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Designing a New Paradigm

There was a time not long ago when the mere thought of pool builders and landscape designers getting together on equal footing and having meaningful conversations about backyard design would have met with skepticism:  There is not, it seems, much love lost between the trades.  But times are changing, and if the dialogue begun around a table last August is any indication, there’s a tremendous amount to be gained by keeping the communications channels wide open.There was a time not long ago when the mere thought of pool builders and landscape designers getting together on equal footing and having meaningful conversations about backyard design would have met with skepticism:  There is not, it seems, much love lost between the trades.  But times are changing, and if the dialogue begun around a table last August is any indication, there’s a tremendous amount to be gained by keeping the communications channels wide open.  


A Roundtable Hosted by WaterShapes

Last August, more than 30 professionals gathered at a small college in Southeastern Ohio to talk about water and absorb the rudiments of a collective “Philosophy of Design.”

Organized by Rick Anderson and Richard Dubé, landscape designers from South Carolina and co-founders of The Whispering Crane Institute, the conference was as much about attitude as it was about the practicalities of designing with water.  It was also about passion, about keeping an open mind and about pulling as much inspiration as possible from a broad range of people and places in developing watershapes and their settings.

It was in that spirit that the founders of the Genesis 3 Design Group came to Hocking College in Nelsonville, Ohio, for the event.  When Rick Anderson learned about Genesis 3 through WaterShapes, he immediately invited them to make a presentation at the Whispering Cranes’ annual Philosophy of Design conference, which coincidentally was about water this time around.  

The interactions of what was basically a landscaping crowd with the pool builders weren’t as immediately productive as some might have hoped.  There simply wasn’t time for it.  But the five principal players in the two groups — Anderson and Dubé along with Genesis 3’s Skip Phillips, Brian Van Bower and David Tisherman – all were anxious to say things to one another on the record as the foundation for further communication and future rounds of visionary sharing.  

WaterShapes publisher Jim McCloskey asked a simple opening question about education and what it meant to them – then couldn’t get another word in edgewise.


David Tisherman:  In looking at our industry, the pool industry, there really isn’t an educational vehicle that’s dedicated to evolving the values of design and construction.  Most seminars are about how to fix problems that arise rather than about how to do things right the first time.  

It’s the only profession that I know that doesn’t have good basic or continuing-education programs. There are seminars at trade shows, but most are about service and retail issues.  As far as soils, geology, structure, history, design and presentation are concerned, it’s just not there – nothing about the construction of water-containing vessels as a craft and as an art form.

Richard Dubé:  By contrast in the landscape design trade, there are a lot of vehicles out there.  But even with all of those programs, we found that there really wasn’t information being presented that sought to change the way that people thought about design.  There wasn’t anyone saying that there are better ways to look at what’s being done — to think about the philosophy behind the work.  

Rather than look at what’s going on at a deeper level, in our industry you see the new-plant-of-the-month approach – all very superficial.  Seeing this need to go beyond the existing avenues of education was a big motivation for what we’re doing.  We wanted to go beyond the accepted forms of dialogue.

1Rick Anderson:  Every year you run into the same classes at the big meetings.  You’ve got the tax stuff, marketing stuff and a little construction stuff, but it’s always the same instructors – which is really bad because you’re not even getting different perspectives on basic topics.  Design people have gotten shoved way into the background, which is really too bad.  After all, no matter how good your tax lawyer is or how sound your marketing skills, without good design education, you don’t have professionals employing good designs in their work.

Dubé:  When you consider the value of the landscaping around homes, you can see the importance of what Rick is saying.  When you spoke with real estate people 20 years ago and asked them if landscaping had any value, probably 90% would’ve said no.  But today, something like 60% or 70% will say, “Yes, it does add value” — provided it’s good landscaping and that it yields an environment that makes people feel good about being there.

Without a background in design and a sense of the emotion and impact that good designs carry with them, you don’t see environments that add value of any kind.  It all adds up to opportunities to add real value and leave a positive impression with consumers.

