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Clear Reflections

200401BVB0

200401BVB0

Some might say we’re enduring the curse of living in interesting times; others might opine that the planet’s just plain gone crazy. However you look at it, when you stop to consider what’s been going on in the world, in our country and in the economy and how all of that relates to our watershaping corner of the universe, it’s easy to see that important trends and even greater forces are constantly sweeping around us.

So much is happening that it’s often difficult to figure things out, but the most important observation I can make is that not all the news is gloomy – far from it. For a great many watershapers, in fact, business has thrived in recent times and expanded in new and exciting directions. That’s so true for some that it’s fair to say that there’s been little or no time left for reflection.

But I would argue that finding time to step back, take stock and think about what’s happening on a fairly regular basis is a critical activity for any business owner or manager, and even more so in dynamic, volatile times such as those we’re now experiencing. As I’ve written before in this column, these exercises in reflecting on your personal life, business life and the world around you are both valuable and necessary.

And when you stop to consider the nature of these times in which we live as 2004 begins, it’s immediately apparent that there’s much to chew on.

TRACKING THE TRENDS

What follows here is the first of two discussions of key trends as I see them, broken down by topic. This time, I’ll cover where we’ve been during the past few years and what we’re seeing today as a result. Next time, we’ll take off from the present and look at where we should or might be going.

This is contemplation of a very subjective, personal sort, so I invite you partake of these observations with whatever grains of salt you deem necessary. I also invite you to let me know what you think and help me expand my own frame of reference as I march into the year to come.

[ ] Signs of the times: There’s no dodging the fact that events of the past few years have dramatically affected the way our clients live and how we conduct business. The dawn of the Information Age, the bursting of the technology bubble, September 11, the war on terrorism and more have composed chapters in our history that likely will be discussed and debated for centuries.

In the here and now – and much more specifically as these events pertain to watershaping – we know that many of our clients and potential clients are feeling somewhat skittish and reluctant these days, especially when it comes to travel. That’s certainly a change in the way a great many people plan to spend resources for recreation and relaxation.

Information Ages

Even though the so-called “technology bubble” has burst, it doesn’t change the fact that the Information Age is still rolling along.

The spread of personal computers to all segments of the population and the omnipresence of cell phones, PDAs and other information/communication technologies has changed the way we do business as well as how we live our lives. We all know that kids seem to have a native proficiency with these technologies, but we can’t overlook the huge percentage of people in their 60s and older who now rely on consumer electronics to conduct business and streamline their personal lives.

I think this distribution of technology is all to the good for the watershaping trades. We have an unprecedented ability to access product information, incredible opportunities for networking and marketing, a unique capacity to design environments and associated technologies and a general enhancement of the ways we work, communicate and learn. Our clients are sharpening up as well and are embracing all of the new control systems, programmable effects and remote communication systems we can throw at them.

For all that, however, we should remember that watershapes and the environments that surround them largely exist apart from the world of whiz-bang electronics and to a great extent still provide a 20th-century-style physical, emotional and even spiritual respite from the rigors of life in the 21st. No matter how modernized we become, our appreciation for the beauty of water and all that surrounds resides in a more timeless place.

— B.V.B.

This has led to an increased need for home comfort as people have pulled back into their shells. We all remember discussions of the Baby Boomers and a trend toward “cocooning,” but none of us could have guessed that world events would serve to amplify this trend and send it so far beyond anyone’s expectations.

On the flip side of consumer fears, I also see an impulse to seize the day – a sort of “damn the torpedoes” attitude that’s just as honest a reaction to world events as withdrawing into a shell. To be sure, many people are responding with caution, but in times when things are happening that seem unfathomable and horrible, other people have responded by deciding it’s not such a bad idea to spend resources on things that make them happy in the here and now, and large purchases are often the result.

[ ] Money lines: For several years now, we’ve witnessed a paradoxical situation in which interest rates have remained exceedingly low at the same time investment income has declined substantially. You don’t need to be an expert to observe that money is cheap to borrow while, at the same time, many people have lost substantial percentages of their nest eggs in the stock market and elsewhere.

Low interest rates have the effect of encouraging spending, even large purchases, because borrowers have the sense that they can afford to meet their loan payments. That’s been good for our business in lots of ways, as has the strong real estate market – also largely a function of historical lows in interest rates.

Mortgage refinancing has boomed, and so much of that money is finding its way into home improvements that watershaping has benefited greatly. But again there’s a flip side: Middle-class and upper-middle-class consumers who’ve been broadsided by declining investment performance have tended in many cases to pull back and resist any inclination to spend their remaining resources on non-essential items.

In other words, for all the seeming volatility, these times are not so different from most: Consumers at the upper range of the market – folks who own nice homes and have secure, good-paying jobs – are likeliest to have the desire and resources to improve their surroundings, where those who are feeling a pinch are far less secure as a function of economic uncertainty.

