ship smashed upon a rocky shore by using the GameTime MegaRock climbers on one side of the unit, and then locating the ship's bow and steering and observation decks around the rocky formation. I specifically designed this unit to be approved for ages 2-5 so that it could work functionally in conjunction with a larger unit for ages 5-12 that would mimic the island's trees and land formations.






The "trees" have internal climbers.


For this island unit, I used the GameTime Treescape play equipment line to create a series of "trees" connected by various bridges at a deck elevation of eight feet. The SkyBridge offers a unique play experience with overhead rings underneath the bridge deck to create a double play opportunity, running above and an overhead climber underneath. The Clatter Bridge, only recently available at eight-foot deck height levels, creates a swinging through the trees feeling. The Treescape decks have central climbers that mimic tree trunks and large canopy roofs with laser-cut leaves in concentric circles to create the affect of "speckled shade" that real trees cast. Also, large Double WilderSlides in various formations offer exciting sliding opportunities from a limited access space. The RockSlide, also eight feet at deck height, is a doublewide spiral slide that again offers multiple-user access from one entry. The overall affect of the upper level of the unit is very much like playing in trees.

On the lower end of the unit, ramp access brings users of all physical abilities up into the play unit, giving easy access to overhead ladders, panels and slides. To complete the concept, a free standing GameTime Volcano Climber mimics a rock formation.

The splash pad design was a schematic at this stage. I created a large splash pad area and made the large Rainbow Arch the centerpiece. This series of arches at various heights creates a large mist area perfect for running through or simply standing underneath. The other GTH2O play elements radiated out from this central element, featuring ground sprays, and above ground elements such as the Triple Play, which has three buckets that fill with water and then tip to douse those underneath. The whole system will work by users touching Activation Bollards, which initiate a sequence of spray events in a variety of timed programs. When programmed, it will create a nearly endless variety of spray sequences for the users to explore.

The surfacing for the playground areas and the splash pad was still to be determined at this stage. I looked at poured-in-place rubber and engineered wood fiber by GTImpax for the playground areas. The splash pad could be brushed concrete, or a 1/2 inch poured-in-place rubber cap to soften the deck and add color.






A bubble panel (port hole) with polycarbonate window for viewing from the ship.


The Design Evolves

We returned to Oak Brook Park District to present the Shipwreck on an Island design. At this stage, the park district brought in key personnel to make sure that the design would meet program needs. We met with Tom Suhs, aquatic manager Laura Evans and recreation supervisor Patty Mulcahy. I presented the design and it was very enthusiastically received. It would take a series of meetings and design modifications to develop a final design concept that would be adopted by the park district.

Ultimately, the design of the shipwreck was modified slightly to assure age appropriateness, and the island area was modified multiple times over a series of meetings to best achieve play value, ADA access, and theme affect. Also, the swings were separated so that the tot swings were located in the same area as the shipwreck, while four belt swings were shifted into the area with the large island unit, eliminating a separate swing set area.






The splash pad incorporates a 1/2 inch poured-in-place rubber cap to soften the deck and add various shades of blue and tan to mimic water and shoreline. A decorative metal fence encloses the splash pad and the area is graded level with the former sun-deck elevation, requiring a concrete block retaining wall around a portion of its perimeter. The surfacing ties together the Shipwreck on an Island theme. The surfacing for the playground areas was selected to maximize the design theme, while controlling project costs.


The splash pad area was also reviewed. We presented the various water play equipment options, and determined that this system would recycle the water rather than use municipal water. Once the shape of the pad was finalized, and the exact GTH2O splash equipment was selected, it was time to begin the engineering and mechanical design process.

The surfacing ties together the Shipwreck on an Island theme. The surfacing for the playground areas was selected to maximize the design theme, while controlling project costs. To this end, the shipwreck area would have poured-in-place surfacing designed to look like a beach area with tan "sand" surfacing adjacent to blue "water" surfacing. The island area would be covered in engineered wood fiber. The slash pad would be surfaced with the 1/2 inch poured-in-place surface and also designed with various shades of blue and some tan surface to again mimic water and shoreline.






