Becoming an independent aquatic designer is an aspiration for many watershape professionals looking to leave the rigors of construction behind. Working his way through nearly all aspects of pool design, construction and sales over a nearly three-decade career, Kevin Woodhurst recently made the full design transition, a journey, he says, that was both deliberate and, at times, also unexpected.
By Kevin Woodhurst
I’ve always believed it’s important that the work you do reflects your truest self, your aptitudes, ambitions and values. Working in the watershaping industry has enabled me to build that kind of career, with a passion that has never diminished.
I’ve been in the industry for over 25 years, moving through many chapters along the way. I cherish them all, the good, the bad and the ugly. The experience I’ve gained has led me to where I am now. After decades of designing pools and project management in the Phoenix area, I’ve recently become a fully independent designer, working primarily in the custom residential market.
There’s no question the white-hot demand we’ve experienced over the past year has helped propel my practice; but, in truth this latest step forward is the culmination of years of professional growth and personal evolution. I often tell clients, you’re not just paying for plans, you are paying for knowledge, education, wisdom and a tremendous amount of experience.
Much of my career path has been by design, but much has also been purely chance; in many respects, I have been very lucky. The people I’ve met (I have had some great mentors) and the stuff I’ve learned along the way has made my many trips around the country to trade shows and educational events more than worth the time, gas money and airline tickets.
My hope is that by sharing my experience here it might nudge others to follow their own fondest aspirations.
LOVE TO BUILD
I’ve been construction-oriented throughout my entire career. Long before I came into the watershaping industry, I started working in construction in 1978 and — aside from my 12-years in the U.S. Air Force — have been involved in building, in one capacity or another, ever since.
When I came into the industry in the late 90s, I spent time in the field with the crews in the trenches in order to learn and understand methods and practices; a habit a former mentor encouraged. He was big on education and set an example that inspired me in many ways. It proved invaluable in design/sales and project management. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that hands-on education was the first step toward a career in design.
When you have a clear understanding of the process, and the reason that things need to be built a certain way based on the conditions of the site and characteristics of the design, you and your clients experience better results. The systems work as intended, last longer and are easier to service. Structures endure indefinitely without failure and the pools and associated features look fantastic.
If, on the other hand, you’re lacking that foundation, it’s easy to miss something, or try to install a pool that won’t work for one reason or another. That’s why I urge other professionals to get out into the field whenever you have that opportunity.
We hear a lot about the value of industry education, and although the messaging may be shopworn, I am an example of how you can ‘up your game’ using the resources available at any given time. In firsmyt 15 years in the industry, I went through every available certification program, learning all aspects of how pools are built and serviced. I was influenced by some of the legends in the industry, (including the recently departed, Al Rizzo, among a number of others).
Over the years, I spent countless hours with accomplished and even legendary professionals and I came to deeply appreciate how they supported and respected each other, even though they were often competitors. (That camaraderie and regard for other builders in a given area was never more obvious than in the Northeast Spa and Pool Association.)
That spirit of collaboration, and of course the value of education that grows out of shared values and experiences, has influenced everything I’ve done on this journey. Designing and building pools is always a collaborative effort on the part of everyone involved, so when you think and act in terms of mutual benefit, always seeking the win-win, the process is far more enjoyable and the results far superior compared to working from a standpoint of opposition to one another.
The spirit of collaboration has always directly supported the desire to work in a consulting mode, whether it’s with other professionals or clients. To assume that role, you have to invest in the time and effort needed to learn all of the technical specifics and creative principles of being a truly professional watershaper.
The inescapable truth is we can only share what we already know; and, the more you know about the technical and aesthetic aspects of pools and spas, the better consultant and collaborator you become. It is an investment that pays dividends time and again over many years. The ROI is immeasurable because, by facilitating success in others, you multiply your own abundance in the form of profit, creative satisfaction and the relationships you establish along the way.
Seeing people I have mentored, or in some way influenced over the years, thriving in successful roles has yielded tremendous personal and professional satisfaction. There are many, many wonderfully talented people in the industry. You can always tell the ones who just seem to put more into it and embrace opportunities to learn, regardless of how long they’ve been at it.
I have known sales people and company owners in our industry who don’t see it that way; people who just want to sell a job and move on to the next one. That’s fine for them, everyone finds their own modus operandum; but, from my perspective, not pursuing excellence and advancement is a formula for an unsatisfying career, because you’ll never unlock your full potential.
The process of ongoing preparation directly translates into enjoying the one-on-one interaction with homeowners. The key is working with them to identify what they really want to create designs that will best suit their needs; also, to give them an accurate idea about the ins and outs of pool ownership and what the construction process is all about.
I always give clients accurate expectations for everything that’s going to unfold on their property while at the same time embracing the set of possibilities available to them. “Eyes wide open,” is a phrase I use as I’m being brutally honest about the construction process.
CHARGING FOR DESIGN
Working exclusively as an independent designer does mean that you are deviating from the way the industry has traditionally done business. Specifically you’re charging for design, instead of using a set of drawing and plans as a sales tool. That’s a big discussion that cuts to the core of professionalism within the industry; but, ultimately, it comes down to having the confidence in your experience and skillsets to warrant the fee.
You do have to make your case and define your value in terms of experience, education and reputation. When you declare that your design work is worth a fee, it sets you in a different category from pool companies that are using sales people moving from job to job for the sole purpose of prompting homeowners to sign on the bottom line.
There is a balance required. I’m not one to boast and always prefer quiet confidence, but at the same time, I don’t shy away from stating the plain facts about my background and qualifications. I always remember, if you don’t value your time, few others will!
Creating pools and spas is such an unusual challenge, and often the second biggest investment homeowners ever make beside the home itself. It only makes sense that homeowners have, in effect, an agent that shepherds them through the process and stays in the loop, giving them necessary information and perspective on the key decisions they must make.
