Departed watershaper, Grant Smith, left behind a legacy of excellence, integrity and service. Following his untimely death in 2021, a group of his colleagues and friends from Watershape University stepped up to complete a number of his unfinished projects, all of which came to successful resolution and lived up to the high standards he stood for.
By Kevin Cobabe
It’s good to have friends. Unfortunately, sometimes we realize it the most when they’re gone.
When Grant Smith passed away Nov. 15, 2021, we lost one of our very best. He left behind a void that can never be filled. A father, husband, veteran and friend, Grant was also a master watershaper, a builder of the highest possible caliber. He was only 50 years old.
I received the early morning call from Grant’s foreman, Shawn Cassady, in Dallas, where many of Grant’s friends and colleagues were gathered with Watershape University at the International Pool Spa Patio & Deck Expo. Grant was part of our inner circle, a valued member of WUs “Wolfpack.” Many of us saw him the day before at a dinner for members of the International Watershape Institute, and were all stunned to learn that after returning home, Grant passed away in his sleep of an apparent heart attack.
It was a horrible shock. An ex-Marine and owner of a successful company, Grant was the embodiment of vitality, a man firmly in his prime. Naturally after we heard the news, there were lots of tears and expressions of grief, disbelief and remembrance. He was one of us and, for me personally, an extremely close friend and trusted colleague.
In the aftermath of his passing, in addition to our shared grief, the situation took on a practical and urgent dimension. Grant’s business, Aqua-Link Pools & Spas in Carlsbad, CA., was a company on the rise with a number of high-end custom projects in the works, behind which Grant was the driving force.
This left his wife Kirsten, and his employees, in an extremely difficult position. Almost everything Grant took on was challenging, and he was always up to the task at hand. Grant was a force of nature, especially when it came to his work. In his absence, it would have been impossible for the projects — six in all — to have positive outcomes, at least not without outside help.
This is where his friends stepped up and stepped in. I am proud to have been part of what amounted to an ad hoc watershaping task force that almost reflexively jumped into the breach in order to resolve each project, partnering with Kirsten and the Aqua-Link Pools and Spas team, to bring all but one that was in the initial planning stage, to full completion.
The group included Dave Peterson, co-founder of WU and president of Watershape Consulting in Solana Beach, CA; Dave Penton, founder and owner of Fluid Dynamics in Fullerton, CA; Paolo Benedetti, Aquatic Technology Pool & Spa, Morgan Hill, CA, and yours truly, among many others.
Outside the inner circle, Grant had touched many lives across the industry. Penton setup a GoFundMe account, which we posted on Facebook and shared with a plethora of people. The outpouring of support represented was a true testament to how far-reaching Grant’s influence had been in this industry. The fund raised over $27,000, which allowed Kirsten to have the whole family at the spreading of Grant’s ashes in Kauai, where he and Kirsten had a special place they visited annually.
The effort was an example of friendship, family and community, and involved a number of people working together. Looking back, it was a beautiful experience and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.
That said, it was also an emotionally intense and professionally challenging situation, or set of situations. Kirsten was not only dealing with the loss of her husband, and father to their children, she was also facing a full plate of tough business decisions, and the immediate needs of existing clients. She felt obligated to Grant’s employees and clients, but was understandably not prepared to contend with the hundreds of details and issues involved in the ongoing work.
The combination of grief and uncertainty would be devastating to the strongest person. We all knew she and her team needed help
RUNNING WITH THE PACK
The good news was that Grant did not work in a vacuum. He was the kind of person who inspired loyalty in others, because you knew he would always be there for you, and always keep his word. I met Grant in 2017, which doesn’t seem all that long ago, but we had a solid connection right off the bat and saw eye-to-eye on almost everything.
We were instant friends and mutually admired each other’s work. Grant was one of the strictest, most conscientious builders I’ve ever met. He always exceeded standards at every turn. He did not ever compromise on quality and was dogged in his pursuit of knowledge, and he insisted on excellence from those around him. He always led by example.
As providence would have it, Grant and I had already been collaborating on some of his projects. I was involved in various phases of work on various projects he had going and had managed his supervision on each project during two different vacations he had taken in the preceding months of his passing. That meant I was already up to speed on most of his unfinished work.
As well, Peterson had already done the engineering on most of the unfinished projects and was also intimately familiar with the details and what needed to happen. Penton had also been working with Grant and stepped in when needed with some key business opportunities to support Aqua-Link as Grant’s team navigated these unchartered waters. Benedetti contributed from afar and provided business advice as well as emotional support for Kirsten and her team.
Altogether, we had the advantage of not coming in cold, and were in a position to move forward with an immediate sense of urgency.
