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Life’s Absurdities
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Life’s Absurdities

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If you’ve ever designed or installed commercial swimming pools in the United States, it’s likely you’re well acquainted with just how strange certain health department standards (and the officials who enforce them) can be.

I’ve discussed this topic before, of course, but it’s come back to mind in powerful ways in light of a couple recent experiences I’ve had – incidents that illustrate the issue to near-comedic perfection.

Before I climb into these oddball scenarios, let me observe first of all that, in most cases, commercial codes are based on methods rather than results – and never the twain shall meet. Second, it’s my observation that the restrictions we face in our country are, as a rule, far more

cumbersome than what I encounter overseas.

Third, and the reason I’m bringing all this up yet again, is that I believe things have gone so far wrong that it’s time for the industry to do something about it. Yes, it will require a concerted, long-term effort to get anything done, but some of these issues are so ridiculous that I can’t help thinking if we were to get some form of a fair hearing of our grievances, there’s a good chance reasonable minds would prevail.

MISSING SENSE

Before we can get anything done, it’s my added observation that we need to start offering determined resistance to the absurdity.

In my work as a designer, I’ve encountered a large population of commercial pool contractors who simply acquiesce to whatever any official might say. I understand the motivation to do so, but I think our general willingness to cave in and cooperate is part of the problem.

Yes, commercial projects are not as common as residential ones, and most who work in the former realm are forced to follow jobs wherever they are. This means these watershapers work in different geographical areas and must contend with different local requirements promulgated by various municipalities, counties and states. These are of necessity extremely adaptable people – and I would argue that they may be so to a fault.

Indeed, most I know are oddly complacent about compliance and simply accept the fact that they have to roll with idiotic proclamations that make very little sense. I’ve wondered why this is so for a long time, and the basic conclusion I’ve reached is that these operators simply accept and work within the rules to get the jobs and to avoid any potential for legal consequences.

This willingness to do whatever it takes to get a job done has led to development of commercial codes that are based on the concept that we must do everything in our collective power to protect people from themselves. In this country, that translates to a least-common-denominator phenomenon in which we apparently anticipate what the dimmest of all dim people might do and keep them from pursuing their inevitable tendency toward self-destruction.

If the same thought were applied to hotels, every room would be padded. Moreover, there would be signs posted all over the padding warning lodgers that rubbing their faces aggressively against the fabric might cause abrasions, just to free hotel management from concerns about liability.

That’s an absurd analogy, because we as watershapers all acknowledge that water can be hazardous and that some standards are absolutely necessary. Yes, there should be standards for water quality and, yes, there should be standards for line velocities in circulation systems – but no, there shouldn’t be a standard requiring X number of chlorine tablets in particular types of chemical feeders. That’s nit-picking and is simply ridiculous.

‘LAWBREAKERS’

The problem with this sorry state of affairs is not only that it makes life difficult for us as watershapers, but also for property owners in the United States who are losing competitive ground to facilities in other countries where codes are more reasonably approached.

In fact, if you look at the best-known commercial pools in our country, it’s safe to say that most of them are effectively getting away with something. In Orlando, for example, there’s a wonderful swimming pool at the Hyatt Hotel that’s been around for decades and includes grottos, waterfalls, a rope bridge and all sorts of artificial rock formations around the edge.

Visiting this facility while keeping today’s codes in mind, I can’t even begin to count the number of violations represented on site. Even given its age, I’d love to know how that design made it through approvals to the point where it was actually built – and just how it has managed to stay in operation.

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The result of the alteration to the vanishing-edge effect is a disaster no matter the time of year: The walkway and railing completely obliterate the water-on-water effect, and our best design intentions were utterly disrupted by what seems a clear case of regulatory silliness.

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Similarly, the pool at the Delano Hotel in Miami Beach sticks out of the ground some 12 inches and has a fascinating edge treatment in which water flows into a grated gutter covered by loose flagstones. The pool also has a large, shallow lounging area that I know for a fact is in direct violation of local codes. How did this one get by? And isn’t it ironic that the pool has become a community icon featured over and over again in magazines, newspapers and television shows?

Naturally, if someone tried to mimic that exact design for another property, health department officials would stop the project in its tracks. And they would need no reason to do so beyond the fact that multiple violations have been observed.

Just a couple of blocks away from the Delano Hotel, there’s the pool at the Raleigh Hotel I profiled in this magazine several years ago (“A Seaside Classic, January 2002, page 48). I helped develop a conceptual plan for remodeling the pool that involved creation of a shallow lounging area around the entire perimeter – a fabulous feature that accentuates the site’s beautiful Art Deco sensibilities.

As it turned out, the owner moved ahead with the design without pulling any permits. When the work concluded, the health department had a fit, threatened to shut down the property and, on a more personal note, said they’d take away my construction license because my firm had done the drawings. (We hadn’t done the physical work and had noted the plans “Conceptual, Not for Construction”, so we were in the clear – but we endured several agonizing months before that decision was reached.)

After a long, expensive battle, the health department gave up and the pool with the illegal design is still beautifully operational. Indeed, it’s another “violator” that’s become a community icon – and as far as I know, no one’s ever been hurt in experiencing the offending design.

HERE AND THERE

Before those of you who work globally start composing letters, the problems I’m discussing here aren’t exclusively confined to the United States. I’m currently working on a project in the Cayman Islands, for example, and have run up against some incredibly silly regulations.

