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Finding Ways

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Last month, I jumped into the New Year with a discussion of how the trends we face these days are influencing our recent experiences in business, society and life in general.

In doing so, we navigated our through a mixed bag of factors – advancing technology, interesting economic times and complex legal conditions on the grand scale up alongside local, narrower issues having to do with the emergence of the watershaping business, the wayward nature of trade associations and the state of relevant education for our trades.

All that was intended to set up this column’s discussion of where we, as the watershaping industry, might be going in the months and years to come. Pure prognostication, however, is an imperfect process in which I won’t indulge. Rather than get into the aimless game of offering predictions, I’ll delve instead into some strategies that I’m currently employing to maximize positive outcomes based on what we know about where we are at this moment.

BACK TO THE PRESENT

As you may have noticed, I’m a big believer in coming to grips with the present. Where the past is accepted and the future is always uncertain, the moment in which we find ourselves at any given time is always a concrete condition we can observe and use to plan our next steps in tangible ways. More to the point, whatever condition exists in the present can, with care and energy, be changed for the better in the long run.

Looking specifically at the watershaping business and the feedback I get from my network of contacts in the United States and abroad, it’s fair to start by saying that the various branches of the watershaping industry are all doing fairly well. And this is so despite the gross uncertainties of international conflict, a roller-coaster economy and a number of other mixed signals we can all observe in the world around us.

The simple fact is that most watershapers are now quite busy. Perhaps some projects have been downsized as a result of shrinkage of our clients’ investment incomes, but the people I talk with are for the most part working hard to keep up with the demand for their services.

I believe that’s so because we offer our clientele the opportunity to get away from a topsy-turvy world and the life issues that confront them daily. The respite our products offer from the rigors of this crazy world is now, more than ever, at the heart of what we’re selling. This is reflected in the consumer-oriented publications about watershapes that have emerged in recent times along with resources that offer consumers new ways to see what we have to offer.

And the industry has responded well, taking success not just in stride but stepping up to new levels and into new areas as consumer expectations have risen.

By moving beyond the water’s edge to incorporate such things as hardscape, plantings and entertainment areas, for example, and by learning to integrate exterior spaces with interior ones, today’s “complete” watershapers are overtaking and surpassing those who operate in a traditional way and focus strictly inside the coping.

To move or continue to move in this integrative direction, it’s worth mentioning that you can’t do this without taking the time to think, reflect and learn. Right now, here in late January or early February, is for most of us a good time to set aside that time.

It’s only too easy to put off this time for thinking and time simply for enjoying ourselves, especially as we deal with the challenges of the moment. Yes, the future is always uncertain, but if we don’t give ourselves space in the here and now to look at where we are and where we want to be, we invariably end up cheating ourselves out of opportunities to move forward to new levels of success, satisfaction and happiness.

ACROSS THE LINES

I am indeed a big believer in the power of reflection and of casting one’s mind into new areas of thought and action as a prelude to taking positive steps in those directions.

Speaking of the watershaping industry in general, I believe that this expansive thinking should include the thought that we should expand our sphere of engagement and involvement to the global level. In doing so, we can all exploit the value of ideas from industry groups, companies and individuals from other countries. Indeed, the potential in this exchange of interests, products and design ideas is tremendous and profound.

This runs counter to the current trend in this country where uncertainty abroad has caused many of us to think about fortifying our borders, staying at home and walling ourselves up in our own culture and economy. To my mind, however, current conditions may make this the most opportune of all times to think about reaching out to others in our field who live beyond our national borders.

On an industry level, this means that our trade associations and leaders need to be open to the possibilities and benefits of creating stronger international alliances. Whether this can happen for the traditional pool industry is questionable because of the mindset of its main trade group and that group’s leaders, but it’s my contention that to continue to expand our profession and compete effectively, we should engage foreign markets and welcome those from other countries who endeavor to participate in the U.S. marketplace. It’s ever my hope that one or more of the organizations in which watershapers are involved will pick this cause up publicly and run with it.

Along those same inclusive lines, I believe that, as the watershaping industry, we must embrace the team concept.

As I pointed out in my last column, more and more projects involve construction and design teams that include a variety of professionals from nominally different industries. Yet our industry associations don’t seem capable of grasping an inclusive spirit in structuring trade shows, conferences, educational programs or promotional/marketing programs. In this sense, it’s fair to say that the way we watershapers are actually working is light years ahead of the thinking of those who are supposedly “leading” our industry.

There’s currently no one group that directs and integrates the activities that orbit around creation of overall outdoor environments. It’s my dream that such an entity and such a leadership will emerge. Perhaps if those of us from all walks of the watershaping trades began pushing for that level of cross-disciplinary integration, someday it might just happen.

