It may be a cliché, but I think there’s something to be said for the notion that you need to know where you’ve been to see where you’re going: The present and the future are always both a result of (and a response to) the past.
For years, voices in this magazine have described, defined and advocated changes in the way the watershaping industry works. I, for one, have written volumes on what the pool and spa industry was once like and how the benefits of elevating our approaches flow to everyone from suppliers, designers and contractors to consumers as well. I’ve also meditated more than once on how professionals on the
landscape architecture/design side seem to be evolving in the ways they think about water and its uses.
From where I sit as a watershape designer, educator and columnist, it’s been an exciting ride: In many ways, in fact, our industry is simply more diverse, creative, interesting and fun than it used to be.
One of the things that continues to interest me – and should probably pique the curiosity of others as well – is the way in which the boundaries of what we call the watershaping trades continue to expand. Recently, for example, I’ve noticed that landscape contractors seem to be jumping at watershaping in substantial numbers – a development that may well influence the industry’s future.
It’s never been a secret that landscape architects and designers have been heavily involved in all manner of watershapes – everything from backyard swimming pools to golf course lakes. In lots of cases, the actual work on these watershapes was done “by others,” with those others very often coming from the pool/spa industry or the emerging pond/stream marketplace.
Now contractors in the landscape industry are getting involved in shaping these systems, too – and those who haven’t done so as yet definitely seem to be thinking about it.
All of a sudden, it seems, I and my Genesis 3 partners Skip Phillips and David Tisherman have been asked to deliver programs at events that previously seemed to have little to do with watershaping in general and pools in particular. In March, for example, Skip, Genesis 3 Platinum member Randy Beard and I delivered two separate seminars on water-in-transit systems during the Landscape Industry Show sponsored by the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), and we’ve been asked to provide similar programs to other groups in the nursery and landscape-contracting industries in months to come.
At the CLCA event, we faced large, enthusiastic audiences that peppered us with a range of unexpectedly interesting questions. Most in attendance represented contractor companies of the sort that would typically install irrigation systems and put plants in the ground.
Indeed, I would never have imagined that landscape contractors would have been so interested, so engaged in our discussion of the fine points of creating vanishing-edge or perimeter-overflow pools. Yet there they were, in force and obviously eager to learn all about a distinctly advanced form of watershaping.
So what’s going on here? Obviously these people are interested for a reason, and the fact that event planners contacted us many months ago to schedule our presentation tells me that watershaping has been the subject of discussion in this sector for a while. Now they’re at the point where they’ve sought out and invited instructors to meet the demand for information – but why is this happening and what might it mean?
To get to an answer, all we need to do, I think, is back up and take a look at where the pool and spa industry was a couple years back: I recall a time when those who installed swimming pools didn’t give a second thought to plants, focusing all their energies on concrete, plumbing, electrical systems and equipment pads. To borrow a phrase used above, plants were “by others.”
BACK AT US
That “the rest of the backyard is someone else’s concern” attitude has obviously changed for multitudes of pool/spa designers and builders in recent years, partly because our clients themselves have changed and are now thinking in terms of complete, fully integrated exterior environments.
Responding to this demand, we as watershapers somehow came collectively to the conclusion that we needed to be at least conversant about plant material, and some of us have even become directly involved in planning, plant selection and installation. On our side of things, this has been a huge evolutionary step.
Of course, the magazine you hold in your hands has played a part here: Back when WaterShapes first appeared in February 1999, I’m certain it puzzled a great many people (and in some cases probably still does) that the editor included, in every issue, a column by landscape designer Stephanie Rose, whose subject matter is basically nothing but plants.
As it turns out, this was a radical move that catalyzed an important focus on plantings as part of the enlarging picture of what watershaping was all about. Her column has always been both interesting and useful, but it’s only in preparing my column this time that I’m beginning to appreciate just how influential it has been as well.
Looking back with this perspective, it’s no surprise that Genesis 3 began including landscape-side experts in its programs, offering coverage of watergardening and landscape lighting: Perhaps prompted by WaterShapes, our own audience had begun to recognize that watershapes do not exist in vacuums and are, in fact, components of much larger pictures. Again, we collectively came to recognize that, in a great many situations, watershapes are there mainly to accentuate the beauty of the plants that surround them.
As professionals focused on water, in other words and on some level, we understood that it is to our advantage to look past the water’s edge and embrace landscaping and all the other potentialities of the spaces in which we work. Now it is becoming clear that the traditional landscaping trades are reaching similar conclusions: Contractors who once would have given little thought to swimming pools or even fountains are now casting their collective gaze toward the water.