Skip Phillips:  What I hear you saying is that education reflects the values of an industry.  In our case, everything that Genesis has done was offered to the industry first.  Yet it was turned down flat by NSPI, our main trade association.  They didn’t come right out and say it, but the implication was crystal clear:  They felt there was no market for design advancement in an industry that’s based on the lowest common denominator.  

Our position has been that, for us as an industry to advance, we had to go where nobody at the association level wanted to go.  When we started looking at what’s been going on in the landscape trades, especially with designers and architects and the Whispering Crane Institute, what we found was two trades coming at the same challenge from different directions.

Tisherman:  There’s also a quality issue involved here that has undermined basic design principles.  In our industry, many people see the pool as the most important thing, the absolute center of the backyard environment.  The point we as an industry have missed is that the entire environment has to work together.  WaterShapes recently covered one of my jobs in which we made the argument that the pool is secondary, that the whole design should harmonize:  the home, the hardscape, the landscaping and the swimming pool or waterfeature.  From the pool-industry standpoint, we need to come around to the idea that the pool is a component of the overall design.

Dubé:  That’s interesting, because one of the biggest challenges we face on our end is that landscape in the broadest sense includes many components and the people who are specialists in the various areas do not talk to each other.  Yet these elements must all work together after the trades leave.

If you look at the components as we do, there are trees, the home, the site, pathways, rock elements, water elements – all of them parts of the environment, parts of the same experience in a total, harmonized space.  The pool and the landscaping must come together in order to have a positive effect on human emotions.  It takes teamwork and starting out with everyone on the same page with the same expectations.

Tisherman:  Right, but the landscaper and the pool contractor don’t speak the same language, so to achieve what you’re talking about requires some type of educational link between our industries.  As it is now, landscape people may not know enough about concrete construction, while we may not know things like how close you can get to an established oak before you begin inhibiting its growth.

Dubé:  We desperately need people who can speak the language of both sides of this discussion.  People in both trades who understand a shared language can advance this dialogue and promote the sort of unity we’re talking about.

2Brian Van Bower:  You’re absolutely right.  All too often, landscapers and pool builders don’t exchange information at all.  It’s handled as though these are totally separate environments:  The pool and landscape are never linked, and the lack of integration really shows.  We all know that the most successful projects are those where pool and landscape are married to one another, but we can’t seem to make it work on a consistent basis.

Someone asked me yesterday if I usually work with a landscape designer, and the answer was yes.  I work with three landscapers, each with a different style and different levels of performance at different budget levels.  I work with the one that seems best able to meet the needs of the project and ultimately satisfy the customer’s vision. Over time, we’ve grown to respect each other’s ability.

It’s a two-way street:  I take work to them and they bring it to me, and the best thing in all of this is that we get involved at the design stage and there’s integration right from the start.  This always improves the project, because the elements of the backyard are designed and planned with a common vision.

A lot of architects are notorious for designing a pool shape on a plan with no details.  Maybe they had a concept of something they saw somewhere and they put it on the plan with no idea of how to make it work.  There’s no detail.  It’s much better when everyone is involved early and can work with a cooperative spirit.  Given the opportunity, we can work together.

Dubé:  Even if it’s not necessarily built all together, it should at least be designed together, with everyone involved including the architect, interior designer, landscape designer or architect, pool designer and even an arborist.

Phillips:  Unfortunately, when you talk about “pool designers,” there really aren’t that many of them.  What you run into are salespeople who market themselves as designers; it’s so sales oriented that the concept of true design is a joke.  That’s why the pool industry doesn’t speak the same language as trades that are design-driven.  We lack people with the desire, the intellect or inclination to pursue the course of design.

At Genesis, we believe that designers in the pool industry should understand the aesthetic issues involved in good design as well as the technical issues involved in proper structures and hydraulics.  It would be great if people in our industry had the ability to step up with these other trades and function as part of the design process on a level that’s comparable to what we see in other industries.  But until there are design professionals in our industry who are driven by passion and vision, we will continue to face this gap.

