Now Reading
A Project to Savor
Dark Light

A Project to Savor



It’s easy to talk about watershapes and the creative and business philosophies that drive success, but to borrow a phrase: The proof is in the pool. In other words, it’s one thing to talk about doing a good job, but it’s another to step up and do it.

The dynamics of that success are unusually complex when you participate in a project as the member of a team. As a case in point, I’ll return to a semi-public watershape I first mentioned in my March 2006 column: It’s now complete and is one of which I’m particularly proud.

Located in Jamaica near Montego Bay at a property known as the Round Hill Hotel & Villas, it was a special sort of commercial project in that, being built outside the United States, it wasn’t subject to the health and safety codes that have throttled much of the creativity out of such projects back home.

In fact, in Jamaica we were able (within reason) to do pretty much whatever we wanted: We had the budget for something special, an incredible setting and a great project team – one of those wonderful situations where everything seemed to fall into place with great results.


Jamaica has long had a reputation as a desirable vacation spot, and for good reason: It’s stunningly beautiful, the people are terrific and it’s dotted with all manner of fantastic resort properties – Round Hill certainly being among them. It’s a high-end destination that features a combination of hotel accommodations along with privately owned villas.

The property encompasses a 98-acre former plantation and has been a vacation spot for more than 50 years. It was immediately prominent as the place where Noel Coward and Bill and Babe Paley owned villas in the 1950s and where Cole Porter preferred to take his vacations. These days, Ralph Lauren owns one of the villas, and he recently redesigned several of the oceanfront hotel rooms.

In fact, the recent renovation of the landscaping and the swimming pool area was another in a long series of upgrades the owners have pursued in the past few years. And the pools certainly needed the face-lift: I’m not certain how long they’d been there, but they were at best ordinary and in no way maximized the settings’ potential. Indeed, the manager of the property told me that the existing pool was so lackluster that guests had nearly abandoned them in favor of the gorgeous nearby beach.

The pool area is located right above the water with a view across a large bay to distant hillsides covered in dense tropical foliage. Our task was to revitalize the area and pull vacationers up from the beach and back to the decks.

The team tackling the project was truly fantastic, including a terrific pair of landscape architects – Thomas Woltz and Mary Wolf (of Nelson, Byrd & Woltz in Charlottesville, Va. – and a whole crop of other top-flight professionals. I came to the project through the owners of two individual villas: I had worked on their pools within the compound, and they kindly introduced me to the property manager, who asked me to offer a new vision for the pool. He and other team members apparently liked what they heard, because I was subsequently hired to consult on the watershapes.

When I first met with Woltz and Wolf, we discovered that we all had similar perspectives on the site, its potential and the basic design principles. Their vision for the outdoor areas borrowed features from the site’s days as a plantation, and, like me, they saw a need to incorporate contemporary, even modernist design touches to link the property’s past to its present, upscale functionality.


It was a terrific overall scheme, and right from the start, everyone was on the same page with respect to the pool’s layout, location, size – and even some specific details, including the use of stepping pads across the surface of the water, the vanishing-edge treatment and the sorts of materials we would use.

But the reality of the case is that we were a team, which meant we moved through many rounds of detailed exchanges before arriving at the final design. Right from the start, however, there was a sense of momentum and of everyone involved moving in a cohesive direction.


The upper deck takes full advantage of the distant views, with the stepping pads dividing the family-oriented pool into lounging and recreational areas and luring adults across the water to gain access to their lower-level retreat. (All photos by David Massey, courtesy Round Hill Hotel & Villas Resort, Montego Bay, Jamaica)

One of the wrinkles that arose as we were developing the design was the property manager’s decision that the pool area, which always had a split-level design I’ll describe in detail below, would be zoned – for families on the upper/main-pool level and for adults only on the lower level, where there was to be a bar. This wasn’t part of the original thinking, but it worked perfectly and, in fact, made a lot of sense.

As the plan developed, the watershapes took on a clean, modern look, with rich materials including a beautiful, stacked travertine as well as tile, decking material and stone adopted from the 19th-century plantation. It was a light color scheme, very much in keeping with the pale hues Ralph Lauren used in the renovated hotel rooms nearby – mostly whites and extremely light colors with small splashes of color.

The upper (family) pool is 50 feet long, 16 feet wide and seven feet deep at its deepest point. Two vanishing-edge sections spill over into an oversized “catch basin” that makes up the lower (adult) pool.

At every turn, we applied all sorts of details that make the project special. And I was definitely aware of the fact that some of them wouldn’t have been at all possible in the more-regulated environment of the United States. What this freedom meant, however, is that we ended up having to present an unusually large number of possibilities to the property manager and owners for review and approval.


Although a spirit of cooperation always prevailed, some of the specific possibilities I suggested had to be explained and defended from both aesthetic and functional standpoints. Some of these ideas were readily accepted, but in other cases I really had to press the point, sometimes repeatedly, in order to carry the day. (There’s a lot that can be said about picking your battles, which might not be a bad topic for another column one of these days.)

An example of one of the decisions that wasn’t controversial on any level is the system of stepping pads I mentioned above. These run across the upper-pool area, an approach that not only visually integrates the deck and water surfaces, but also yields an interesting sensation of walking on water.

The stepping pads separate the upper vessel into two main sections – one a shallow area perfect for lounging on the near side of the vessel, the other a larger area more suitable for swimming and other forms of play and exercise. Even here there were discussions: The owners wanted the shallow area to be a uniform 24 inches deep, for example, but I argued that shallower water would be far better for lounging.