[ ] Tort torture: Another big trend that has had a significant (and usually negative) effect on our industry is the proliferation of high-profile lawsuits and the awarding of judgments of incomprehensible size. The situation is, in my view, completely out of control, and I hope daily that some form of tort reform will be enacted.

Without naming names, there was a recent case where a well-known equipment manufacturer was held liable for an accident that involved an unsupervised child entering a pool, dismantling the drain and getting entrapped – a serious accident that resulted in severe injury. The award in this case was in the millions.

I’m the first to say that people injured as a result of true negligence on the part of others are entitled to seek financial reparations. In today’s world, however, it seems that businesses are hauled into court simply because they have the ability to pay rather than because they’ve done anything wrong. That’s bad for our entire society over the long haul.

In direct terms, unfair and excessive judgments lead to an increase in the cost of doing business in the form of inflated insurance premiums and, consequently, in greater product costs. In less direct terms, the situation has a dampening effect on creativity, as more and more professionals grow fearful of unintended and unforeseeable consequences of their decisions. What will happen if, every time someone comes up with a new design feature, we all have to look at it first from the standpoint of our potential liability?

Yes, water can be hazardous and, of course, we have an obligation to follow building and safety codes. In the case of swimming pools, I therefore believe that working to spread aquatic safety information as well as information about the benefits of aquatic activities is a good thing. That said, watershapes should not be stigmatized as being inordinately hazardous.

People deal with the risks involved in interacting with water in oceans, lakes and rivers by being responsible because they are aware that they can be injured or even killed. But as an industry, we watershapers are reluctant to talk about legitimate hazards and the drowning issue publicly because no one wants to seem indifferent to those who are suffering. This has made it exceedingly difficult to argue that responsibility for avoiding accidents resides not with us, but instead with those who use our products.

This fact, combined with the litigious nature of modern society, puts all watershapers in an extremely difficult position that only a good dose of tort reform can cure.

[ ] Border crossings: One major trend I’ve been watching exists exclusively among the watershaping trades has to do with accelerating integration within the ranks of the outdoor design/construction professions. As has often been discussed in this column and elsewhere in this magazine, the level of interaction among landscape architects, landscape designers, architects, pool designers and contractors, fountain companies, pond specialists, fine artists, horticulturists, engineers and product suppliers has become a defining factor in the way many of us do business.

The focus now is less on components of an environment than on the whole package, as seen in the intense interest many of us have in outdoor kitchens, shade structures, hardscapes, pathways, landscaping and lighting. In addition, we now find as never before the adaptation of fountain and interactive effects to pool environments – effects that would until just a few years ago have been seen only at theme parks.

This trend sees people crossing lines and getting into new areas of the business, with the landscape architects and contractors who’ve gotten into pool design and construction being one big example. My own firm once worked exclusively with shells and their contents and equipment, but now we offer landscape design as part of our packages and are now pursuing projects that don’t involve watershapes at all.

One way to sum up this trend might be to say, “The blinders are off.” At this point, those who are comfortable with and willing to embrace change – and this seems to be landscape-sector firms more than pool-sector firms – are faring better and better in this competitive environment.

[ ] Stale associations: This integration of the watershaping trades has happened largely without any direction from trade associations that serve one sector or another. This magazine has had more than a little to do with defining and accelerating this trend, but the current associations have been slow to react and move into this uncharted common ground.

To be sure, the existing organizations have their missions and their memberships to consider, but the trend really seems to be toward some form of amalgamation under a watershaping umbrella. Does it make sense for them to stand on the sidelines, let things happen that are redefining the boundaries of the trade and leave us who are engaged on the leading edge to move forward without organized (or organizing) support?

[ ] Education edges: My personal orientation toward education has been with me for a long time and was developed in close observation of the undignified, insiders-only way things have been done in the pool and spa sector, where one hears lots of talking but sees relatively little action.

Perhaps the pool sector should be proud of the fact that most everyone acknowledges that education is a good thing, but I get the sense that there’s too much satisfaction with simply banging the drum and too little movement toward getting anything accomplished when it comes to things like rigorous certification and establishment of credentialed, dignified educational programs.

I say this knowing that education is part and parcel of what landscape architecture is all about – but I also say it knowing that there are gray areas in the landscape sector, too, so far as landscape designers and contractors are concerned. As professionals involved in the still-emerging watershaping industry, I think we have an opportunity to break away from past practice and think about things in all-new ways.

It’s time, in other words, to stop quibbling and to spend some time sizing up the educational shortcomings that confront everyone in the watershaping trades and dedicate ourselves to building systems that will forever root out the bad or incomplete information that plagues us all and replace it with an educational system that fosters professionalism and that attracts talented young people to our industry instead of repelling them.

Yes, it’s wonderful that we say we care about educating ourselves, but we still have miles to go before that means anything in the real world of design, engineering and construction.

Next time: Taking our collective pulse in light of where we find ourselves – and figuring out where we can and should be heading in the future.

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]

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