Imagine this: It’s a hot summer day, so you decide to go for a dip in your apartment complex’s swimming pool. You head up to the rooftop pool deck, drop your towel and start paddling, with nothing but water, a piece of transparent acrylic and air between you and the ground 115 feet below.
People walking by on the street 10 stories down look like action figures.
And then, if you wanted to, you could swim the 82 feet from your building to its sister building via the suspended pool, which looks and feels like a floating aquarium.
For residents of the Embassy Gardens development in London’s South Bank district, this exhilarating fantasy is now a daily reality, thanks to a company 5,000 miles away in Colorado.
The jaw-dropping new Sky Pool, believed to be the world’s first floating pool, has been making headlines all over the world since it opened last month. For the team at Reynolds Polymer Technology in Grand Junction, the Sky Pool is the result of more than four years of hard work and collaboration.
They engineered and manufactured the pool, made with acrylic that’s up to 14 inches thick, in Grand Junction, then shipped the 122,000-pound structure to London. The long, arduous journey took three weeks and required police escorts, road closures and even the removal of some traffic lights once it reached London.
Though the pool is one-of-a-kind, the project’s complexity is similar to what Reynolds Polymer handles on a regular basis: The company’s tagline is “Make the Impossible Possible.”
Originally founded in the 1980s in California, the company relocated to Grand Junction in 1992. From there, it designs and builds custom acrylic pieces for clients all over the world, including aquariums, zoos, hotels, new developments and private residences. They make water features, flight simulators, architectural elements, signage and, of course, stunning pools and spas. (If you’ve ever been to the Denver Aquarium or walked past an Apple store, you’ve seen their work.)
“There aren’t a lot of companies that do large acrylic structures,” said Paul Gardner, Reynolds Polymer vice president of engineering, quality and safety. “It’s a small market for sure. We’ve done crazy things in the past — and when I say crazy, I mean what a normal person might think is crazy. So odd things, things that nobody else can really imagine doing, are kind of normal for us.”
The Sky Pool’s developers, EcoWorld Ballymore, initially wanted to build the pool out of glass. Working with London-based HAL Architects and engineering firm Eckersley O’Callaghan, the developers later shifted their attention to acrylic, also known as polymethyl methacrylate, a clear engineered plastic developed in the 1960s that has better optical clarity than glass and is half the weight. It’s also incredibly durable and can be made to look seamless.
They came to Reynolds Polymer, a world leader in the field of acrylics, for help.
“We can cast stuff up to three feet thick in one casting and there’s nobody in the world that can do it at that size and that thickness in one big pour like we do,” said Gardner. “Our competitors would’ve taken a bunch of two-inch sheets and glued them together in a laminate. We pour it all in one monolithic casting, so it’s all one piece. That’s the secret sauce.”
To make the pool sturdy, safe and responsive to the subtle movements of the two high-rises it straddles, engineers devised a plan to build a stainless steel tub on each building, connected by two steel tension rods running under the pool. The steel tubs anchor the acrylic but also offer flexibility for when the buildings sway slightly in the wind or their foundations settle.
Inside the company’s 75,000-square-foot facility, Reynolds Polymer’s 100 employees got to work making this dream a reality. They began by mixing liquid monomer with polymer beads, which creates a thick, corn syrup-like mixture.
Next, they poured the concoction into a mold, then transferred it to an autoclave, which is “essentially a large pressure cooker,” says Gardner. The high pressure and temperature inside the autoclave trigger a chemical reaction that cures the acrylic and hardens it into a solid piece.
Every inch of acrylic requires roughly 24 hours in the autoclave, which meant that the seven 14-inch-thick Sky Pool floor panels spent roughly two weeks apiece in the autoclave.
“It took months and months just to cast the parts and get the parts ready to start fabricating,” Gardner says.
Once the pieces were cured, the workers could start finessing them into their final forms.
“Now, you’ve got a thick block, a big panel of acrylic, and you take it and start fabricating it — cutting it, machining it, planing it, polishing it, gluing it together,” Gardner says.
Working on acrylic introduces stress, so workers regularly transferred the pool’s panels to a warm oven to help the material relax. The panels were also so large that employees had to work on them outdoors. Though Gardner said he didn’t know how many total man-hours went into the project, crews spent more than 2,000 hours on polishing alone.
Workers bonded the pool’s 15 separate pieces together using a special syrup, a process that requires complete precision — and took a few tries to get right.
Gardner described Reynolds Polymer’s highly skilled employees as “artisans” who perform complex, labor-intensive tasks, day after day, to make projects like the Sky Pool possible. Two other Colorado companies — DH Glabe & Associates in Wheat Ridge and SCJ Alliance in Boulder — also helped bring the Sky Pool to life. Bradford Products in North Carolina worked on the project as well.
“This was definitely a team effort and there was a lot of good teamwork among all the trades,” he said.
After the pool’s three-week journey across the Atlantic last September, a crew from Reynolds Polymer helped install it, then conducted extensive testing to make sure the final product’s performance matched their engineering models.
Gardner was the first person to walk across the pool once it was full of water, wearing waders he bought at the Grand Junction Cabela’s and packed in his suitcase. (At that point, the water was only 35 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Today, it’s heated to about 75 or 80 degrees, Gardner said.)
Later, he got to swim in it, too. As he floated in the pool and looked out over the U.S. Embassy, located right next to Embassy Gardens, Gardner said he felt a sense of satisfaction at having been part of such an ambitious project.
“A lot of excitement because it had been a long time coming — ‘Man, are we ever going to finish this one, get it across the line?’ ” he said. “To finally get it over there, get it set and put water in it, it was a big sigh of relief. And some pride. It took a little bit longer than we thought, we ran into some difficulties, but perseverance wins out in the end. If you stick at something, you can get to a good result in the end.”
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