The Oak Brook Park District wanted a splash pad as the extension of its indoor pool facility. This required rerouting the service road further south of the community center and slightly reshaping the splash pad to accommodate a utility building for the mechanical and water treatment facilities. A group of arches at various heights, creates mist. Other water elements are ground sprays and buckets that douse. Touching the bollards activates the water elements and initiates a wide variety of timed sprays.


The Project Implementation

The next step would involve the design and bidding of the full project, including the site work, paving, landscaping, and, of course, the playground and the splash pad. The Oak Brook Park District enlisted the services of Bob Fleck, a talented and experienced landscape architect with extensive park and recreation project experience to create the construction drawings. I worked closely with Bob Fleck to bring the site work aspect of the project together with the Shipwreck on an Island playground design.

The site plan placed the shipwreck area for ages 2-5 close to the building. The service road was re-routed further south of the community center to allow for a large play area and splash pad. The island Treescape (ages 5-12 unit) was placed to the east and south of the existing play unit, so that ramp access was centrally located from the community center doors, while seamlessly incorporating the existing unit. The splash pad was slightly reshaped to accommodate a utility building for the mechanical and water treatment facilities, while maintaining the design intent. Also, the existing sun deck was removed and a large concrete plaza with chaise lounges was designed to fit in the area just outside of the indoor pool. The splash pad was enclosed with a decorative metal fence to assure that access was affiliated with the aquatic center. The splash pad area was graded level with the former sun-deck elevation, requiring a concrete block retaining wall around a portion of its perimeter. Finally, the surfacing was detailed for the water and sand affect as intended in the design concept phase.






The tot swings were located in the same area as the shipwreck, while four belt swings were shifted to the large island unit. Galvanized steel uprights and toprails, both powder coated, support the swings. The "shipwreck" area has a 1/2 inch of poured-in-place surfacing designed to look like a beach area with tan "sand" surfacing adjacent to blue "water" surfacing.


The splash pad component of the project was then submitted for an Illinois Open Space Land and Development (OSLAD) grant. The project was found worthy of the grant and bidding moved forward in the late winter of 2004.

Construction lasted through the summer of 2004 before reaching substantial completion that fall. Mike Sletten joined the Oak Brook Park District during this time in the capacity of assistant director and assumed construction oversight.

Due to the fact that the outdoor swimming season for Illinois had passed, the start-up of the splash pad was scheduled for the spring of 2005.

The Shipwreck on an Island Comes to Life!

In the spring of 2005, GTH2O and Hobbs Fountain engineer Robbie Asendorf, who worked on the initial system engineering the previous year, arrived from Atlanta to start up the splash pad system.

It was a nice day for the Chicago area for March, and there were some young children playing on the new playground as he began to start up and test the system from the utility building. They looked on with great anticipation as Robbie ran the splash pad through its cycles. After a series of tests the splash pad was up and running.






The five to twelve age group play elements include a series of "trees" connected by various bridges at a deck elevation of eight feet. The Treescape decks have central climbers that mimic tree trunks and large canopy roofs with laser-cut leaves in concentric circles to create the affect of "speckled shade" that real trees cast.


During the summer of 2005, thousands of children and parents from Oak Brook and the surrounding communities have explored the exciting new Shipwreck on an Island playground.

To bring the Shipwreck on an Island playground to life took the concerted efforts of all the key players mentioned earlier, as well as skilled contractors and tradesmen, and the dedicated Oak Brook Park District staff and board of directors. I hope that this exciting play area will bring the joy of play and exploration to many more people in the years to come.






Ramp access brings users of all physical abilities up into the play unit, giving easy access to overhead ladders, panels and slides. A free-standing Volcano Climber mimics a rock formation.




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December 8, 2019, 7:59 am PDT

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