From the client’s perspective, by paying for and owning a design that represents what they want, they gain a leg up in discussions with different sales people or builders. Just by going through the design process, they become better educated and have already applied some mental discipline in planning their projects. Because every client is different and every property is different, it’s more than just a process of picking out the prettiest plan, but about determining the design approach that best suits their situation.
TAKE THE TIME
As a design professional, I accept fewer projects and give clients, and the projects, the attention they deserve. Chasing everything will typically just burn you out. Great satisfaction comes from being selective on the projects you take on. It enables you to focus more intently on each set of clients, simply because you have the time and energy to do so.
When clients don’t have that level of professional support, and are not given all the facts, misunderstandings occur, which are usually due to inaccurate expectations. Much of the work I do with clients is aimed at creating a comfort level with the messy construction process and more than anything giving them the confidence that, at the end of that process, they will have a pool and surrounding environment that meet their expectations.
And I’m always there working with the clients’ idiosyncrasies and easing them through the more trying moments. For some people, it’s all about the ego, giving them a pool that no one else has; for others it’s more purely aesthetic, they appreciate objects of beauty; and, for many, it’s about the venue the backyard becomes for togetherness, fun and fitness. Our job as designers is to make sure the finished product checks off all those important boxes, and to keep the clients focused on the end result.
I tell my clients, I’m not there to just simply design a pool. I’m there to help them create a new lifestyle, to create a place where the best times will unfold with family and friends, and to generate greater value for their homes. I take a lot of time, effort and pride in creating master plans and typically include the entire property for visual purposes. People are visual, so the more you put into those plans the better.
It also helps to never forget why we’re there in the first place. For all of the individuality and variations among projects, there is one big constant – the water itself. Everything we read and hear about water’s indefinable magic is true.
THE MODERN TOOLBOX
I became extremely proficient at drawing by hand, and for a long time, thought all I really needed wasbasic illustrator and draftsman skills. That changed in 2010 when, after the crash of 2008, I finely got on the Pool Studio bandwagon which I now regard as the industry’s greatest and most widely used design toolbox.
I resisted the change at first, thinking it was an unnecessary burden. I had dabbled in AutoCAD at the time, and just didn’t see the need, besides I just wasn’t proficient enough on AutoCAD for it to be practical.
Once I gave Structure Studios a meaningful try and started learning to use it, I wondered why I had been so stubborn. It was like going from an old Blackberry device to an iPhone, i.e. joining the modern world! At the time I worked for an Arizona Pool Builder as their GM. I felt if I expected my sales staff to use and be proficient at Pool Studio then I ought to lead the way. That changed everything for me and was a great decision.
As with any vocation you need the tools of the trade to do a proper and complete job.
My Toolbox in addition to Structure Studios: Both laptop and desktop computers running V3  Transit & Survey EQ  Zip Level  Moasure Tool  DJI Air 2S Drone  My iPhone is my go-to camera anymore, however for years I carried a digital SLR  CampanyCam is my go-to photo storage and note platform for projects  BuilderTrend
When you see a beautifully maintained, clean body of water it presents immediate possibilities, whether it’s just enjoying the way it looks and sounds or simply spending time beside it in social and family situations. It’s undeniable, there’s just something about water, and as designers it’s up to us to connect that power with the clients’ priorities, dreams and desires.
AN OPEN PATH
Moving from a captive, in-house sales/design role to one of a completely independent operator was somewhat risky. Anytime you take on a big change in your career, I suppose there’s always a chance that things won’t go as you hoped or planned. But in my case, the time was right for a few different big reasons and the potential benefits far outweighed the risks. This is where the unexpected comes into play.
I was in a major car accident that changed my life and brought on a storm that changed everything. After recovering, I was determined to find a long-term way to stay in the industry, even if it meant spending time with a production builder simply honing some additional design skills. Without going into any of the personal details, I was facing a need to work in a more purely cerebral capacity.
Four years, and a several hundred more projects completed, I was ready to embark on my own again. But far beyond that, my years of learning, designing and constructing pools had brought me to a place where the pieces all just fit together. Right now, as mentioned above, there is an abundance of opportunities.
Fact is, some people are more cut out for this type of work than others. I’m one of those who is more or less predisposed to design work. I was always drawing as a kid, and got myself in trouble on a number of occasions for drawing cars in my notebooks rather than taking notes. I originally wanted to design cars, but kind of fell into designing patios, backyards and shade structures. From there it was a natural transition into pools.
When I first started in the industry back in 1997, I remember shadowing a sales manager, who had all these blue templates in his briefcase he would use to trace layouts on onion paper, which was basically the entirety of the design process. I knew right away that I wanted to do something more custom and use my skills as an illustrator to really grab clients’ attention and imaginations.
It wasn’t long before I was seeking more advanced education, some through Genesis 3, which was in its formative stages back in those days. I was heavily influence by David Tisherman, as well as some other people who were extremely informative and inspiring. The old NSPI was offering education as well, and I made it a point to go through every certification they had including the CBP and CSP programs along with many others that were available at the time.
Through those forays into education, I was able to both elevate my skillset and also visualize a world where I worked solely on design, treating the process like the art form it really should be. I also met and gained some good friends along the way!
At this point, I’ve drawn literally thousands of pools and surrounding spaces. They’re not all spectacular by any means, but there have been some really good ones that I’m proud of, and the clients are consistently happy with my work. That’s largely due to the fact that I am, above all else, an expert listener, which is something of a lost art these days.
When you combine experience, education and the ability to really plug into what the client is thinking, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
Kevin Woodhurst of KW Design & Consulting works in Phoenix with pool builders and home owners alike developing conceptual and visual plans exclusively.