When we stepped into the process, we were all keenly aware that despite the chaos and uncertainty of the situation, the work had to be done at the highest possible level. We all shared Grant’s value system to begin with, and to work any other way would have been a betrayal to his legacy. The Aqua-Link Team, specifically Shawn, expected the best and were at the ready for what was needed, just like Grant always was. They are all products of Grant’s commitment to excellence.
The projects he had working were very different from each other and taken as a whole really demonstrated his range as a builder.
Most notable was a project that we can’t say much about because the work is covered under a non-disclosure agreement. I can share that he was building a massive cascading concrete stream, approximately 900 feet long, following a driveway onto a large estate. It’s a complex structure with various retaining walls, deepened footings in several places, a faux wooden bridge, and an adjacent pond that appears to be connected to the stream, but is actually a completely separate body of water.
It was about 20% complete and had a bunch of design issues that needed to be resolved including some major pending structural changes that hadn’t been anticipated. Suffice it to say, I spent a lot of time with Kirsten and Shawn figuring out what Grant was thinking and guessing at what he would have done. I poured through his piles of notes and sketches, reviewing correspondence, crunching his numbers and essentially playing detective.
Fortunately, Peterson had done much of the original engineering work, and in fact had brought Grant in to handle the construction. Ultimately, we were able to retrace Grant’s steps and figure out the changes and secure the necessary change orders.
The project is chock full of interesting details including a decorative shotcrete surface that is finished with sand and gravel to give the appearance of a natural stream. And there are countless rock details carefully designed to mimic nature.
I wish I could say more because it’s a truly magnificent achievement.
On another very special pool project, the design involved an elevated perimeter overflow vessel, which was about 50% done at the time of Grant’s passing. The client is a childhood friend of mine, who owns a beautiful home near the ocean in Santa Monica, CA. Like many properties in the area, it has a relatively small sloped backyard. The pool is raised above grade, about a foot on the high end of the slope to about 40 inches on the lower side of the yard. It overflows on three sides with a wooden deck on the fourth.
Grant had just come up with an unusual detail where the pool was surrounded by decking comprised of raised pedestal pavers. Most of the time, water transiting over the edge flows into a narrow slot at the base of the wall. When someone jumps in and sends water surging over the edge, it flows in spaces between the pavers and is directed to a surge tank. There’s also a second collection trough beneath the pavers for capturing rain runoff.
The equipment is all located in a subgrade vault, which turned out to be a masterwork of space efficiency and clean hydraulic layout and installation – one of my personal passions.
STANDARDS OF CARE
One of the big pieces in this campaign involved Grant and Kirsten’s own residence. They were in the process of building an Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) on their property for her parents, which was in the homestretch with all the end of project critical details needing to be addressed. Move-in date was in five weeks.
Peterson stepped up in a big way and essentially took ownership of finishing the ADU project. He recalls: “It worked out because I had already done the engineering work on the other projects, so I was free to take over finishing the ADU. I was able to move forward using many of my subcontractors. Everybody understood the situation and were happy to step in when I asked; whether it was finishing the plumbing, installing lighting, or laying tile, we did what was needed.
“It turned out great, a beautiful addition to their property. So much so the city wants to use it as example to encourage other homeowners to build ADUs as a way to ease the housing shortage, and increase property values.”
There was one project that did not move forward as a result of Grant’s passing. It involved a hillside vanishing edge pool having an extremely tight timeframe. The owners had secured financing that was conditional on finishing the project by a specified date. When we became involved, only five weeks remained.
The problem was the pool had to be built on piles and grade beams, which hadn’t even been started yet. We all agreed finishing the project of that scope within the absurd timeframe was impossible, so we stepped away. At this writing I do not know if the owners ever moved forward with someone else.
I suppose it’s fitting that one of the projects was a baptismal font. Grant definitely had a spiritual side and I know this particular watershape was meaningful for him. It’s installed at St. Catherine’s in San Diego. A hexagonal bath with beautiful tile details and a small waterfall, the font is designed to accommodate both adult and infant baptisms.
The font is a meaningful and elegant vessel and we were proud to finish it on Grant’s behalf.
In some ways, stepping in the way we did was a way of dealing with our grief; but, more than anything, it was simply the correct action. Grant’s absence can never be filled, the loss never regained, but that’s the nature of true friendship, it’s irreplaceable.
With the help of our support and because of their stalwart commitment to Grant’s legacy and craft, Kirsten, Shawn and the entire Aqua-Link Team has not only made it through what one could imagine, was some of the toughest times, the company is now thriving once again. We all look forward to the great work ahead for them.
“Aim for perfection,” . . . Grant would be proud.
Kevin Cobabe is president of Dynamic Pool & Spa Construction, a high-end watershaping firm based in Redondo Beach, Calif.
The author and publishers wish to extend our profound gratitude to Kirsten Smith for her invaluable assistance with this article.
In honor of Grant Smith’s memory and military service, Watershape University has established Grant’s Grants, an educational award for military veterans working in the watershape industry. Find out more.