Bower:  We’re working to develop some people with those talents.  We’re also looking for ways to perpetuate the kind of outlook these people should have, so we’re also starting a Genesis membership program and setting it up so that those who want to get in must subscribe to a higher level of performance.  

We’re looking to create groups of “competitors” in any given area who are working at a higher level.  It’s not about cornering a market.  In fact, I’d love to have Skip and David competing against me in my area:  It would elevate the entire trade in my region, which would be great for customers and for everyone in the industry who cares about quality.  And it would be good for me, because it would further validate the level I’m going for in my own work.

Tisherman:  When you talk about quality and being qualified, the fact is that our industry is not as advanced as the landscaping industry in terms of design.  So we have to play catch up, and the only way that can happen is to set a high standard, knowing full well that only a few will rise to it.

1Anderson:  It’s scary to hear you say that, because from our perspective we see a real deficiency in what’s being taught to the landscape trades.

Tisherman:  It’s all relative, but the fact is, your field has qualified people who have been trained and ours does not, at least in any formal sense.

Dubé:  I see it as an evolution, and I think it’s always going to be frustrating, because in both trades you’re always going to be behind where you’d like to be.  When I think back to my state of mind, my level of sophistication and philosophy about ten years ago, it’s scary – and I was proud of where I was then!

Now, I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning and raising my own internal bar.  And ten years from now, I’ll look back on where I am today and be amazed at how much I still had to learn.

Phillips:  You just hit the solution, or at least the first step to one:  It’s about understanding that there is so much to learn.

Anderson:  That’s true, but it won’t get anywhere by itself.  As I sit here and listen to this I think, geez, it’s almost 2000 and the two most important elements of the residential backyard are sitting here, just now beginning this discussion!  We’re so far apart that it seems like it should 1799.  To me, this is a ludicrous situation.

Bower:  What’s so interesting about this is that we’re thinking that it’s our industry’s fault and I gather that you’re thinking that it’s yours:  We’re thinking that there aren’t pool guys out there able to handle it, while your side apparently doesn’t have all the answers, either.

Anderson:  The way the process plays out in common practice is that the landscape designer comes in after the pool guy has totally destroyed the backyard.  There’s the shell with some water in it, surrounded by a ribbon of really bad coping.  The pool is either crammed up against the back door or it’s right in the middle of the yard, destroying any sense of continuity.

Tisherman:  You just hit the situation right on the button.  The problem with this whole thing is that the pool builder is the one who can cause the most permanent damage:  You can’t just dig up a shell and move it where it belongs.  

Basically, it’s the responsibility of the pool designer and contractor to ask questions about how the pool is going to integrate with the landscaping and the site and the architecture of the home.  As a designer and builder, I absolutely need to know how what I do may impact the landscaping and see what I can do to accommodate the overall environment with my designs.  The typical pool contractor won’t go there because it introduces the notion that the customer is going to have to spend more money to complete the backyard picture – and it’s money the pool company won’t collect.  

Dubé:  From our perspective, I get called in as a landscape professional to look at the entire environment.  If I’m the initial person involved, one of the first things I ask is, “Where do you want water in the landscape?”  It’s not “Do you want water?”  Rather, it’s where and in what form?

I feel a responsibility in being able to work with a contractor or designer in terms of integrating what they do with the rest of what’s being done.  I don’t dictate what the pool is going to be like, although I may offer suggestions.  The point is, we work together as a team.

2Bower:  I agree.  The responsibility exists on both sides.  If I get called in to look at a pool design and don’t ask about what’s happening with the landscape and talk with the right people, then I’ve failed in my mission.  From the landscape side, if you get called onto a job and the customer asks for a killer watershape, I think the landscape designer has a similar responsibility to find the right resources, if they’re needed.

There are no quick fixes.  In a perfect world, I suppose that every site development would be coordinated through the project’s architect.  As it is, there are just so many intersecting areas in which one or more designers or contractors can work hand in hand.  It’s often simple stuff, like putting in irrigation lines at the stage where all the plumbing is going in for the pool or waterfeature.  Even this simple step means the landscaper doesn’t come back in when the pool’s finished and re-dig trenches or work around existing structures.