This is a case where the water-on-water effect is truly spectacular – a means of visually linking the resort’s swimming pool to the beautiful waters of Montego Bay. Moreover, the vanishing edge serves as a barrier, so there are no fences to block the view.

We eventually compromised, making part of the area six inches deep with the floor sloping down to a low point at 18 inches. To enhance and ensure comfortable use, we inserted stanchions for umbrellas.

The decision to go with the vanishing edges was another point of discussion. Our design aim was to push the pool out as far as possible toward the edge of the available area to maximize deck space in front of the pool. The old pool had expansive decks all the way around the vessel, the upshot being that a fence was needed on the far side and completely disrupted the view.

The vanishing-edge option obviated the need for a fence, with the pool itself forming the deck’s edge and providing its safety barrier, so now all views across the water to the bay and landscape in the distance are unimpeded with the water-on-water effect only enhancing the visual connections.

On the way to the lower pool, the water spilling over the vanishing edge flows over a stacked-stone wall penetrated by a variety of spillways. Flow across this irregular surface creates great visuals as well as a gentle noise that isolates the adult area from the potential loudness of families at play above.


Among all of the discussion, perhaps the trickiest had to do with interior finishes for the pools. The resort’s new interior design and its basic-white look was something we translated to the decks outside, and it led the owners to assume that we’d be going with a white-plaster finish inside the watershapes.

From the start, I committed myself to moving them away from that idea, which I saw as being far too pedestrian for such an amazing setting. Moreover, I really wanted to take advantage of the fact that the site was outside the United States, which meant there was no mandate requiring a white or light-color finish as there would be for commercial pools back home.

I’ve always been an advocate for all-tile surfaces, which in this case seemed completely appropriate given the upscale nature of the property, so I pushed pretty hard for that option. At first, the owners were put off by their assumption of what the cost would be and revealed that they held the common misperception that tile would be fabulously expensive.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have thought the managers of so upscale a resort would have hesitated about such a classy choice, but I ended up having to go to the mat on this point. I began by explaining the array of available tile products and their equally broad range of price points – which was great because it allowed me to introduce them to a spectacular set of aesthetic options.

Ultimately, they came around to my point of view and selected a fantastic light-turquoise, one-by-one inch glass tile made by Vidrepur, a Spanish company with U.S. offices in Miami. I’m not sure I believe it even now, but when we figured out the cost of plastering the pool compared to lining it with glass tile, the tile actually worked out to be the cheaper option, given the cost of labor in Jamaica. Just amazing – and true.

Another detail for which I was a successful advocate was the concept of using fiberoptic lighting around the stepping pads. I’m not quite sure why, but there was real resistance to the idea. When I pointed out that the four-inch spaces between the steps might be a hazard at night and that, moreover, the lighting would have the wonderful visual effect of enhancing the way the pads seemed to float on the water after dark, I won yet another round.

I’m also a strong advocate of saltwater-chlorination systems, but general concerns over the stone elements and the possibility of scaling and deterioration led the owners to question the idea. To overcome their concerns, we treated the stone treated with a stone sealer (Layorcare, offered by System Dynamics of Scottsdale, Ariz.) to limit interaction between the water and the natural stone. This seems to be working well.


Of course, in some cases I didn’t get my way – and in one case, I was actually happy with the outcome.

There’s a long bench that runs the length of the near side of the pool that serves as both an in-pool seating area and an continuous access point for entering and leaving the water. Thinking like an American, I thought we should call attention to the step edges with some sort of border or contrasting color – something any U.S. health inspector would have required me to do.

In this case, everyone hastened to remind me that we were in Jamaica, a land where lawsuits aren’t part of the fabric of life and restrictive codes are refreshingly absent, so the steps are the same color as the rest of the pool, everything looks great and I couldn’t be happier.


The water from the upper pool flows down the irregular surface of the stacked-stone wall into the catch basin/pool below, aided by the sounds of the spillways in isolating this ‘adult’ area of the compound from the noise of families at play on the upper level.

I did lose one key battle, however, this one over the direction of the canting of the vanishing edge’s dam wall. In this case, I would have preferred to slope it down and away from the pool’s interior, but Woltz and Wolf wanted this one to slope back into the pool so that the outside wall wouldn’t be disrupted by the angle of the top of the edge.

If you look at things from the lower level, their position makes sense and the weeping wall looks spectacular. But on the top level, I’m not particularly comfortable with the angle back into the pool in either functional or visual terms. What I see is a strong visual boundary, increased sloshing and wave action as water moves toward the edge and the fact that the layout doesn’t invite people to approach the edge, drape their arms over it and take in the view the way the opposite treatment would.

My arguments weren’t successful in this case, but I accepted it as a consequence of working as part of the team. Besides, so many other details went my way that I really can’t complain too bitterly: In retrospect, it was a small but necessary compromise.


The result of all this give and take is a rare commercial project of which I am distinctly proud. Time and again, I’ve been told that the property owners, managers and villa owners – not to mention hotel guests – are thrilled with their new watershapes.

As I mentioned up front, one of our goals was to lure people back up from the beach to the resort’s deck areas. By all reports, we have succeeded handsomely – so much so that the decks are packed where they were once nearly empty.

What’s nice about a project like this is seeing it come to life and watching people have fun – which is, after all, exactly what we as an industry are trying to achieve. In this case, a combination of the perfect setting, wonderful clients, great team members and a shared vision of the site’s potential let us all live up to our ideals and our creative potentials in pulling everything together.

Projects like this one don’t come along every day, and they’re certainly worth savoring when they’re done.

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].

© 2021 WaterShapes. All Rights Reserved. Designed Powered By GrossiWeb

Scroll To Top