A Powerful Niche
Even though I’ve been on the leading edge of a movement for several years now, it still feels strange to put this thought on paper: A growing number of professionals like me are now finding work as consultants in the design and construction of watershapes.
Who would ever have thought it possible? Just a few short years ago, the idea that anyone could make a living by charging for designs or construction oversight was outlandish and the subject of skepticism, shock and derision among architects, landscape architects and pool contractors.
To that point, after all, “pool design” was generally a service that existed almost exclusively to support the sales efforts of contractors. These folks, who were accustomed to
getting or providing their designs for free, weren’t exactly prepared to consider a role for outsiders whose profession was the non-stop pursuit of creative, dynamic and effective watershapes.
Driving the emergence of these consultants has been a tremendous demand on the part of the client base (particularly at the high end) for radically creative watershapes fully integrated into their environments. The debut of WaterShapes in 1999 has proved to be another spur to this movement, exposing both designers and contractors to work that calls for special insight and skill perhaps best found among specialists.
Wherever this all came from, I operate today in a transformed industry in which the desire on the part of both commercial and residential clients for dynamic watershape and landscape environments has created a demand for the services of professionals who support the design and construction processes with a pure focus on water and the way it relates to its surroundings.
SETTING THE TABLE
The need for watershape-design consulting has emerged from a variety of circumstances that all have one thing in common: the unique, single-minded desire on the part of clients to do something truly special with water. As one project leads to another and one satisfied client begets the next, what happens is that the consultant’s role as part of the design team expands and becomes more significant.
Forgive me if it seems immodest, but the best examples I can offer to illustrate the potency of this trend will have to do with my own work in this budding profession. Yes, I’m proud that my abilities, continuing education and hard work are consistently leading me to bigger and bigger roles as a watershape consultant, but I also easily see a larger picture of which I’m only a part.
Not to be grandiose, but I take what’s going on as a sure sign that, in a profound way, watershaping as a profession is coming of age and that those of us who are prepared to move into consulting roles are, I believe, walking into a widening marketplace filled with an ever-increasing demand. Those who are not pursuing this avenue can, I hope, at least begin to appreciate the need for this service.
As I’ve suggested before in these pages, the expertise required for consulting work develops via multiple and not necessarily direct paths. In my case, I came up through the ranks of pool and spa service and contracting, developing skills by the sweat of my brow and an insatiable hunger for ongoing professional education.
For others, the path to a consulting role might be based on a combination of formal design education and hard-won technical expertise in contracting – or on some other means of collecting and expressing expertise. A consultant may be a former pool contractor who worked hard to develop design skills – or a landscape designer, landscape architect, architect or structural engineer who augments design insights with familiarity with the gritty world of construction.
In the past, the gap between design and construction was seldom bridged by anyone from one side or the other. Today, however, we see a growing number of professionals who operate comfortably on both sides and in the middle and who, like me and some others I know, have found ways of supporting architects and designers as well as contractors in what they do.
By interposing this role of the consultant into the overall watershaping mix, we who occupy this space enable everyone else – architects, general contractors, landscape architects, landscape designers, pool contractors and various sub-trades – to keep their eyes trained on what they do best while leaving the task of creative watershaping to experts who know what it takes to meet clients’ desires and/or extend their imaginations.
TWISTS AND TURNS
The role of consultants has also expanded because many of those who once scoffed at the notion of paying for watershape consulting now warmly accept the role and view it as indispensable in many situations.
Not long ago, for example, I was brought in on a project for a client who was building a $43-million estate in rural Tennessee. The project had started in the traditional way: A landscape architect had a developed the general concept of an elaborate swimming pool and had hired a reputable, competent contractor to flesh out and execute the design. In this case, however, the contractor had the gumption to recognize that the project had details that he was not fully familiar with and that he could use some outside expertise.
Part of the plan included a string of deck-mounted laminar jets, 18 of them in all. Recognizing the complexity of such a system, the contractor sought my help on just that part of the program. By the time I visited the site, the pool was well into the construction phase: The forms had been set, the steel and plumbing had already been installed and the concrete floor of the pool had already been poured. On the day I arrived, a gunite crew was preparing to shoot the walls of the shell.
The basic design wasn’t bad at all. It had an appealing shape and seemed to be well considered in both scale and placement within the space. I could see real potential for something quite special if the contractor could get the advice he needed to make everything come together.
We were all to meet – the client, the client’s representative, the project manager, the pool contractor and me. I immediately saw that the client was extremely interested in creating an environment that would be entirely unique to the area: He was, in fact, completely unashamed of his desire to impress with every aspect of the home he was creating.
During our conversation, he asked me to show him some all-tile interior finishes and custom tile mosaics so we could consider adding these elements. I pulled out my laptop and some books featuring my projects and started showing him things I’d done that had features I thought he wanted.
As we rolled through these images, he quickly developed a keen interest in designs that featured perimeter-overflow treatments and asked me if we could do something like that with his pool. He knew, of course, that this was hardly the time to be contemplating such a change, but he wondered nonetheless if it was too late to shift directions.
“In America,” I told him, “it’s never too late.”
AWAY WE GO
At this point, the gunite crew was moments away from opening the nozzles and letting the concrete fly. We held them up for a few minutes so we could walk around the pool and discuss possibilities.