What they have there is a combined residential/commercial code that seems to have been compiled at random. That combination seems strange on its face, but when you dig into the details and try to get something done, you see in addition that lots of what they apparently want makes no sense at all.

They have, for example, a rule stating that there can be no shared circulation between a residential swimming pool and an attached spa. I formed a couple theories on my own before asking anyone about this: Perhaps it was a matter of officials being kind to suppliers by requiring purchase of two equipment sets instead of one, or maybe it was their desire to decrease spa use by making the water in the smaller vessel of perceptibly lesser quality than in the bigger one by denying them shared circulation.

When I finally did ask, I was told that this requirement was simply in the code – end of discussion.

This frustrated me until I started working through some of the other details and found similar howlers elsewhere. I came across, for instance, the statement that perimeter overflows must be at “3.75 gallons per minute per linear inch.” Great: The design I was working on called for a 20-by-40 foot pool with a full-perimeter overflow: That translated to 5,400 gallons per minute going over the edge!

Now, I suppose it’s possible theoretically to build a system that will accommodate that flow rate, but in my 35 years in the business, I’ve never seen a pool make that happen – and why on earth would anyone even try? In discussing this point, the official I dealt with allowed a specific variance on this one point but refused to revisit any of the other requirements, including the equally deranged spa-circulation requirement.

As a rule, however, what I see being done in other countries is vastly more creative than what we’re able to execute here. Consider, for example, the amazing work at Jade Mountain in St. Lucia (covered in WaterShapes’ April 2007 issue). That property represents one of the most fantastic uses of water to be found anywhere in the world, and there’s absolutely no way that it could have been built in the Unites States without the unusual cooperation of approving agencies.

For starters, the two-dozen pools at Jade Mountain all have colorful tile interiors: As we know, health departments here require all commercial pool interiors to be white or very light colors only. I’ve never understood that particular rule, really, but its application is close to universal across the country.

IMAGINATION CONSTRAINED

Sometimes the excesses when it comes to enforcing the rules are truly breathtaking.

Not long ago, I worked with a landscape architecture firm on the design of a pool for a lovely resort property in North Carolina. The project included a large lounge area inside the pool as well as a vanishing-edge detail. The landscape architect managed to get the design approved and moved forward with construction, and that should have been the end of the story.

During construction, however, the health department decided that the original approval was in error: Somehow, they’d become concerned that someone in the pool could climb over the vanishing edge’s dam wall, fall past the trough and tumble down the slope.

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This is no way to treat a vanishing-edge detail, but that’s just what local officials ordered after changing their minds about the permissibility of this commercial installation. I honestly don’t see how the walkway is any ‘safer’ than the edge and trough, but if the rules say it’s so, there’s no good way to argue the point with most officials.

The last-minute, logic-defying, design-destroying solution they demanded required installation of a walkway over the trough, thus making it possible for someone to walk around the entire perimeter of the pool. This walkway included a railing, so, while the vanishing edge is still there, the visual effect has been completely ruined – and just about anyone with a will to self-inflicted damage might still find a way to tumble down the exact same slope, now without the trough as an impediment!

In other words, there was absolutely no improvement in safety on any level; the only effect was to screw up a beautiful design.

I’m having the same sort of trouble on the opposite side of the country as well. For a project in California’s Napa Valley, we designed a complex in which separate men’s and women’s spas have massaging cascades in which hot water falls down along a wall onto people sitting in either spa as a form of relaxing hydrotherapy.

The health department’s objection? They don’t want water falling from the cascades to originate in and be re-circulated from the spas themselves. Rest assured, the water is filtered and chemically treated before reintroduction to the bathers, but these officials see it as “unsanitary” for some reason. They have no problem with bathers sitting directly in the spas, mind you, but water falling on those same bathers from overhead cannot, for some reason, originate in these spas.

In effect, they’re saying that you can’t have water pouring on people who are already immersed in that same water. Go figure.

And of course, it’s beside the point that this exact same sort of feature is found at numerous other properties in California: It’s a no-go in Napa so far in this case. And what’s baffling to me is that they have no idea where the restriction came from, and they don’t care: It’s in writing, and that’s all they need to head us off. (Arbitrary and stupid: my favorite combination!)

WHAT TO DO

I bring all of this up with a certain sense of futility, because I have no specific idea what to do to get away from this silliness.

It would be great if an organization such as the National Swimming Pool Foundation would take up the cause and create some sort of task force to engage health departments in meaningful dialogue and negotiations rooted in good technical information. Of course, that might take years, even decades – and personally I don’t have that long to wait.

As it stands, those of us who have to navigate through these shoals of nonsense simply have to take each situation on a case-by-case basis and pick our fights as well as we can. The result, however, is higher costs and greater difficulty in designing world-class facilities, which means that those who will suffer most are property owners and their patrons.

In the meantime, I’m waiting for some brightly dim person to notice that oceans, lakes, rivers and streams are filled with water and pose hazards similar to those found with pools and spas. I can see it now: Railings, nets, fences, warning signs, the works – all to protect the dimmest of our citizens from the hazards of natural bodies of water.

Then again, none of that’s in the code as yet, so it’s probably not a problem – at any rate, not yet!

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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