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Fear Not the Future
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Fear Not the Future

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Not long ago, a gentleman who had attended one of the Genesis 3 schools was discussing an encounter he’d had with some other pool builders. Much to his surprise, one of the people he was talking to told him he’d been crazy for taking the time and spending the money to attend the school.

To me, this is indicative of the sort of mentality that holds our industry back. What the Critic was saying was that his colleague was foolish to have attended the equivalent of a college-level course in aquatic design – a course designed to help him advance in his own line of work.

It boggles the mind, like that whole “dead architect” question and the difficulty some people have in valuing what we can learn from designers who have gone before us. When I’m asked what we, as exalted pool builders at the turn of the millennium, have to learn from masters like Frank Lloyd Wright or from leading modern architects, landscape architects and other visionaries, I say just about everything.

Once you open your mind to the vast stores of knowledge that are out there, it’s amazing what you can learn – and how much you don’t know. I believe it’s a basic fear of the unknown that results in attitudes like those expressed by the Critic. The fact is, any educational program, whether through Genesis 3 or NSPI or any other organization, is a good thing. Indeed, only through the process of education can we as an industry really face the challenges of the future.

WHEN TIMES ARE GOOD

Of course, when you talk about the value of education, many people will say (or at least think) that they’ve heard it all before and that when you get right down to it, they already know enough about their trade as it is. Sure, there’s some value in maybe picking up a thing or two here and there, but as for really opening the gates to lots of new ideas – “Well, maybe I’ll see you later.”

That’s a fairly seductive position, given the current robust economy. We are in a time when the economy is good, people have disposable income and are spending money on things like art, luxury cars and custom watershapes. They are reaching further for the finer things in life, developing greater appreciations for art and craft with each passing day.

While this increase in appreciation for the good life continues and demand is moving forward, we actually see our industry working beyond its capacity to perform. You hear it all the time: People simply aren’t able to get to all the work they have coming in. So why on earth would we want to expand our knowledge and improve what we do when we’re already selling so much product? Who has time to learn when there’s real work to do?

Well, here are a few things to consider in these fat times: First of all, you don’t have to be a student of history or economics to know that we cycle through peaks and valleys. Right now we happen to be riding an unbelievable, almost unprecedented crest. One thing we know for sure is that there will again come a time when the economy will slow and demand will shrink as a result. How will we as an industry and as individuals respond to that pressure?

The last time that happened, early in the 1990s, a whole lot of people went out of business, never to return. We saw an increase in production of cookie-cutter pools, and to my way of thinking, the industry debased itself in its effort to survive. Flipping this situation entirely on its head, I believe that by taking advantage of the current prosperity and seizing the opportunity to expand what we do and what we know, we will position ourselves to respond (without similarly debasing ourselves) when things cool off again.

Another point to consider along these lines is the notion that if our industry is not meeting the current demand, then somebody else will recognize the opportunity and step in to fill the void. Perhaps landscape architects who like working with water will expand into the traditional realm of the pool builder. The point is not that these watershapers are, per se, a threat; rather, it’s that many in the landscaping trade are accustomed to learning as a natural (even mandatory) part of their professional lives and will be mentally prepared to do what it takes.

From my perspective as a pool builder, good times are the best times to embrace a broad range of ideas. If we do it now, when times are good, we can accommodate change and growth and stretching before we find ourselves in a situation where we need to react. To face the future, in other words, I believe we must learn to embrace the process of learning, both individually and as an industry.

FUTURE TRENDS

Fact is, no one knows what’s going to happen in the future. We can, however, make some educated guesses based on the things we see happening right now. Having just seen the zeros tumble on a New Millennium, I feel empowered to take a stab at some predictions – call it Brian’s List of Industry Prognostications, or BLIP for short.

[ ] Matching sets. We’ll see a time when equipment will be sold as true packages, with a matched pump, filter, heater and more as part of a well-designed system. Gone will be the days when we selected individual components to create an equipment set. This is already happening to an extent, but I believe manufacturers will get even more involved and assume much greater responsibility for putting systems together.

In doing so, they’ll be borrowing a page or two from our colleagues in France, where equipment sets have long been sold in ready-made vaults or been set up artfully in the field with everything plumbed, bonded, grounded, set and balanced – ready to go! You look at their equipment pads and you see something that looks like a watchmaker had a hand in assembling it. In fact, you see more care put into things that the client will never see than many builders in the United States put into highly visible workmanship at the waterline.

[ ] Under control. Unless I’ve lost it altogether, there will be an increase in acceptance and development of controls and automation. This process is another that’s already under way, but I think that the mounting demand among consumers for greater and greater convenience will accelerate the process and speed development of products that fill the need.

I remember the first time I sold a low-voltage control system, an old Jandy Time Master. At the time, my clients snickered at the idea and bought the thing mostly to show off. I’m not sure they really appreciated or understood the value of automation in conjunction with a swimming pool at the time, but I’d be willing to bet it’d be a priority for them now!

