In last month’s “Detail,” I discussed the beginning stages of a new project that has my partner Kevin Fleming and me pretty excited. At this point, the pool’s been shot and we’re moving along at a good pace.
I’ll pick up that project again in upcoming issues, but I’ve brought it up briefly here to launch into a discussion about something in our industry that mystifies me almost on a daily basis.
So far, the work we’ve done on the oceanfront renovation project has been focused on a relatively narrow band of design considerations having to do with the watershape and its associated structures. This focus is common in the projects I tackle – a big bite that will involve nuance and tremendous attention to detail – and represents what I’ve come to see, for want of a better term, as my specialty.
I’m thrilled to work in this refined, custom mode of design and building. It’s not my intention to suggest that other people are nuts in the way they go about their business, but I’ll certainly confess to being puzzled and amazed by people who do absolutely everything.
JACKS OF ALL TRADES
I understand that everybody has to make a living, and I’ve always known that there are many people in the watershaping world who make their daily bread by selling, designing and building the pool, starting it up, selling pool toys and acid and chlorine, servicing the pool, winterizing it in the fall and opening it back up in the spring. Some of these busy folks also sell pool tables, patio furniture and Christmas decorations for good measure.
The range of activities some people try to master beneath the umbrella of a single business plan is truly impressive: If you’re actually succeeding in that mode – that is, you are able to do everything, and do it well – my hat is off to you. You’re certainly much smarter, more ambitious and more talented than me.
For the majority of us, however, it’s challenging enough to try to master a much narrower range of skills. In my case, I design and build pools, making key decisions about materials and how they go together and then overseeing the project in the field. I don’t design landscapes (although my partner Kevin has been trained to do so and does it wonderfully), nor do I design lighting or make any attempt to offer aftermarket services or products. (The only overlapping with other trades occurs in areas that require irrigation, drainage or low-voltage lines: We stub and sleeve these lines for future access by others.)
From my perspective, mastering functions within my own chosen professional boundaries has been a life’s work. I went to school for it, have worked for decades at it, traveled the world in pursuit of it and, even at this advanced stage of my career, still consistently discover new ideas, details, materials and techniques with almost every project I tackle.
Why don’t I broaden my reach and become a monster watershaping multi-tasker? Why do I limit my focus so narrowly to custom watershape design and construction? The short answer is, because it’s complicated and requires knowledge, experience, education and talent. As is the case with every other form of art and creative expression, there’s a lot to watershape design and construction, and much of it is genuinely challenging, requires real effort and engages me entirely on all levels.
As my grandfather once told me, it’s better to be great at one thing than it is to be good at 25 or bad at 100. I’ve spent a lifetime thinking about design, learning about construction and applying everything I’ve picked up along the way in each and every project. This currently occupies about 70 hours of my time each week and doesn’t leave me with lots of time to consider a cafeteria approach to the business. No, I settle for being mystified by those who have the time and energy to do even more than I.
NOT FAR ENOUGH
Then there’s the flip side to this operational coin and another great source of puzzlement: Time and again through the years, I’ve come across contractors who are so focused that all they do is the swimming pool and/or spa – and absolutely nothing else. They don’t even handle the hardscape immediately surrounding their watershapes or have the slightest interest in design elements that will affect the way their work will be seen and appreciated, whether it be lighting, the color of the home or the type and location of plant material.
I’m willing to concede that these people may be competent when it comes to crafting gunite structures that contain water. (That’s probably not always the case, of course, but for the sake of this discussion I’ll allow that watershapers with narrow focuses do a good job.)
The problem with this approach is that these watershapes are created in a complete vacuum, sometimes pulling plans from pattern books and installing whatever emerges with no relationship to its surroundings and no design harmony. Too often, these salespeople/builders ignore design cues that might be drawn from the setting, the surrounding landscape or the home. Heck, they don’t even think about the decking that will be put in later by someone else.
I could go on about this for pages, because this approach to exterior design has truly puzzled, amazed, mystified and occasionally made me laugh through the years.
To make just one point here, let’s consider the simple issue of decking that’s done by someone other than the watershaper: To my mind, decks and other hardscape structures associated with a watershape are part and parcel of the watershape itself. If they’re not treated as such, there is literally no way on earth to nail the details, figure out how materials will physically interface with one another, or even control how they’ll look next to each other.
What happens too often as a result is that critical material transitions are left to a mason – someone who may be really good in working with stone, brick, concrete and other hardscape materials but has no background at all in design. Mind you, I work with great subcontractors, most of whom have been with me for more than 25 years. They are absolutely the best at what they do, but not one of them would make claim to being a designer, nor would any of them be comfortable in making decisions about how a deck visually goes together with the structure of the pool and spa.
If decisions along those lines are needed, they’ll let me know and I’ll make the call: They know perfectly well that their jobs are about performance, not decisions.
