When I think about all the people I know from the mainstream pool and spa industry, one of the things that characterizes many of them is a strong, independent spirit. That’s a positive, I think, but there’s a possible downside in the fact that many of them are also convinced that theirs is the best (or only) way – and they certainly don’t cotton to the idea of working closely with people from outside their own organizations.
I can appreciate that sort of independent mindset in many ways, but from where I sit, it’s clear to me that this concept of the lone-wolf pool builder is losing ground fast. As I’ve stated in these pages before, the nature of modern watershaping is making ours a more collaborative business, and I for one believe that those of us who embrace the idea of teamwork are positioning ourselves for greater future success.
Working as part of a team, of course, is often easier said than done: It requires flexibility and in many cases a deliberate suppression of ego. It also means knowing when to stand your ground and when to bend. And the fact is that no two teams are alike and no two projects ever quite the same, which means that each job involves a process in which we must assimilate ourselves into a group at the same time we assert our expertise where our particular skill sets can move things along in positive directions.
To me, this is no more difficult than going it alone (in fact, it can be easier). Mostly, it’s just different.
In considering the outcomes I’ve seen flowing from the team concept, I can honestly say that the work greatly benefits from the process in just about every case. As I discussed in the January 2006 issue, the role of the watershape design consultant is fast evolving, and it’s my observation that the results of layered, multi-faceted approaches are indeed greater than the sums of the individual talents involved.
In my work these days, I work with combinations of architects, landscape architects, general contractors, landscape contractors, interior designers and, most important, the clients themselves. And I find across the board that I fit in with and am accepted by those other professionals today where even a few short years ago I had the sense that getting my voice heard was an uphill battle.
Back then, I faced challenges on two fronts: First, I had to answer for the general lack of credibility the pool and spa industry had when it came to working on such teams; second, I had to establish my own credibility and credentials as a designer in a field with no formal educational requirements or tools that would help me establish my chops.
At this point and with lots of hard work, I’ve established myself and am welcomed as part of these teams. And it’s not just me: I know other watershaping professionals who’ve plowed similar paths and won the respect of those with whom they’re now collaborating.
My point is, by working in a team environment, we have the opportunity to demonstrate our value by providing expertise that others on the team don’t possess.
Almost without exception, the people I’ve worked with on teams are more than willing to acknowledge gaps in their knowledge about what I do as a watershaper. More gratifying still is that I now see every single project as an opportunity to expand my knowledge of what other team members do and how they look at their roles in these projects. And I know well that all of that potential for professional (and personal) growth is the product of the open-mindedness that is required by the team concept.
Thus it happens that my work as a team member has led me to the firm conclusion that results are superior when we augment our own knowledge with the skills, insights and ambitions of other people.
CASES IN POINT
All of that sounds good as an intellectual stance, but in the real world, I have to acknowledge that the processes of team formation and execution can be complex and tricky.
I’m currently involved in two large commercial projects that exemplify the overall dynamics: In both cases, the projects would simply not have been the same had the work been done by a single swimming pool designer/contractor – or by an architect or a landscape architect alone.
As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t often pursue commercial projects because of the creative limitations imposed by inspectors and regulations. But some are too interesting to pass up – as were these two projects. What made them so attractive is my sense that there were project teams that had the discipline and skills to achieve great results.
Both of these projects involve high-end, oceanfront resorts with outdated pools, one in Florida, the other in Jamaica. In each case, the owners wanted to bring their facilities up to the state of the art. (At this writing, the Florida project is in the design phase, while the Jamaican project just went into operation.)
The Florida project is at the Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, on the Atlantic side. The aim in this project is to rework the pools and areas around them, and the owners brought my firm in to work with ADP Group, a top-flight architecture firm from Sarasota, Fla., known for its precise project management.
The Jamaica project took place at the Round Hill Hotel & Villas at a site near Montego Bay. Fashion mogul Ralph Lauren is one of the owners, and his influence is clear throughout the property. In this case, the renovation of the pool area occurred in conjunction with renovation of some of the villas that overlook those pools.
Here, we were teamed with the Charlottesville, Va.-based landscape architecture firm of Nelson, Byrd & Woltz – another remarkably professional group that specializes in ultra-high-end work. In Jamaica, I worked with Thomas Woltz and Mary Wolf, who were already on board by the time I was brought in to work on the swimming pools.
In both cases, these firms were previously unknown to me, which meant that we had to go through initial phases of learning to work together. In each situation, they brought differing sets of design priorities that dramatically influenced the work.
OUT JAMAICA WAY
When I was brought in on the Jamaica project, I found myself in the not-unfamiliar position of having to express my vision for the job without giving away all of my ideas. That’s a fine line to walk under most circumstances, but in this instance we worked through the initial design stage fairly easily, largely because it was obvious from the very start that Woltz and Wolf had ideas for the project that were similar to my own.