We talked about the fact that revising the forms and the entire plumbing system to implement the perimeter-overflow system at this stage would entail a great deal of extra work and added expense. From the clients’ perspective, expense was not an issue. From the contractor’s point of view, however, the immensity of the possible change order was something that would give anyone cause for concern and anxiety.
In days gone by, I know that a majority of contractors would loudly have resisted the idea of making such a radical change. In this case, however, the contractor moved beyond that and, once he caught his bearings, expressed enthusiasm about the opportunity to turn the project into something truly breathtaking. I must say I was quite relieved (and impressed) by his reaction, because I myself was feeling somewhat guilty about the immensity of the proposed changes.
All in all, it was his performance that was the most impressive: He had already shown a level of sophistication in calling for help with the laminar jets. Now, as he directed the gunite crew to pack up and pull off the project for the time being, it was clear that he had bought into my role as consultant and saw me as a resource that would make everything work not only for the client, but for the contractor as well.
By now, the client was pretty fired up by the idea of adding even more complexity to the design. Turning the topic away from the edge treatment to the laminar jets, he began asking what we could do to upgrade the look and wondered if we could make them “leap.” I told him not only that we could make the jets leap, but that we could also make them do it while changing colors and in time to music.
He seemed pleased and said, “That’s what I want.”
By the time I left the site that first day, my involvement had grown from offering some practical advice about the laminar system to redesigning the edge treatment; revamping the entire circulation system; and dramatically upgrading the laminar-jet system. Best of all, everyone in the loop was happy with the way things were moving – a scenario I couldn’t have imagined unfolding in such a positive manner even a few years previously.
UP TO PAR
Back in my shop, we went to work in redesigning the system, a process that yielded a further example of what watershape consulting is really all about: It’s one thing to gain approval for creative ideas, it’s another to execute them properly in the design-development phase.
In this case, we were specifying a perimeter-overflow system that would be pushing approximately 150 gallons per minute over the edge. This meant we had to design slot overflows and plumbing manifolds to accommodate that flow plus the bather-surge capacity to be contained in this case in a large sub-grade surge tank.
We were working up the hydraulic design when it dawned on me that we were about to make a serious mistake.
We’d failed to that point to factor in the 18 laminar leaper jets, which, when activated, could be sending up to an additional 270 gallons of water per minute into the pool. Because we’d decided that the laminar jet system would draw water from the perimeter overflow’s surge tank, what we were really looking at – rather than 150 gallons per minute – was a possible flow of 420 gallons per minute plus bather surge in our gravity-flow system’s design calculations.
Once we recognized the shortfall, we easily amended our design by upsizing the plumbing loop to eight inches and increasing the size and frequency of the trunk lines from the overflow system back to the surge tank. Had this issue gone unnoticed, the resulting, undersized system would have flooded the decks and been the subject of a major renovation in rapid order.
This leads to a major point about consulting work: If you move into this arena, you have to be prepared to take full responsibility for your designs, stand by your work and be completely sure you have the expertise to do things right. In this case, we’d done lots of perimeter-overflow systems and worked with lots of laminar jets, and it took us a little while (but, fortunately, not too long) to catch up with the realities of combining them in one system.
The point is, the creative explosion now taking place in watershaping puts everyone in new and adventurous places. I am not alone in worrying that this explosion will lead many to jump prematurely into the consulting marketplace in hopes of capitalizing on a trend.
Not only is this participation of the unprepared a hazard to what I see as an emerging profession: I’ve already seen consulting businesses that charge a pittance for their designs, operating with the traditional pool industry mentality that says, “cheaper is better.” This is a concern, of course, because experience tells me that less is definitely not more in this arena.
The basic idea behind consulting is that you provide a specialized service that is worth the cost in terms of obtaining a superior result. To me, it defeats the point of the entire profession to seek business based on the fact that you can do something for less.
This is especially true in a marketplace in which clients, architects, designers and contractors are not averse to paying for what they consider to be exclusive expertise. Some actually revel in the idea that they had to pay a premium to bring in “just the right person.”
Certainly, this is an evolving situation and there are people operating at different levels in terms of complexity and sophistication that are reflected in pricing. From my perspective, however, one of the real attractions to consulting is that it offers a clear path away from the sort of margin-based competition that drives much of the industry to this day.
That’s a good thing, but as with any emerging entity, it’s experiencing growing pains and needs some nurturing if it is to thrive.
I have every reason to be hopeful. After all, the presence of a consultant enables the landscape architect or architect or designer to obtain designs well beyond what they might achieve themselves or might have been able to hire a contractor to execute. On the flip side, it allows contractors to elicit apples-to-apples quotes during the bidding process while freeing up their time to focus on the often-enormous challenges of installation.
By the same token, I’m neither so optimistic nor naïve to think that design consultation will quickly take hold on all levels of the industry. There will always be contractors who offer competent design services and designers who know enough about construction to make everything work. Given the industry-shaping trends we’ve seen through the past few years, however, it’s clear to me that the role of the design consultant is here to stay.
In my next column, I’ll continue this discussion with further examples of how consultants are playing increasingly important roles in watershape design and construction.
Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group; dedicated to top-of-the-line performance in aquatic design and construction, this organization conducts schools for like-minded pool designers and builders. He can be reached at [email protected].