When you stop and consider how much money, time, thought, planning and energy some clients put into acquiring a pool, spa or other watershape, it’s stunning that our industry is so often represented by its professional extremes – by the jack-of-all-trades dilettante on the one hand, or by the blinkered gunite wonk who can’t see, plan or think beyond the bullnose coping and a band of blue waterline tile.
At all levels of the market, we as an industry owe our clients more than either of those possibilities, and it’s time for us, as professionals, to define what we do best and operate within clear-cut, operational boundaries.
If you’re going to do everything under the sun, then at least be sure that there are people within your organization who are actually and functionally capable of performing each of the given activities. If you find yourself or others in your organization designing one moment and doing leak detection or selling a pool table or offering advice on water chemistry the next, I would suggest that you’re not likely an expert at any of these tasks.
Again, I offer humble praise to the rare geniuses who really are great at everything. For the rest of us, it’s important that we be honest with ourselves and our clients and acknowledge where our expertise ends and the knowledge of someone else must enter the picture.
This is exactly why I work with brilliant landscape designers such as Kevin Fleming and WaterShapes columnist Stephanie Rose: These people have forgotten more about plants and how to use them effectively than I’ll never know. I consult with them the same way I do with lighting designers, soils experts, structural engineers, hydraulics experts and the professionals who start and service my pools. In these areas, my expertise extends to my ability to hire the best and work with them efficiently and effectively.
The skill I share with other accomplished watershapers who focus on specific areas of the design/construction process is the ability to interface my efforts with learned people from other fields. In my case, I’m the top dog on all of the projects I tackle and run point with the client, but I am always part of a team, orchestrating activities, seeing to the continuity of the project and deferring to the expertise of others.
To my mind, there is simply no other way to be a custom watershaper.
This leads me to a concluding point about boundaries and the need to be truthful about them with our clients.
I understand why people want to call what they do “custom” work: It’s a distinction that usually means greater compensation, has a cachet of greater creativity and is generally more fun than production work. But simply calling yourself “custom” does not make it so, and the upshot is that a fine word has been used incorrectly (and far too often) by our industry.
To me (and, I think, to consumers), “custom” implies that the work has an original, special or otherwise unique quality. It is the result of creative thinking that comes in response to the desires of the customers, the requirements of the setting and the designer’s creative spark. It does not mean wielding a common bag of tricks in varying combinations or conjuring a simple veneer of originality.
I am literally sickened when I hear a watershaper say anything along the lines of “I didn’t want to leave any money on the table” or speak of being frustrated not to have extracted from a client every last dime a project might be worth.
That’s a sales-first orientation I see as running counter to the real objective of watershape design and construction – that is, bringing beauty, elegance and visual delight to clients in ways that fit with individual settings, specific architectures and the clients’ stated needs and desires.
The urge to grab for every thin dime leads to design decisions driven by a need to include features and details that seldom push a project in the right aesthetic direction. In that sense, the work done by these watershapers is the antithesis of “custom” and reflects a value system that limits insight, creativity and the genuine desire to design and build works of art.
Your education, background, artistic ability, experience and raw creativity determine whether you’re capable of doing custom work. Just putting the word on a business card or in an advertisement isn’t enough: You need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
This is related to the discussion above in that I don’t think it’s possible to work effectively in a custom capacity if you try to do everything on the one hand or, on the other, work in isolation from everything else that’s happening on site. No, to be custom, you have to know your boundaries and work feverishly – even joyously – within those parameters to achieve something beautiful, elegant and genuinely unique.
If you’re not doing that (and only you know for sure), then you’re better off not claiming to be a custom designer or builder. Business 101 courses teach us to under-promise and over-deliver: When you’re claiming to be custom but are really just putting nail polish on production work, then you’re actually doing the exact opposite: over-promising and under-delivering.
That’s not good for your clients, your reputation or your industry, and it certainly isn’t fair to professionals who really do custom, artistic work.
My advice to both the jacks of all trades and the gunite wonks is to identify a spectrum of activities and do everything in your power to master the work within that scope. And where your efforts require you to interface beyond your expertise, seek the best people you can and develop skills in giving them what they need to do their best work.
Mostly, I urge you to look in the mirror and honestly evaluate what you see: If you’re among the 90 percent who are in the business first and foremost as a way to make money, you have limited claim to the “custom” label. If you’re among the 10 percent who design and/or build with passion, skill, artistry and are motivated by a sense that those who see your work will be transformed, you can wear the label with pride.
Until you manage those boundaries with respect to what you do and what you don’t, how can you possibly be honest with clients and serve them to the best of your ability? We all know the answer to that question: It’s up to each of us to face it honestly for ourselves.
David Tisherman is the principal in two design/construction firms: David Tisherman’s Visuals of Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Liquid Design of Cherry Hill, N.J. He can be reached at [email protected]. He is also an instructor for Artistic Resources & Training (ART); for information on ART’s classes, visit www.theartofwater.com.