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Degrees of Separation
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Degrees of Separation



Through the past few months, I’ve run across several representatives of the pool and spa industry who have expressed concern that some of us in the business of educating watershapers are encouraging landscape architects to move in the direction of the pool industry’s traditional market.

I can understand the anxiety. After all, landscape architects are degreed professionals in a closely related exterior-design field and have been academically trained in principles of design, while most of us in the mainstream pool and spa industry have no such background or relevant certification. It probably isn’t paranoia to regard these design-oriented professionals as having something of an edge.

There’s also the simple fact that the dynamics of the watershaping trades are changing and those who make a decision to grow with the market and learn to meet the constantly rising expectations of our prospective clientele will prosper while those who cling to the past are risking eventual failure.

But when you step back and look at the watershaping trades and the true state of education in our field, there’s much to be said in favor of an argument that mainstream pool professionals actually have very little to fear from increasing participation in “our” market by landscape architects and designers.


The hard fact is that no college anywhere offers a degree in watershaping. There are people working toward that goal, but realistically there’s a long road ahead. As an exterior-design discipline, landscape architecture is perhaps the most directly related field of academic study, but even there, one thing we hear all the time from graduates of those programs is that they offer little or no watershape-related coursework.

What this means is that every single one of us in the watershaping business – pool industry or landscape trades – comes at this activity without the benefit of any focused academic training.

This isn’t to say that education has no value. The truth is quite the opposite, and those with degrees in landscape architecture, mechanical and civil engineering, fine art and art history, graphic arts, industrial design and other disciplines are given tremendous stocks of knowledge they can translate from their training and apply to watershaping. They must adapt and repurpose what they know to accommodate a watershape’s specifics – something they can do because they’ve been taught to keep on learning and growing for the duration of their careers.

Keeping things balanced between pool and landscape professionals for the moment is the fact that watershaping is still an emergent art form and the design schools simply haven’t caught up to it yet. There is no targeted degree in watershaping, so professional credentials don’t yet matter as much as our bodies of work. Ours is still a field in which experience and a track record are seen as badges of expertise.

This leaves us all to fill in the gaps in our own ways. On the landscape side of the equation are professional designers who lend their talents to creating watershapes of true artistic value – but often do so with little or no real experience in building. Conversely, on the pool side we see contractors who have years or even decades of construction experience but lack formal training in the dynamics of design.

To me, watershaping is best off where and when the twain shall meet. When the talents of designers are combined with solid construction experience, there exists an opportunity to create truly spectacular work. Sometimes, those talents and experience are found in the same person, but quite often they are not. When you stop to consider what’s best for our clients (and our own professional growth), it’s clear to me that collaborations between people with construction experience and those with design experience have tremendous potential.

Look at it this way: The best watershape designers are those who understand the realities of engineering and construction, while the best watershape contractors are those who understand and appreciate the principles of design. For my part, I want to be learning what happens on both sides of the scale to be in a position to tip things in my favor.


There is no question that what you don’t know can hurt you. We see examples of the detrimental side of ignorance all too frequently in the form of inadequately designed or built watershapes. When you don’t seek to fill in the gaps in your own knowledge but bull your way forward anyway, those deficiencies can be a huge problem for you and your clients no matter whether you have a degree or not.

By embracing your own deficits in knowledge and expertise and seeking to fill those gaps, you give yourself a powerful tool. As one who has not had a formal education, I’ve built my entire career on the principle that each and every project as an opportunity to learn and the each subsequent project offers me an opportunity to apply that knowledge.

In fact, filling in knowledge gaps is among my main professional pursuits, and it’s not all about watershape design or construction. Whenever I hear or read a word I don’t know, for example, I make a point of looking it up. When someone refers to something that is foreign to me, I take it upon myself to learn about it with a goal of being able to speak intelligently on the subject.

This “constant classroom” habit takes on particular significance when it comes to watershaping, because in those situations learning new things translates into better work and, ultimately, greater income.

The difficulty of attacking one’s own ignorance is that there can be an intimidating element of mystery about the unknown. How many times have you heard someone say, “I don’t know how cook”? When I hear that, I always wonder whether the problem is an inability to read a recipe or some personal issue about using a measuring cup. Recipes are among the shortest, most focused examples of how – in an incredibly short time frame – you can learn to do something that will result in an immediate payoff.