We have a shared responsibility to address these issues and take as much as possible into account.  In projects where nothing is being coordinated, the homeowner suffers or the project is degraded.

Anderson:  That’s a problem I see all the time, because no one’s really in the practice of identifying and solving these issues ahead of time.  Around the country, both pool people and landscape people butt heads, get in arguments or just avoid each other completely.  What happens then is that the landscaper comes in and fixes some mess left behind by the pool contractor, or the pool builder comes in and cleans up the landscaper’s mess.  

Dubé:  It’s a very difficult process when you bring strong, talented people on any project – until you have respect.

Bower:  Absolutely.  It all boils down to respect.  Once you have respect and have worked together a couple of times, then it becomes very smooth.

Anderson:  So we’ve identified the problem and five of us are working individually toward better things.  Great!  The question is, what’s the process that leads us to a more enduring, broader-based solution?

Phillips:  The fact is that the process is under way.  You have a Whispering Crane “family” developing solutions and sharing them within the landscape trades.  We have a Genesis “family” developing on our side, and I think we’re all working, simultaneously, to foster respect for each other’s trades, strong suits and attitudes.  

Individually, we know the problems and are developing solutions.  I believe as well that our trades should see the opportunity that comes with developing mass-scale solutions.  That can never happen fast enough for some people.  But we have to identify ways to talk to each other, perhaps in small ways at first.  For those of us sitting around this table at least, we’ve gotten a fair start.

Tisherman:  Unfortunately, you’re rolling the dice every time your work with a different pool builder.  It’s frustrating, even debilitating.  One of the goals of the Genesis family is to identify a group of builders who are striving to upgrade their work.  That’s a long process, but ultimately, if you want good, we’ll give you good – or better.  At least, that’s our goal.  And we have the feeling that it has to start with a very small group of people at the very top.

The needs are defined and the programs are in place.  Now we’re getting ready to go outside the industry to promote Genesis to people who want qualified and exceptional builders and projects.  

Dubé:  There are a lot of sheep and few shepherds. You want to train the shepherds.

Tisherman:  And there are good reasons for us, as groups of like-minded people, to have seminars and involve each others’ people in them.  Maybe it’s time for some people in your group and our group to begin to interact.  

1Dubé:  Among the things that could be brought out in a symposium like that would be specific ways our trades can work together.  Perhaps a session on conflict resolution could open people up to an interactive mindset when it comes to initial planning.  Whatever the case may be, there needs to be an outline of how our trades can work together within the context of a job.  At that point, we can begin to share our principles of design.

Phillips:  It always comes back to design.  That’s so important, because in order to execute someone’s design, you have to understand their vision and share in their passion on some level.  When poorly executed, even great design suffers, but it never flips completely around so that well-executed bad designs are desirable.  There absolutely has to be a connection between designers and the contractors who are asked to execute their visions.

Anderson:  So here we are, five guys with vision, and if we really care about the way the rest of the world lives, then we’ll make it happen.  A joint school may not be the way to go, but it would be great if we could figure out a way to bring pool designers and landscape people together.
Dubé:  I think we should look at this in practical terms. For example, if there’s one area where we definitely need to consider cooperation, it is in communicating the importance of working with an arborist.

In looking at trees and other large plantings, there’s a lot that should done in advance to prepare a tree for what’s coming in, and there needs to be communication about what the steps are.  We see this happen so many times where pool builders have a total disregard for trees.  And it’s not because people hate trees; rather, it’s because they don’t understand the biology of trees and don’t know what trees will tolerate a great deal of stress and which will tolerate almost none.  They don’t understand that some trees take five years to die once they’ve been disturbed.

Phillips:  If I could sit in a seminar and learn just that one fact, it would be incredibly valuable.  That’s a huge value – and it’s another sign, as though we needed another one, that we have lots to talk about.

Dubé:  There are so many examples of how a better understanding of this single facet of our work can help the customer.  I was called to come look at a tree that was dying.  The customer asked me why.  I didn’t know at first, so I asked questions including “How old is your house?”  In this case it was seven years old.  So I asked, “How old is your neighbor’s house?”  It was a year old.  