These days, in fact, you talk to customers about controllers and they define them as necessities. We live in an age of increasing automation, and it really seems out of whack to more and more people to spend $75,000 on a pool and face the fact that they still have to go into the bushes to turn valves. Much better, they now say, to be able to call home from a cell phone and turn on the spa so that it will be hot and bubbling by the time they get home.

And it won’t be long before computers set off a new chain of revolutions in watershape care. In fact, control systems are already being linked to home computers so that, rather than breaking out reagents and vials, consumers will keep tabs on their pH and sanitizer levels with a few strokes at the keyboard.

[ ] Hitting the optimums. Increased demand for energy efficiency is another area that will gain momentum as the New Millennium unfolds.

Partly, this has to do with basic hydraulics and all we’ve learned about plumbing sizes of late. For years, we’ve been shown, pools have been built with undersized plumbing and filters and oversized pumps. As our understanding of energy efficiency grows and the consumer demands that we pay attention to it, we will turn those mistakes upside down by using adequate plumbing with big filters and small pumps.

I also think this trend will influence watershape structures as well. We may begin to see the advent of insulated pool shells in some areas, for example, and certainly a movement toward insulated plumbing. We’ll also see more plumbing looped around the entire pool to create further hydraulic efficiencies, not to mention return lines plumbed to fixtures mounted on the floors of pools, where heated water will be more efficiently used and chemicals will be more thoroughly mixed. Indeed, I believe we will become more energy efficient in all areas.

[ ] Quality counts. Finally, I see a real trend toward craftsmanship. As consumers demand better work, forward-thinking people and organizations will open their thinking to new techniques and alternative materials. Why, for instance, do we hardly ever see pools with granite interior surfaces despite the fact everyone is after both beauty and durability?

I suspect this trend will see a greater prominence for all-tile pools. People often say that tile is expensive, and they’re correct – but what other surface lasts as long? And what is so beautiful? It’s not going out on much of a limb to say that we’ll see a greater and greater demand for expensive tile and elaborate tile mosaics as consumers begin to see their watershapes as works of art.

Along these same lines, we will continue to see the integration of watershapes with traditional landscape elements, thus increasing their value in the overall environment. Admittedly, we may have a way to go on that last one as far as true increases in value are concerned, but who knows?

GATHERING INFLUENCES

Don’t hold me to having all of this occur overnight: Some of these trends may work their ways into our lives quickly, but others may take a generation or two to kick in fully. Whenever these trends take hold, we know one thing for certain: Expanding into these areas will add to the initial cost of jobs. The point to bear in mind is that they also add tremendous value.

(This begs a question about today’s market: What would be wrong with increasing cost and value in a market where we’re not meeting the demand as it is? Maybe we’d get fewer jobs, but we’d sure make more on the ones we did because there will always be greater margins associated with increased value. Just a thought.)

Another point to consider: All of these advances require a willingness to learn, to open up to new ideas, to reach out across barriers in our thinking. There are many ways to do that, and one of my favorites is looking at the way things are done in other countries.

In France, for example, you see a much greater emphasis on beauty and design. I traveled to Lyons a few years ago and was blown away by what I saw. I was also gratified to see that I had things to offer that people over there were interested in exploring.

In Germany, you get a different spin on this notion of craftsmanship. The Germans are more than a little serious about having everything, from the equipment and the plumbing to the shell and the finishes, be the absolute best quality money can buy. Everything is clean, efficient and shiny – mostly brass and stainless steel – and it’s a real eye-opener to anyone who’s ever studied equipment pads in the United States.

These distinctions, and our desire in Genesis 3 to force the issue and open the watershaping world to new ideas and ways of executing them, is what Genesis 3’s new Global Design Competition is all about. We want to see how U.S. watershapers stack up against our colleagues overseas and expose people on our side of the world to the values, approaches and techniques used elsewhere.

One of my personal goals is to see a day when we can sit down with experts from foreign markets and discuss common problems and interests. We at Genesis 3 will give the idea a trial run this fall with a trip to the next Lyons show. I’d be willing to bet that just about everyone who takes advantage of this opportunity will come away with something he or she didn’t expect to find.

And that’s the real beauty of opening up your mind: It may sound simplistic, but until you do, you don’t know what you don’t know.

When you throw the doors open and begin gathering information, you’ll run into things that are unfamiliar and even surprising – better ways to do things in your work, and better influences that can shape your business for years to come.

One of the best chefs in the United States happens to be a friend of mine. His name is Norman Van Aken, and he runs a fantastic restaurant in Coral Gables appropriately named Norman’s. What has made him so good for so long is that he takes classic influences and combines them with ingredients from around the world to create what he calls his “New World Cuisine.”

I think this brand-new century will see the rise of “New World Watershapes” and that we’ll see classic influences being used in new and creative ways. And if our projects turn out anywhere near as good as Norman’s food, we’ll be very happy.

But whatever happens and when, one thing is certain: We will all be better prepared to meet the future when we let go of our fear of the unknown!

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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