When I stop to consider how many of us are more or less afraid to learn how to feed ourselves, I can imagine how challenging it must seem for a builder to learn about design (or a landscape architect to learn how to build a swimming pool, for that matter). All it takes, really, is a willingness to step out of our comfort zones and tackle new challenges or approach old ones from fresh perspectives.

Yes, watershaping requires skills across a broad range of fields – geology, soils science, civil and mechanical engineering, drawing, materials science, senses of scale and proportion and color – but none of those elements are entirely beyond the grasp of most reasonably intelligent people. And where they are difficult to reach, it’s possible to find good people to lend their expertise to a project.


The plain fact is that lots of the time all we need to do is find and work with people who have knowledge in one or more of these fields – whether it’s design, geology or engineering – to begin to conquer the depths of our ignorance.

After all, watershaping is and has always been a collective effort among multiple disciplines, and we come into daily contact with those who know things we don’t. Yes, it’s our responsibility to gain fuller understandings of those particular disciplines so we can see our limits and ask the right questions – and with each step in that direction we move into a position where we can exercise our fuller potential.

No, we do not need to become geologists, but it is incumbent upon us to have working knowledge of earth science and soils reports and the effects they have on concrete structures. We do not need to be structural engineers, but we certainly should be able to read plans and understand the process of executing structural details. We do not need to be lighting designers, but we all should understand the basics so that we can work sensibly with talented designers from that field. This list of valuable, essential relationships goes on and on.

In this greater context, pool builders who are intimidated by the thought of landscape architects moving into the marketplace are obviously hamstrung enough by fear that they are not asking themselves a very simple question: Is this design expertise of landscape architects a threat, or is it an opportunity?

To me, the thought of a class of legitimate design professionals entering the watershaping field in ever-greater numbers spells real opportunity – and I say that as one who works on the design side of things rather than on the construction side and might feel the competitive heat sooner than most. And I think the same sunny perspective should be shared by anyone in the pool industry who is long on construction experience but short on design skills: Instead of viewing the presence of design professionals as an assault, I say view it as a chance to work with them and, along the way, learn more about what they know that we don’t.

Each and every time I work as part of a project team with other professionals, I make a point of listening and remembering what I hear. That doesn’t mean that I sit there and constantly and openly display my own ignorance. Instead, I listen, learn and look for nuggets of information or wisdom that I can apply in future situations.

In other words, I join those with degrees in making everything I do a learning experience with real-world value.


I’ve known landscape architects who at one point in their careers “designed” swimming pools by making a blue spot on a plan, but they are now more deeply involved with watershapes because they are trained to keep learning and have paid careful attention to the fine points of watershaping through the years as a means of fueling future designs.

When you find people of like mind who are actively seeking to develop their own knowledge, you’re almost certain to discover that they have something to share with you and are generally willing to do so. (Those who cling to their knowledge as a sort of “trade secret” are probably that way because they know their own knowledge is finite and believe it is important to mask its limits.)

When you free your mind and embrace your own ignorance, however, there is never a need to fear what other people know because you get accustomed to viewing the skills they have (and you lack) as being attainable or at least accessible. You can’t go to school to get this information, so all we can do is grab knowledge from every available source. Yes, that means seminars at trade shows, seeking input from manufacturers and taking the time to attend classes in art history, perspective drawing or color theory. And yes, it means turning to smart people to enrich and enliven our work.

There is as yet no one-stop shopping for education in watershaping, which is why we must embrace and exploit the knowledge of other people to be successful ourselves. I take this multi-faceted approach to learning as the pool builder’s true path to professionalism.

In that spirit, this died-in-the-wool “pool guy” couldn’t be happier to see landscape architects and designers stepping into our midst. Through their knowledge, our products are made greater; by the same token, the experience and skills of expert contractors make designers’ projects more compelling and powerful. Seems like a win-win to me.

Brian Van Bower runs Aquatic Consultants, a design firm based in Miami, Fla., and is a co-founder of Genesis 3, A 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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