That was the key.  The tree was right on the edge of the property, which was right on the shore of a small lake.  When the new house was put in, they severed all of the tree’s roots that ran through the other property while cutting a drainage line into the lake along the property line.  The contractors had no idea what they were doing.  

Anderson:  I don’t see other groups on the landscape side lining up behind this sort of movement.  There are lots of groups out there, but they just won’t do it.

Tisherman:  People are going to read this.  Some will get mad and reject what we’re saying, others will accept some or all of it.  None of this will mean anything if people don’t have a desire to change.  In our work through Genesis, however, we’ve found at least some people who welcome change.

Dubé:  I think you need to consider that there’s more than one level in our trades.  You have high-end landscape architects and high-end builders, but there’s also a mid-range.  If we take that group of people, that’s where you need to have the greatest impact, because that’s where most of the conflict with landscape designers occurs.

Bower:  Unfortunately, that mid-range group is the hardest to motivate or stimulate.  They don’t want to know and don’t even know what they don’t know.  They’ve been doing it their way for years and they’re making a living – and that’s all they want to know.  This idea we all share of investing in our abilities seems ridiculous to them.  

On one level, who’s to say that they’re wrong?  But our problem as an industry is that lots of them make foul pools that make people angry.  We think that, eventually, we can turn this around.

2Phillips:  It may sound arrogant, but we’re re-establishing where the standard is.  Our industry overuses the term, “raising the bar.”  The fact is, our industry doesn’t really know where the bar is:  They refuse to compete on a global level, so how can they say they really even know a bar exists?

If we’re trying to develop a new level of expectation, it must begin with greater value in design and construction.  That’s what we all seem to be talking about:  elevating the expectations.  At some point in this developmental curve, the client base will drive expectations:  Customers will demand excellence at a level that ultimately will lead our industry out of the Dark Ages.  But first we have to change the expectations of the buying public.

Bower:  Some people have been doing that individually for a long time.  Now we want to do it collectively.

Tisherman:  When you look at the people who will be buying, the younger generation moving into home ownership, these people have been to college.  They are literate, they have computers, they’ve traveled.  The world is becoming more information driven and these are the people who eventually will be in a position to pay for pools and beautiful landscaping.

I truly believe we’re going to see the emergence of a much more sophisticated generation of buyers, and they’re going to run into an uneducated industry that will generally drive them away.  By contrast, builders who are educated and fluent in ideas that matter to these customers will inevitably be better prepared to meet the demand for excellence and sophistication in design and artistic expression.

I once asked a group of pool-industry professionals if they’d ever been to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin, and someone in the front row actually said, “Why should I care about Frank Lloyd Wright?  He’s dead.”  That really captures the essence of our problem.  How can we speak to sophisticated buyers when our industry is completely uninterested in mastering the craft?

Dubé:  I’ve run into much the same thing.  People will ask, “Why should I care about Japanese gardens when I don’t live in Japan?”  They simply don’t understand that Japanese gardens are not about Japan:  They’re about design.  

I think we can all safely agree that this is long-term process, and that we’ve only just started.


Roundtable Participants include David Tisherman, owner and operator of David Tisherman’s Visuals in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and of Liquid Design in Cherry Hill, N.J., a builder of high-end custom swimming pools since 1979; Richard Dubé, a landscape designer based in Columbia, S.C., co-founder of The Whispering Crane Institute and a specialist in naturalistic and sustainable landscape designs; Rick Anderson, owner of Ston Wurks in Columbia, S.C., a co-founder of The Whispering Crane Institute and a designer and artist with 21 years of experience in the use of natural materials, particularly stone, in naturalistic settings; Skip Phillips, president of Questar Pools in Escondido, Calif., a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group and a veteran designer and builder of high-end, custom swimming pools; and Brian Van Bower, owner of Aquatic Consultants in Miami, a co-founder of the Genesis 3 Design Group and a specialist in the design and construction of swimming pools, recreational areas and hydrotherapy clinics.

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