DAMAGE CONTROL

One of the big points I made in January’s column is that liability exposure and what many of us view as excessive judgments in lawsuits are hurting business.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about people who have been harmed by the negligence of other people, but rather those suits that are driven by a mentality that, whenever something bad happens, the person or company with the most money that’s somehow linked to an incident in some way, however remote, should be made to pay regardless of their actual level of responsibility.

As an industry and as individuals, I believe that it’s critical to push for tort reform. This is another area where our trade associations, acting in concert, should step up to the plate and do something about the misery of those stung by this problem. After all, it affects each of us no matter what trade association you or I call home.

There’s a tendency to look at these cases when they happen and simply be thankful that they’re stinging someone else. That may be human nature, but it’s a risky form of denial given current trends and the overall societal cost of this punitive form of litigation.

Frankly, I think we should all be outraged by the sorts of damages that are awarded in too many cases and that we should make our feelings known. I can only think that a trade alliance that encompasses pool builders, landscape architects, landscape designers, architects, landscape contractors and home builders would have greater clout than any of these organizations flying solo. (And I apologize if such cross-over efforts are already under way; if that’s the case, the news is good but has been slow to travel!)

This leads me to the broader topics of government regulation and relations. In our society, it’s clear that government is reactive rather than proactive and that it will very often act in the interest of those who shout the loudest. As an industry, we should take issue with those things with which we disagree – and that’s another thing we’ve been slow to do in any sort of concerted way when we should, in fact, be pooling our collective resources.

Using tort reform to illustrate, the watershaping trades should reach out to each other. If we can come together with the common goal of pressing for consideration of tort reform, the burden of mounting a campaign in our shared interest would be spread around and ultimately would be more effective because we could muster greater numbers of voices expressing our view.

All of this takes enlightened minds with great vision, and I look forward to a day when some sort of multi-disciplinary council comes together to identify shared interests and begins the work of forging alliances and defining ways that we can all work together.

BEATING THE DRUM

In looking toward our common interests as watershapers and where I think we’re all heading as the New Year begins, it’s impossible to escape another look at education.

The first part of improving current conditions is to recognize them for what they are, and I believe we’ve begun identifying our educational shortcomings – particularly in the pool and spa industry, where barriers to entry are low and there are no legitimate, enforceable requirements for education or continuing education.

I’ve seen up close and personal through the Genesis 3 Design Schools just how extreme the demand is for education. I have been disappointed, however, that despite the demand, there is still so little by way of formal education available to the watershaping trades.

My utopian vision of education for our trades includes college programs organized in different tracks in which watershaping practitioners not only become certifiably educated, but also can work toward developing specialties within the trade. I’ve heard that my friend, Genesis 3 instructor and regular WaterShapes contributor Mark Holden is now working to set up a water program in the landscape architecture curriculum at the California State Polytechnic University at Pomona. That’s a huge step in the right direction.

I think the time has come, however, that we should abandon the simplistic belief that any education is better than no education. We need instead to focus on quality and step away from the practice at trade shows and elsewhere where seminars are delivered by people who really have no business doing so. This will be a hard one to face because it’s awkward to undermine the generous spirit and good intentions of those who volunteer to teach. That said, the mere desire to teach does not necessarily qualify one to do so.

As an industry, we need to demand qualified instructors and not be afraid to reject teachers who all too often simply repeat flawed, incomplete or erroneous information they’ve picked up from other inadequate teachers. That means turning down volunteers – hard to do, but until it happens, bad information will continue to be regurgitated time and time again.

As it stands, it would seem we’ve come to a point where, in some cases, no information actually would be better than the stuff that’s put across as fact in various educational settings. To be sure, water chemistry and heater repair will always be important, but for far too long our reliance on those sorts of tried-and-true topics has limited our frames of reference, alienated creative people, driven designers and builders out of trade-show classrooms and ultimately hurt the growth of watershaping as an endeavor, both in terms of revenue and of professional stature.

Until we have quality education, those who merely put holes in the ground and fill them with water will remain and all of us will continue to be perceived as being part of a low-end, low-brow profession. That, I think, is in nobody’s best interest.

COMMUNICATE AT WILL

I’ll leave this discussion with one last suggestion: When you get a chance, type your name into Google or some other search engine on your computer. Or try your company name and see what you come up with.

The Information Age gives us all a great opportunity to learn, communicate and promote ourselves. If you type in your name or your firm’s name and nothing comes up, perhaps you’re missing an opportunity to spread the word about your business or about yourself.

By contrast, if you perform this quick exercise and are surprised by some of the things you see, perhaps you’ll begin to understand more fully the value and expansive nature of the Information Superhighway.

Bottom line: In facing the present in all of its details, we are also embracing the future – but only if we are persistent and apply what we learn. There’s hard work involved in assessing where you are today and planning for tomorrow, but I’m confident that if you engage that process, important ideas and plans of action will emerge in ways that none of us can ever predict.

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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