So what are we watershapers to take from this observation? What does this new trend mean and how should we respond to it?
Before I offer answers to those questions, I want to make a clear distinction. For as long as there have been landscape architects and landscape designers, they have tended to be fully involved with water. This column isn’t about these professionals, who have stood under the umbrella of watershaping forever; instead, it’s about landscape contractors – the people who often install their designs.
In the watershaping trades, there’s been a blurring of the lines between designers and installers that has taken practical form in the growing population of design/build firms. It’s long been asserted that the best designers understand construction and the best contractors understand design, and these firms embody this wisdom in one operation.
The same thing, it seems to me, is happening among landscape firms, where more and more operations are embracing both design and installation as their business models and are seeing what watershapers have seen for years now: There’s value in being able to deliver the whole package, the entire backyard environment to clients. I may be biased in saying this, but water is the heart of the best exterior spaces, so it makes sense that landscape contractors who are interested in design would head our way.
And if they don’t get directly involved, they are at least passionate about understanding the natures of systems that are increasingly part of overall project plans.
What’s even more important – and perhaps the force that drives all of this – is what’s happening with consumer expectations. Simply put, if you’re a watershaper, your clients are more likely than ever before to ask you about landscaping; conversely, if you’re a landshaper, your clients are going to ask you about water. They do so because they want a complete composition of exterior elements for their homes and probably don’t give a moment’s thought to the gap between industries.
In other words, in crossing over classic disciplinary lines, both watershapers and landshapers are responding to a major consumer trend and, in the case of this magazine and a number of forward-thinking firms, are also driving consumer expectations at the same time. Ultimately, this means the boundaries of the landscape and watershape industries are overlapping more than they have ever before.
It’s a time when both industries, once isolated from one another, are now increasingly integrated. In my book, this is a trend that spells opportunity for those who see what’s happening – and peril to those who cling to the status quo.
The trouble with discussing trends, of course, is that it’s easy to get ahead of yourself: The fact that a couple nursery and landscape-contractor shows are offering courses on water (and a few pool-industry events are offering landscape-oriented seminars) doesn’t mean that there’s anything approaching complete integration: In fact, there’s more than a little evidence that points to ongoing disconnection of the two industries.
On the pool side, there are many who still ignore landscaping and stick to vessels and the three-foot ribbons of decking with which they surround their work, just as there are many industry events that go nowhere near the subject. Likewise, there are landshapers who ignore water’s potential and events in the landscape industry that don’t dip into water unless it’s about irrigation or maybe wetland restoration.
What this tells me is that there are going to be those on both sides of the equation who will make a killing by recognizing and exploiting this trend and those who will come late to the game or never embrace the change at all. Some might even argue with me that any of what I see is happening at all.
I must say that I’m surprised that some of the smartest people in both industries don’t seem to see this trend – or at least show no evidence of acting upon it. By now, I would have expected trade-show exhibitors to migrate across industry lines and classic pool-industry firms to show up, for example, at the American Society of Landscape Architects’ annual Expo. Pebble Technology and a few others participate, but few others do despite the fact we know that thousands of landscape architects read WaterShapes and that contractors from the landscape industry are pressing their associations to provide seminars on watershape-related subjects.
The inverse is true, of course: I’ve never seen a tree farm or nursery exhibit at a swimming pool show, even though we know for a fact that many watershapers are now involved with providing plant material.
It seems to me that developing broader client bases is what being a supplier is all about. At a time when we watershapers and landshapers are looking to magazines, trade shows and the Internet for resources from both industries, it only makes sense for suppliers on one side or the other to reach across the boundaries and check into what’s happening on the other side.
It may take time for these suppliers to generate meaningful results, but at a time when boundaries are breaking down, those who are ambitious, focused and aggressive stand to gain the most. At the very least, this sort of outreach will be interesting; at the most, it may be completely transforming.
If you step back a thoughtful pace or two, none of what I’ve written here should come as a shock. We live in an era of rapid change and incredible competitive and economic pressure, and in such times, integration and market expansion are often used to gain a strategic edge.
When you think about watershaping and landshaping in that light, integration of the two industries seems a logical step: As Stephanie Rose proclaims in her column’s title, they are “Natural Companions,” and it’s not much of a leap to see the two activities as an increasingly seamless tandem.
What will this picture look like in the future? Who knows, but I have every reason to believe that there may come a day when the two industries will merge into a single, beautiful hybrid. For some, that prospect will be frightening; for those who embrace change, however, it might just be sweet.
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].