Comment: Richmond Plunge holds lessons for Berkeley

The newly re-opened pool at the Richmond Plunge in Point Richmond. Photo: Henrik Bull.

Berkeley resident Henrik Bull believes Berkeley could learn a lot from the process which led to the renovation and recent reopening of the Richmond Plunge in Point Richmond — in particular with regard to the plans for the Warm Pool at Berkeley High School’s Old Gymnasium.

The City of Berkeley could learn a lot from its neighbor to the north. On Saturday, August 15, the rebuilt Richmond Plunge reopened to the public after nine years of cooperative efforts by the City and dedicated citizen groups. It is touted as being “the greenest and healthiest indoor swimming pool in America”. The Richmond Municipal Natatorium, its official name, is certainly a triumph of historic preservation. The interior is now one of the most dramatic spaces in the Bay Area.

The original building was built in 1926, an era of civic pool construction all over the U.S. It had been badly damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake and was finally closed in 2001 due to structural failure of its exterior walls. Originally it was considered to be too expensive to rehabilitate. Local citizens who had fond memories of swimming at the Plunge, formed the “Save the Richmond Plunge Trust” to investigate possibilities for financing. Working with Berkeley architect Todd Jersey, a design was developed that not only restored the original building, but also incorporated the latest technologies for energy conservation.

Detail of mural by John Wherle at the Richmond Plunge. Photo: Henrik Bull.

The final cost of the project was $7.5 million, which seems remarkable considering the high level of restoration and advanced technology that was needed.  Ventilation is natural with over 200 operating windows. Overhead radiant heaters warm the people rather than the huge volume of air. There is no smell of chlorine. An ultraviolet disinfectant system eliminates chloramines from the pool water.  The water in the huge, 60 x 160 foot (324,000 gallon) pool is heated by 3,600 square feel of solar hot-water panels on the main roof. In addition, 32 kilowatt of electricity is generated by the solar electric system on top of the upper clerestory roof.


The central pool space is flooded with daylight from both sides and from above.  The original steel trusses are like lacy sculptures. A marvelous mural by local artist John Wherle covers the entire end wall. All the tile work is new but is in the spirit of the 1920s. Many local artists and craftspeople made significant contributions to the project.

What lessons could Berkeley, a city which was recently forced due to budget constraints to close down one of its main public swimming pools, learn from the success of the Richmond Plunge? The first lesson might be the most difficult for Berkeley: work collaboratively with the city government. Funding for the Plunge came from individual donors, local businesses, state grants for historic preservation and a portion of a regional parks bond and city money.

The second lesson is that the greenest building is one that already exists. If the building had been torn down and a new swim center built, the cost would probably have been greater. A new building would not have the charm of the recycled Plunge building. Most important, demolition of buildings is enormously wasteful of energy and natural resources.

Exterior of the Richmond Plunge in Point Richmond. Photo: Henrik Bull.

Architecturally, the Richmond Plunge is quite similar to the Old Gymnasium at Berkeley High School, which was built in 1922 with additions in 1929 — and which I wrote about for Berkeleyside in January. The existing warm water pool at Berkeley High is a smaller version of the Plunge with exposed steel trusses and high windows bringing natural light to the entire space. An important difference is that the existing pool structure and the gymnasium building at Berkeley High are in much better condition than the Richmond Plunge was prior to its rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, it appears the Berkeley School Board has decided to demolish the Landmarked 385,000 square foot gymnasium and pool without investigating the rehabilitation alternative. Perhaps the spaces in the gymnasium building might not have seemed adaptable for classroom use. In any case, the school district’s architects have been commissioned to design a new building with 15 classrooms and a new gymnasium, as well as a separate stadium building with 2,200 seats and locker rooms, offices and miscellaneous spaces below. This stadium building is estimated to cost $10.4 million and is scheduled to be built before the classroom/gym building.


Concerned about the decision to demolish the Old Gym, a group of design professionals met at the High School to study the feasibility of accommodating the School Board’s proposed program within the existing building. Unfortunately, this group met only once. Some interesting ideas were generated in this session and a report presented to the School Board. Perhaps because the report did not come up with a single plan, the Board did not seem interested.

The warm pool at Berkeley High School is housed in the Old Gymnasium. Photo: Tracey Taylor.

As a member of that study group and a retired architect, I felt that a single unified plan could be developed. After working with the original plans I was pleased to determine that all the functions in the Board’s program would fit comfortably in the existing building. The classrooms would be in the existing second floor gym spaces with lofty ceilings and high windows. There would be a two story high gymnasium with spectator seating and a ground floor entry. The existing warm water pool, which was recently upgraded by the City of Berkeley, would be retained. Based on the cost of the completed work at the Richmond Plunge, the total cost of seismic work and upgrading the lockers and showers would be within the unused $3 million which Berkeley voters approved for this purpose in 2000.

Another $116.5 million bond issue which passed in 2000, Measure AA, focused on building new classrooms at Berkeley High. The money was spent but no classrooms were built. In this November election, Berkeley voters will face a bond issue for over $200 million for Berkeley High classrooms, a new gymnasium, and the “stadium” building.

If the bond issue does not pass in November, perhaps our School Board might reconsider their very un-green decision to throw away the Landmarked gymnasium and warm water pool building. The Richmond Plunge has proved that a truly green result can be achieved with a modest amount of money and a community focused effort.

Henrik Bull retired from the architecture firm Bull Stockwell Allen in 2007. His many designs include The Inn at Spanish Bay, Pebble Beach and the Bear Valley Visitors’ Center at Point Reyes National Seashore. His work has received numerous design awards and has been widely published internationally.