In fact, we were so firmly on the same page that it was almost eerie at first. Before I arrived, they had already come up with a conceptual plan and a basic footprint for the pool and left it to me to flesh out the details of a large vanishing-edge vessel that would accentuate the ocean view.
The twist in this case was that we wanted to make use of the space below the edge and between the pool and the ocean to establish a gathering place with a bar, water walls and hydrotherapy jets I suggested to expand their basic concept.
Because they were working with the entire landscape design including the planted areas and pathways, we were readily able to integrate details of the pool area with the rest of the space. This involved us in detailed discussions of how visitors would access the area and the overall flow of the space, and our ability to learn from the experience and get inside their thought processes was aided by the fact that Woltz and Wolf were extremely easy to work with: Ideas kept flowing from all sides, and there was a great deal of creative give and take.
By virtue of the fact that this project was built outside the United States, we weren’t hampered by the sorts of health department/building code restrictions that so often limit creativity back home. The upshot was that we were able to roll with ideas – including therapy jets in the catch basin, for example, as well as several shallow areas and a number of creative step and bench configurations – all without fear of the design being vetoed later on.
By contrast, the Key Largo project has turned into a sort of cat-and-mouse game with local health and building departments, both of which have very strong roles to play in determining what we’ll be able to do with the design.
My involvement in the Ocean Reef project began at a very early stage. In fact, the architects had yet to do any conceptual work at all, so we were able to take a role in determining the overall layout. Ultimately, we suggested two separate swimming pools, one a free-form affair intended more for adult use with swimming lanes, a vanishing edge and tropical styling, the other a lazy-river pool with an island in the middle – quite conducive to family fun.
We worked with a variety of people from ADP Group as our participation moved forward, and the design endured many tweaks and iterations before we landed on a final set of plans that are now under review for permits. Although the process was extremely positive and constructive, this team required more convincing than did the landscape architects for the Jamaica project, and it was a relationship that definitely required more patience and persistence on our part.
Local codes were a real challenge: There could, for example, be no shallow lounging areas – but a beach entry was acceptable so long as we observed some strict slope requirements. We were also limited in the percentage of the pools’ perimeters that could be obstructed by planters, but on the sides of the beach entrance, we had to insert barriers on the sides so that no one could step down into the shallow area. (Go figure.)
The lazy-river pool offered its share of roadblocks: We ran into trouble, for instance, because the river course is to be only eight feet wide, which made the inspectors worry about people jumping in and hitting their heads on the opposite wall of the pool. As a result, we had to limit the number of places where people could enter or leave the pool – as I saw it, a nonsensical process from end to end.
What all of these hurdles and negotiations means is that we have to coordinate constantly with the architects to meet legal requirements while staying within bounds of their vision of the design. I’d made it known to the clients and the architects up front that we weren’t going to take the project unless they were willing to push the envelope despite what the authorities might say. Wanting something special for their property, the clients and the architects were willing to go along.
At this juncture, we’re still working through a number of issues, not the least of which is that existing rules don’t make provisions for lazy rivers – even to the absurd extent that we have to call it a “counter-flow swim area” for them to deal with it at all. Then there’s the bridge that will enable visitors to access the pool’s central island without getting wet: The codes don’t allow for bridges, so it may well end up that the only way to get to the island will be by wading over to it.
LARGE IN CHARGE
In both of these projects, we have had the advantage of working with high-end commercial clients and equally sophisticated design professionals. Several times during both processes, it has struck me that ego could have become a real issue – but that never turned out to be the case.
Coming from the pool industry, I’ve been accustomed to being the top dog on projects – and I still am on many residential ones. But in the Key Largo and Jamaica projects I’ve discussed here, nothing would have gone smoothly had I brought my pool-industry baggage to the door. With egos set aside all around, we’ve been able to work with and around each other as a team and get things done.
To be sure, I’ve been part of teams in which one or more members haven’t done a particularly good job of keeping egos in check. When that happens, it’s a real challenge to not respond in kind, especially when the egos start getting in the way of optimum results. I’ve found that the key to traversing this tricky terrain is keeping the needs of the project firmly in mind – and keeping discussions as specific to the work and the details as possible.
In my case, successfully melding my ideas with the visions and ideas of other smart people has almost uniformly yielded positive results, not the least of which is that one project almost invariably leads to others. In fact, almost every team-oriented project I’ve worked on has led directly to other projects down the line. It’s simple math: Instead of having just a homeowner or property manager appreciate my work and sing my praises, I have sets of two or three or four players, any one of whom might give me a call next week, next month or next year.
Yes, working as part of a team takes some adjusting, and it’s not always easy. For me, however, the rewards in terms of superior results, expanding knowledge and networking opportunities are making it well worth the effort.
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].